Betting, the Consumer & the State

Guest Writer
6 August ,2019

by Njoroge Mugo

The basic idea behind the efficient market hypothesis is that it is impossible for any investor to reap significantly high returns since all information about the market, whether public or private, is fully reflected in the stock price. Aside from fact that the sports gambler acts as his own speculator (for as long as he can, at least), in principle, the sports betting arena operates as a simpler version of a financial stock market. The only difference seems to be that, unlike the investor who stands to gain from trend analysis and other benefits of time and information compounding, the gambler subjects himself to short-term risk, his success being almost wholly a function of chance, and so couldn’t possibly rely on the trade as a reliable income source—not even after ‘diversifying their portfolios’ through placement of multiple bets (given that the law of averages would quickly counteract this.) Yet, a significant portion of the betting community (19.7% according to the FinAccess 2019 report, published by KNBS) continue to profess sincerely that they have been able to sustain a steady income flow through sports gambling.

Stochastically, then, something must give. 

Personally, my reasons for restraint in joining the risky business have little to do with economics and more to do with timidity—and, of course, my life-long aversion to sports. In fact, of the many questions I grapple with concerning sports gambling, admittedly few are statistical, some are moral, most are contemplative. Having of a mind unsharpened by the adrenalines common to risk and sport doesn’t incline one much to reportage. I recently quizzed my risk-loving friend on whether he had considered the possibility that the European Premier League, which he follows and punts religiously for, might be a storyline-driven, choreographed sham that is planned and staged by writers like the WWE. “Boss, how sure are you that you won’t lose your money should this whole thing turn out to be a scripted sham?” I asked. He turned to me, eyes squint bewildered by my display of stupidity with no regrets, and immediately relieved me of my joint.

Each time a story on alcoholism or betting or some such sin floats up on the bulletin strip, all one has to do before the usual suspects come on-screen is pause and wait. Interior CS Fred Matiang’i has taken particularly bullish delight in this respect. When he is not terrorizing teachers, lambasting non-Huduma-registered citizens or preaching doom and exile to alien traders, he is in a conference flexing regulatory muscle on tax-defaulting betting companies. If you have caught one of his many tirades then, like me, you have probably thought one of either two things: (1) “Bah, we’ve arrived yet again at that precarious intersection of capitalism, the consumer and the state.” Or (2) “I’m not sure I like your tone, public servant.” Maybe it comes with the job, I don’t know, but there’s something discomfiting about the cadences he employs in his addresses—there is something discomfiting about the man in general, even when you know he is right. And he is on this one: Tax remittance is compulsory. And gambling can be a destructive habit. 

Still, it’s rather convenient that the entire nuance of the government’s examination of the industry begins and ends with terms of such elementary persuasion as “social evil”, “finishing our children”, “moral fabric”. Dependably, there is little ascription to any underlying factors—no correlations with youth unemployment, for instance—which, of course, lends credence then to the observation that Matiang’i & co.’s concerns with the ‘youth’ and the ‘moral fabric’ are only tax-deep. In April, Betting Control and Licensing Board, the state-sanctioned betting regulator, issued a ban on celebrities openly endorsing betting firms and on advertisement of betting on social media. High Court Judge John Mativo swiftly threw it out on grounds that it was “tainted with illegality, irrationality, unreasonableness and procedural impropriety.” Rather brazenly, the government continues to think that the best way to curb problem gambling is to breach free press; to control of the individual as opposed to the industry.

Of course, none of this is to deny the fact that the government does indeed have some role to play in regulating the industry. Nor is to deny that problem gambling is on the rise in Kenya, as have shown the increase in destitution and reported cases of gambling-induced suicides. Recently, a mentor told me of a close friend who once tried to sell him his own child’s backpack for gambling money. Recognizing his friend’s terrible negotiating skills and that he had seen the backpack before, he saw that a line had been crossed and an intervention had to be quickly arranged. Sadly, with the rapid growth of technology and globalization—and, concurrently, stagnation of the job market—there appears to be no shortage in sight for stories like this.

As if on a mission to uncover the bleak, I then stumbled upon this rather sobering header:

“KBL is concerned that most of those taking to betting are male youth – the very group that forms majority of its client base especially for value brands such as Senator Keg.”  

—Jane Karuku, MD of KBL

Hovering momentarily on the question of why men are more likely to be disposed to problem gambling than women, behavioral economist, Gad Saad, has interesting things to say about betting as a maladaptive behavior. He endorses the theory that posits that young men are more inclined to overdo an otherwise sexual-selective good:

Specifically, evolutionary theorists have hypothesized that sex differences in risk-taking stem from greater intra-sexual competition for access to mating opportunities among men (Baker & Maner, 2008; Wilson & Daly, 1985). Risk-taking can therefore be a means of honest signaling to potential mates.

John Allan Namu, in his YouTube feature Drugs of Passion, has also managed to produce a nuanced and insightful look into the pervasiveness of gambling not only as a recreational phenomenon, but a cultural one too.

Still, the more fascinating psychosocial, and perhaps existential, questions are to be discovered in KBL MD’s comment. The KBL MD went on to note that the government should “put in place measures to control betting” and that if it didn’t “the country will be swamped with lazybones and layabouts.” I have no doubt that the MD meant well with her concern, but it does concentrate the mind somewhat to consider the context of her comment: one sin merchant worrying that another sin merchant might drive her out of town. I defy you to show me better evidence than this for the proposition that we are all simply cogs in the capitalist wheel. I doubt the inventors of the free market foresaw the coming to being of such ironies, or of the prospect that people would come to need protection from the very rights accorded to them by this same free market. 

Njoroge Mugo, is a 22 year old man living in Nairobi, Kenya. He is an actuarial science student in Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. He loves to read, write, listen to music, play chess, engage in spirited, topical debates with friends, re-watch old Leonardo Dicarpio movie scenes where his eyes are red and he is shouting at the top of his lungs. In his idle time he bitterly contemplates the ugly and seemingly unsolvable problems of his country. 

Do we like the new look?

Michael Onsando
30 July ,2019
How does it feel to hold though?

“Not all images are meant to be looked at. Some, like those on banknotes, are only meant to be seen.”

The Lion, the Native and the Coffee Plant, Wambui Mwangi.

In this paper Wambui Mwangi analyses the politics associated with currency design in Kenya. The paper goes into how currency design is basically an extrapolation of the self-imagination of the dominant class of society.  With this in mind I’ve been looking at the year we’ve had and the changing face of the country, what it means like and what it means.

But let’s begin.

This year has seen a flurry of changes in the country we’ve seen people line up for Huduma nambas and passports. Late last year the new generation driving license was brought into play. With buildings coming up faster than Jay Z in the late 90s and a large number of roads paved with caterpillars one can’t help but think the country finally break out of it’s cocoon and butterfly into the future.

I’m talking about aesthetics here and the effect that they have on the general psyche of a people. Which is to say let’s forget that our CS for Treasury has been caught up in a large grand heist scandal recently. Or, that we recently took another Eurobond to pay for our previous Eurobond (talk about borrowing from Tala to pay Branch).

Instead I’m trying to think about the things, as Dr Mwangi talks about, that are not looked at but seen. The things that we experience without really looking into. Like driving on a new road while knowing deep in your heart that it’s your generation that will bear the burden of the debt that went into developing it. Like holding the crisp new currency notes (monopoly money ama?) and holding back the feeling that maybe this means something.

“The thing about saying something is happening is that change comes to everyone in its own time. And so to say that something is happening is to forget the millions that it is yet to happen to. It is to forget those who will die before that thing happens. And if the thing that was supposed to happen doesn’t happen in time for you – then did it happen?”

Something is happening

Is change coming?

How one feels about their nation is primarily based on their experiences within the country and the experiences of those around them. If Kenya has been good to you and yours then odds are you sing that Eric Wainaina song at the top of your lungs with a phone in the air. If you are somewhere on the margins uncentered and unimagined by the nation you are expected to give everything to then it’s likely that you are dancing to Sarabi juu umechoka kuchoka. And, of course, it depends on the time of month you are turning on the radio.

With this in mind, I’m wondering how the changing images of our country are affecting our perception of the space and of ourselves as a people.

I only ask because it seems that the strategy undertaken by this government is to borrow heavily and hope that it opens up avenue for business that will increase the output of the country and raise our income to meet obligations that we currently cannot. And we know from every book on corporate leadership ever written, that a happy and fulfilled employee is more likely to give the company their best work. They will put in longer hours and they  are more likely to see the company’s success as their own. And, in being forced to bear this burden, we are the labourers that carry the cost. Increasingly I find it important to ask – are we happy with the changes being made? Do we believe that they are good changes in the larger picture? Has the experience of being a Kenyan got better or worse with the changing faces of a nation?

This is an actual question. Tell us in the comments,  in our inbox or on email brainstorm@michael.co.ke. How do you feel about new Kenya?

To African Excellence and Beyond

Michael Onsando
25 June ,2019

And when the time comes,

as all times do,

may we remember

that the power

came from within.

Africa’s Sun

Tetu Shani’s Africa Sun is nothing short of brilliant. A testament to African excellence through ambition and hard work, the energy he creates is electrifying. A jam, a bop, a something to play in your headphones all the way on loud as you head to do something challenging.

And that’s about all there is to say about this.

But there’s some more to say about some other things. Like how while we do the work of complaining about how badly the country is torn there is a generation of labourers dedicated to making it better. Like how the future, when it finally arrives will be populated by scores of people who tried and tried again to bring it closer so that the rest of us can see that it is beautiful.

Please don’t jealous me

  • Tetu Shani, Africa’s Sun

If you put one crab in a bucket, it can claw its way up and out – return to the wild and be free. But the circumstances change when you put a bunch of the things in a bucket. If one of them tries to climb out the rest pull it back into the bucket. What’s more, if the crab tried to climb out a second time the other crabs will gang up on the poor liberator once more and could even try to break its claws to completely hinder the process. In effect, none of the crabs end up escaping the bucket, which is great for lunch.

Not so great for the crab that chose freedom.

I keep wondering about what would happen if the crabs turned that destructive power into collaborative effort. If it would be possible for them to create a chain,  for example, and effectively get every crab out. It’s difficult to imagine the things that crabs have to overcome before they can see their fellow crab as a friend not a foe.

Kenyans are not crabs.

And I’m always wary about the things that perceive as holding us back. Is it deliberately holding up because it causes us to pause to consider? Is it deliberately holding us back if it forces us to do more in our craft? Is it holding us back if it forces us to consider the needs of our audience or if it allows our audience to express their relation to the work – even if it isn’t a linear (good or bad) relationship?

I decided Imma be me

Same when you see me,

Beard and a beanie

Kwani iko nini?

Kwani iko nini?

Blinky Bill, Kwani iko nini?

But we can be crabs. When we come up against something that is growing in ways we don’t understand we cut it down, we try to stop it, to shepherd it into the spaces we understand. Rather than expand ourselves into the space created by this new thing we insist that this thing become smaller. That it fits itself into our own ways of seeing the world rather than engage with how it is moving through the space.

But if he’s scared of me how can we be free?

I imagine that before the crabs can gain a collaborative mentality one crab would have to convince another. And the two would need to gather a third and so on and so forth until all crabs were on board. And I would like to imagine the convincing would go beyond showing the skeptical crab the logic of the plan. I imagine it would have something to do with building belief, building trust, building hope and eliminating fear. And that in order to do these things it would begin by studying the bucket, the human hand and other crabs, by having intimate knowledge of the circumstance and how to navigate it (or at least an idea). So if (and when) this labour is done and the time comes that the crabs are free and roaming the wild, I wonder if there will be space to remember that it all happened because one crab believed.

Creating Better Escapes at the Book Bunk

Michael Onsando
11 June ,2019
If the future won’t come we have to go get it.


“We imagine that public libraries can be steered to become more than just repositories, acting as sites of knowledge production, shared experiences, cultural leadership and information exchange. We see them as sites of heritage, public art and memory.

Our formation as an entity is inspired by this core belief – that our shared spaces are more essential than ever to our collective Kenyan imagination.”

The Book Bunk

I still remember the day Sylvia Plath died. I was walking down the street talking to my friends about something that seemed to matter at the time when I quoted  ‘the Bell Jar,” which I had been reading. Somewhere amidst my ramblings I mentioned that I would love to meet Plath one day – maybe she could tell me more about the book in person.

“Didn’t Sylvia Plath died in 1963?” a friend responded.

I was crushed. To me Plath had not died until that moment. She had been casually killed as I was walking down a parklands road by a man in faded jeans and an oversized t-shirt.

The thing is, Plath had been a comfort to me in my high school years – our school library having a collection of poetry that featured her alongside some other old white greats. Somehow she had stayed with me until that sunny afternoon in my 2nd year.  And it wasn’t just her. I had received more guidance in my youth from Worsdsworth, Dickens, Kipling, Poe and Yeats long before I even knew to turn to Ruganda, Abacha, Soyinka or even Mailu.

“Democracy in a country where the public is uneducated is no different from having a dictatorship or an elected king.”

– Zulfu

There is enough written about the importance of an informed and educated public to a democratic state have a fighting chance (worth it given democracy itself might be fundamentally flawed). As such, I’ll spare you the sermon on why we must educate. Today I’m interested in curiosity, history and identity and how these things are kept alive.

The 8-4-4 system of education has been repeatedly criticized for its focus on exams, creating students who are more focused on getting past the exam than understanding. Removing of the arts and humanities, which are process oriented, has been widely attributed as a part of this problem. Students who are not exposed to humanities have a harder time with lateral thinking and curiosity pursuing than others. Although it makes sense that a system that was built to create

And if we don’t start with art – how are we supposed to carry it with us into our adulthood? From whence will the innovators, creators and inventors spring? Where will we train our minds to see beyond the recurring nonsense of answer this one question using this formula for these results? Where will a lost child find Plath?

Plath here stands for the places we escape to. The places we retreat to deal when the world is too much. Like a lost child sitting in the corner of a library to avoid bullies. Or wandering into Tribeka because the traffic in town is too much and nobody needs to deal with it. Where are these places that we go to unlock the secrets within ourselves – and what do these places give us?

Currently there is little option beyond bars, brothels and theatres. You could go to a park but there’s little there that can keep the mind engaged. The museums are mainly archaic and their lens isn’t shaped to create an image around memory and identity. Precious books and artefacts are consistently misplaced (what happened to our moon rocks?) and there is little to no public space dedicated to the mind and the psyche of the people.

So this is why I dedicated today to talking about the Book Bunk. Angela Wacuka and Wanjiru Koinange came together to try and find a way to create these centres of knowledge production, shared experiences, cultural leadership and information exchange. They have partnered with the government and currently been allocated three libraries to start renovating, a job they have been doing for about a year now. So far they have done public tours, held events and initiated a “hepa jam” programme, turning the Macmillan library into a refuge for those who don’t want to sit in traffic.

And I’m here because I think every child needs a library to hide in and read Plath. Or find out about the solar system. Or figure out what life looked like in the country throughout history. To escape into a space that can them shape a story or shed perspective around who they are and what brought them to the library in the first place.

Check out the Book Bunk on Social Media (twitter:  @TheBookBunk facebook: The Book Bunk) and find out how you can support them. They are making a space for everyone – and they need everyone’s help.

A Victory for the Players

Michael Onsando
4 June ,2019
Survivors

14-10 at half time and 19-17 at full time we all held our breath as South Africa contained a fighting Australia to top their group. With just two points between Kenya and the Challenge Trophy this is the closest we have been to relegation and a far cry from that triumphant evening in Singapore in 2016.

“I don’t want to a part of when guys are saying, this is the bunch of players that took us to relegation”

Jeffrey Oluoch on Planet Rugby

Besides marathon running rugby 7s is perhaps one of our more successful sports endeavours as a country. We might not be dominant as the large Fijians, as free flowing as the All Blacks or as physical as our African counterparts, South Africa – but we have something going on there. We are the underdog that always has a fighting chance. The team that will ensure you keep on your toes or suffer a shock defeat (sounds like a certain Ruiz I know). We’re quick on the counter, strong in the breakdown and have wheels for days. Simply put, we have some top-notch rugby players in the country.

And everyone knows it.

“I mean it’s sad traveling and living in all the 5star hotels and coming back home to a locked house because you haven’t paid rent, I mean how do you expect results with this kind of environment??”

Willy Ambaka, on twitter.

I’m not going to go into the struggles at the Kenya Rugby Union at length. We all know that there is not much resource available for the sport and whatever is left is squandered, mismanaged and misdirected, leaving players to rely on their passion for victory as the main driving force. As soon as the passion begins to meet real life (injuries, bills and the like) the players are dropped, discarded and forgotten. Because we have a deep(ish) talent pool, we’re sure we will have someone to replace said player, even if the replacement will have less experience and will take a while to be skilled enough to play at that level. When players go on strike their patriotism is questioned. It really is a messy situation.

Knowing that there will always be players to play and a sevens circuit to attend is perhaps how we got here. Being a core team, the team just has to perform at an average level to keep the people in KRU happy. They are delighted with the victories but, as long as there is no serious trouble they are happy to continue to keep players unpaid for months on end – even though the average athlete can consume up to 5 amounts the food an average person does. Take this from Carey Baraka:

“According to Simiyu, the problems in Kenyan rugby are obvious, and one does not need a rocket science degree to point them out. First, he feels that there is a lack of proper governance within Kenyan rugby. The leadership is irrational, has issues with their integrity, and the people at the top have bought their way into the leadership of the game. Furthermore, Simiyu argues that several of the clubs are briefcase clubs (either owned by a company, or run by a few individuals, and, sometimes, just one individual), and the people use their clubs to advance their personal ambitions. “It will be more about sharing resources. That’s what happened with Kenya Sevens. They used the national team as a kitty to share, to secure votes, so that they can get elected.”

Stuck in a Ruck: The Perpetual Crisis of Kenya Sevens’ Rugby

And that electoral politics is at the heart of the issue is not particularly surprising. The single point of elections is a craze we have with 2022 presidential elections being one of the key conversations on the larger political scale. It’s like we move from election to election without any real focus on what matters, the work in between cycles. It is this kind of failure of policy has seen a series of rash decisions, each worse than the last, that has led Kenya7s to where it is today.

And let’s remember, that it is the playing unit that bears the brunt of the public outcry and consequences. We’ve seen quality coaches sacked for political matters with no back up plan in sight, pre-season training schedules have been torn up and key players suspended because they didn’t salute at the right people. The management of rugby 7s seems to be about everything else except what goes on during the 14 minutes in the 100 by 70 grid.

So today I want to spend some time celebrating the 30 or so men that are consistently rotating in and out of the sevens team. The men who spend hours in the gym, even when they are off the team, to ensure that we always have a supply of talented, fit players. The men who watch and rewatch every game, every step and every tackle on their own time with their own bundles, looking for an opportunity to exploit come the next time they face an opponent. To celebrate the players who take hits of up to 20gs of force, get up and run at their opponent once more.

I celebrate this because this weekend was not a victory for Kenya rugby – Kenya rugby is performing way below it’s ability. No, this weekend, 12 men took to the pitch and decided to impose their will on fate, despite the odds being stacked against them, and they triumphed.

And to those men today I have only one thing to say – thank you.

Why can’t we end corruption?

Michael Onsando
28 May ,2019


State capture creates a two-government country: “there is an elected government, and there is a shadow government – a state within a state.”

State Capture: Inside Kenya’s Inability to Fight Corruption

“Yes, I signed the agreement after being compelled to do so by dark forces who claimed that a Kikuyu can’t be elected and that foreigners will suspend aid to Kenya.”

Uhuru Kenyatta, 2012 (Later became president)

It seems like every other week there is a corruption scandal in the papers. So much so in fact that “The Predictable Nature of Corruption in Kenya” is one of the most read pieces here on Brainstorm. So we know corruption exists, and we know where it is and how we respond to it – why can’t we seem to stop it?

This is the question that Africog tries to go into with their latest report State Capture, Inside Kenya’s Inability to Fight Corruption –(available for download here). The report looks at major corruption scandals that three of our four presidents have faced, the steps they have taken to counter them, and how these steps have affected the general environment in Kenya.

I’ve written here before about institutional memory and how corruption became a language embedded in the halls of power that govern Kenya.  If stealing money from this place is the only thing that you can agree on that agreeing upon stealing money becomes how you speak. The Africog report goes deeper and talks about key false assumptions in the fight against corruption. Take this for example:

“The touchstone of much anti-corruption reform in Kenya is the assumption that government is trying to govern but is somehow side-tracked by corruption, understood as a malignant institutional failure that frustrates the governing effort. Therein lies the problem: anticorruption programmes ‘pathologise’ the relationship between corruption and the state, deploying medical terms like ‘cancer on the body politic,’ a ‘disease that we must cure’ or ‘a pervasive ill’ potentially responsive to curative interventions(…) What if we assume instead that governing is not the government’s objective?”

 So if not governing then what? The report goes into detail about this thing called state capture. State capture occurs when public resources or repurposed for private benefit. This definition from page 7 lays our state capture in Kenya:

“Successful state capture networks in Kenya have had two elements. On the bureaucratic side, there is usually a coterie of favoured officials who are allowed to accumulate, concentrate and exercise power in completely unaccountable ways, often behind the shield of presidential privilege, state security or defence procurement. On the business side, there is often a clique of local businessmen allied to political insiders, or alternatively, the favoured groups are shadowy, international companies whose shareholders are usually unknown. Capturing and controlling the Presidency – the source of power – and the Treasury – the source of money – is essential to fashioning the ‘criminal web’ necessary to repurpose government for the benefit of rent seeking elites“

Having this defined is great because we all know about the “shadow government” or the “dark forces” that make things happen. The people who continue to be protected by the government because their interests have been too intertwined with those of the people in power. But how does a shadow government work? How is it installed? And how does it persist despite our continuous efforts towards fighting corruption?

Well, first off, our fight against corruption isn’t real and tangible. This is something we already knew. We throw tribunals and commissions of inquiry but little to no action is taken. And even when action is taken it follows a certain script that is designed to placate public temperatures but give no actual results. Eventually we fall back into the same patterns. The report argues that this is not because we lack ideas or tools to effectively eradicate corruption but rather that deep reforms would loosen the ruling elite’s grip on power and severly subvert the game of politics in Kenya. As such the people often given the power to fight corruption lack the incentives to do so. And because the space is already organized as a corrupt space the few that have the willpower are often bullied, squeezed and pushed out.

There are two key points through which the corrupt bodies have Kenya by the throat. First the electoral bodies are consistently compromised allowing the shadow government to effectively control transitions and thus ensuring that key principles are always aligned to the corruption agenda. Second law enforcement (judiciary and police) and undermined and stripped of all credibility. This means that in the instance of any corruption allegations the chances of consequence are minimal – at best a scapegoat will fall and the patterns fall back to what they always have been.

“In fact, state capture theory assumes just the opposite; namely, that once the state has been captured it is possible for a transition to abort halfway to democracy and acquire a stable, sub-optimal equilibrium with the façade of democracy, but not its substance.”

One of the things that the report touches on is the collective action perspective. From this perspective high corruption environments generate widespread expectation of widespread corruption. Which is basically because we have been corrupt and continue to be corrupt we expect that corruption is something that will continue. The problem with that, becomes not only the consistent misdirection of public resources, but also an erosion of public trust in a functioning government, creating a sub optimal balance that is not really democracy and allows for corruption to thrive. In this case Kenya ends up being not only corrupt but unable to achieve full democracy.

“[The] process whereby citizens become able to defend themselves andtheir interests by political means. It is “democratization”, not in the sense of establishing formal democratic institutions for their own sake, but rather in the sense of broadening the range of people and groups with some say about the ways power and wealth should – and should not – be pursued, used and exchanged.”

So why can’t we fight corruption? There is no hope in the Africog report. While they do a good job of looking at methods that failed in the past (Uhuru just fired 1000 procurement officers, kind of like Kibaki did in 2003) there is little innovation. Most of the solutions are reliant on a form of implosion like a debt fuelled crisis or unsustainable growth. But one solution is interesting. They talk about a powerful anti-corruption coalition overwhelming the capture elite – something we have said for a while. As long as the people who are within the same social class as those taking away from the country make a stand the marginalized can only make noises from the side. Whatever solution we decide to chase one thing remains clear we will not go anywhere with this fight if we keep making roadside declarations and establishing commissions of enquiry.  

Download the Africog report here.

All for a cup of coffee

Michael Onsando
21 May ,2019

‘ This is because the decision making process is not guided by research or even stable projections, rather they are made to serve the egos and needs of the people who hold public resource either creating a conduit for siphoning or to fulfil an impossible promise so no one “looks stupid.”’

Considering the Public in Policy

The problem with continually writing about systemic problems is you get to see the same problem unravel itself in many different ways. You notice pervasive errors in thinking and how those errors permeate. Eventually you begin to question whether there is logic to these errors. 

On that front, perhaps one of the biggest failings of the jubilee government has been great sounding Africanisms. And by Africanisms I mean falling back on “decolonize” ideas that sound great without any real grounding in ability and possibility. One such concept was laptops for schools – it would be great if every student had a tablet but how, which, why, when and so forth were left to the gods. And the gods had other things to do.

Another such project, it seems is the Crop Ammendment Bill 2019, sponsored by Gatundu MP Moses Kuria. The bill proposes that all coffee grown in Kenya undergo processing, production and packaging locally. According to a source at the Business Daily:

‘ “Buyers are refusing to sign orders for clean (American green) coffee as they do not know what will happen in the future, with fears that they are likely to lose out on their orders,” said an official at NCE who sought anonymity so as to speak freely. ‘

Alarm over barring raw coffee export

Here’s the thing about Kenyan Coffee – it’s expensive. The Arabica that is predominant here is very pure(not sure pure is the coffee term, but sources spoken to within the industry spoke to a high grade level) which means that, in most markets it is blended with other coffees to create whatever then goes into the Starbucks cups.

Anyway, expensive is good yes? More money! Why give the money to others when we can make it directly? Buy Kenya sell Kenya – and other great sounding Africanisms.

Well, in 2016, Nyeri based Gikanda Coffee pursued these Africanisms and bought 30 bags of clean coffee to be processed and packaged for sale locally. A 50KG bag cost the cooperative KES 18,000 making the total investment worth about half a million shillings (before processing, packaging or marketing). As of August 2018 500KG (of 1.5 tonnes) had expired in their stores.

What happened? Take this from the Nation:

“According to the society’s chairman John Ngure, the lack of a market and strategies to earn from their produce led to the expiry of the coffee that has been stashed in 10 cartons in their stores.

“We also did not have a marketing strategy that would promote the consumption of our coffee,” he said, adding that the society suffered a loss of more than KES700,000.”

Don’t get me wrong. There is definitely a need to “seize the means of production” in a Marxist way and bring the power closer to the labour to ensure the farmers get more value for their crops. That being said the words of the chairman of this society continue to ring true. To go half cocked into a battle will always get us the same results. Had no one told the Gikanda coffee experts that it takes muscle to break into a market? That consumers are buying brands they trust and a new brand needs strong run time to gain the foothold it needs to hold steady?

Following this failure what is the driving force behind bwana Kuria’s ideas? Well the problem he is responding to is real. With six factories already closed down to “reduce operational costs,” farmers threatening to sell raw materials straight to a dutch company and the steady decline of coffee production over the last 20 years there is a need to rehabilitate the coffee industry. And so the pressure behind the bill makes sense.

We need to do something.

But this doesn’t mean just do anything. As the Gikanda coffee society learned, market penetration and brand building takes time and capital. What’s more because the local coffee needs to be blended to create the blends that other markets are used to local production would also involve importation of different coffee to process – do we have the capacity? Do we have a go to market plan? Do we know where the coffee will be sold and for how much? Or are we spewing and pursuing great sounding Africanisms without doing the legwork necessary, leaving our farmers even more vulnerable in the name of progress?

Semenya, Imali and women who run

Michael Onsando
14 May ,2019


“Two Kenyan sprinters have been dropped from the team for the IAAF World Relays championship in Japan this week, after blood tests showed high levels of testosterone, Athletics Kenya said Friday…  “We could not risk travelling with the two athletes after the recent IAAF ruling on the restriction of testosterone levels on female runners took effect on May 8,” Athletics Kenya (AK) director of competitions Paul Mutwii told AFP.”

In 2009 Caster Semenya won the world 800m gold in Berlin in 1 minute and 55.45 seconds and ever since the IAAF has been pondering a question that gender studies has been grappling with for a while – where does gender begin? Where does it end? Let’s get a few things out of the way before we begin. First of all it is oddly suspect that these questions are particularly raised with respect to black women though the muscly Jarmila Kratochvílová (to name but one) wasn’t tested in her time. Also, remember all the people saying Serena Williams is basically a man?

But that this is a specific and direct attack on black women isn’t necessarily what I want to focus on. I’m not even particularly interested in the fact that while South Africa stood with their champion we’re busy “not risking the travel.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that sport was where the gender debate would occur. For categories to exist there must be clear cut boundaries. This ends here, this begins here. Before we saw gender as fluid we were really depending on genitals to tell us who sits where. The only people who have known, for a long time, the fluidity of gender are the LGBTQI community. People who have never really felt comfortable in their category – choosing to identify as differently placed along the gender spectrum. This phrase “identify as” has been turned into a weapon of the right wing conservatives to trivialize identity politics as a feeling – an imposition. It has been used to reduce the entire movement down to people who are either childish or out to manipulate a situation to their advantage.

“For the first time, I encountered the vast literature written by advocates of women’s sport who oppose the exclusion of women athletes with naturally high testosterone for both scientific and ethical reasons: scientifically, because biological sex and athletic ability are both far too complex for scientists to reduce to measures of testosterone, and ethically, because these regulatory efforts have always been characterised by considerable harm to the women athletes singled out for testing.”

Which is why the positions are all out of wonk in this situation. We have, overwhelmingly, conservative people coming out in support of the judgement showing this as a victory for women’s sport (despite several sportswomen coming out against it). Meanwhile the liberal position seems to be “let her race!”

I’m not going to claim to know enough about the science of sex to understand how many testosterones it takes to make a man. And I’m not trying to conflate gender and sex rather I am trying to dance in the space where they are interlinked. How would we react to any of these athletes if they identified as male and perhaps made different decisions around their “difference?” We don’t know. Are there male athletes that will now be asked to compete with women cos of their competitive disadvantage in men’s sports? Are trans, gender inclusive Olympics about to become a thing?

“I am so happy the way God made me to be.”

  • Maximillia Imali, 400M record holder – dropped from squad

“…Cas(The Court of Arbitration for Sport) urged the IAAF to create a procedure where athletes should not be excluded as a ‘consequence of the natural and unaltered state of their body’”

I know the answer here is more complicated than ‘stick the outties in one place and the innies in another.” So I am not trying to prescribe solutions. The discussion on gender and sex is long and complicated yet also new to the public front. A lot of people are struggling with how to handle the new information, where to place it in their memory categories and how to properly pronoun people. What I hope, besides that Kenya could stand behind it’s athletes, is that maybe this opens up the conversation a step further – beyond Ze labeled bathrooms.

Getting Devolution Right

Michael Onsando
30 April ,2019

If there was ever a silver bullet that was supposed to save Kenya from wallowing in whatever the news decides we will wallow in every week it is devolution. Having suffered under the thumb of extreme centralization of resources (one big pot to steal from) we hoped that devolution would ensure two things. First, it would spread the resources and opportunities – reducing the incentive for rural to urban migration. Second, it would bring accountability closer to the people, effectively giving them a voice in a situation where they didn’t have much say as to how their money is used.

I’m not going to go into whether or not devolution is working – it’s been about over a decade of the stuff and it was brought in to solve problems that have been entrenched for over 50 years at least. Take rural to urban migration it’s hard to know what the numbers are. We would know if the government had focused their energies on a general census (like they are SUPPOSED TO this year) instead of the hudumizer number. However, according to this report  from the British Council, we know that the youth continue her around urban centres with Nairobi and Mombasa alone accounting for over 45% of the total youth population. As to accountability 25 of 47 governors were sent home after the 2017/2018 elections and a whopping 179 of 290 MP’s lost their job in the same election. So, even if only psychological, it is clear that there has been some impact on the space (something that Uhuruto have continued to shout about  – how well everything is going).

Of course it was a chicken and egg situation as many people who argued against devolution said. Imposing this idea on our current political patronage system would only lead to more of the same. Take this report from the international crisis group:

Patronage politics that marked the former centralised system has been replicated in the new counties, making government even more inefficient and expensive. Though political leadership is now local, power is closely held, and leaders are suspicious of both national and local rivals. Certain regions, communities and many youth still feel marginalised. Political devolution has deflected but not resolved grievances that fuel militancy, which continues to be met by hard security measures driven from Nairobi. Greater inclusion and cooperation within and between county governments, as well as national-county dialogue, is needed to maximise devolution’s potential and ensure militant groups, like Al-Shabaab, have fewer grievances to exploit.

Contrary to popular belief not all ideas are good. Knowing this it is easy to understand why the control of resources that exist for the public good is limited to a select few individuals who (hopefully) are qualified by experience or (preferably) some form of institution in the art of understanding and balancing. The system of political patronage does not allow for this to happen. Rather it rushes people through systems that can give them “indicators of qualification” that they may pass the bare minimum required to appease the public. Once they pass the minimum the assumption is a good PR effort will allow their status as “close to resources” to elevate them to the office they need (who needs to know if you actually know anything). And so power continues to be handed down almost monarchically.  It is these little monarchies that that begin the organization that becomes the larger power replay that is the Kenyan government. Understanding the existence of these little monarchies allows us to understand how billions end up going missing. Like an accountant dealing with thousands of offices you realize just how much money the company looses due to pens being stolen (or how airlines charge for trivial things to keep costs down).

This is why the silver bullet that is devolution was supposed to be so powerful. It was supposed to wrestle the power away from these little monarchies rather than further establish them. It was supposed to allow the people to reject patronage. And, while it might still be too early to tell, it seems like a good time to ask the question – is there any environmental labour is being done to ensure that devolution survives? Or are we waiting for it to create a hybrid monster that we cannot stop?

Debt, Opportunity Cost or Money Lost?

Michael Onsando
16 April ,2019

By this point in time the younger generations of African nations must have made peace with the massive debt burden that we will be inheriting when it is finally our turn to take the wheel. Take this paragraph from the conversation for example:

Many of these Eurobonds will mature between 2021 and 2025. It will require these sub-Saharan African countries to repay an average of just under $4 billion annually in that period. But they are already currently bleeding a rising total of just over $1.5 billion in annual coupon payments on these Eurobonds. This represents a total of an additional $15 billion across the term of the Eurobonds. The total accumulated bonds are in excess of $24 billion. The principle amount of this is $35 billion.

35 billion is intense right? Well, here’s the clincher – that was in 2016. Kenya currently is considering another Eurobond for about $2.55 billion despite not receiving a vote of confidence from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Without out a programme from the IMF we are unlikely to secure investor confidence which means, you guessed it, this is expensive debt (we’re basically borrowing from Tala to pay Branch now).

Why would the IMF refuse to give the trade the nod? Well turns out we failed to meet the requirements needed to keep the programme we had. Requirements such as repealing the interest rate capping law. You know, the kinds of laws that these things were written about:

“Despite good intentions, interest rate ceilings have actually hurt low-income populations by limiting their access to finance and reducing price transparency.”


So, basically, laws that might not even be protecting the people that they claim to be taking care of.

But the point of this essay is not to go on about bad debt (or even good debt) and how much of it that we have. Instead it is to engage with the concept. Having themselves inherited a country that was focused on robbing itself clean rather than development, our leaders find themselves with a window of opportunity (which could be closing), as there is a paradigm shift in power. The west is not completely consolidated in its will (and that’s putting it in the most delicate terms possible) and China is rising faster using capitalism – the tool of the west themselves – against the world. Somehow, the Africas have become the battlefield on which this war plays out. Whether it is our “burgeoning middle class” or our largely youthful population it is increasingly important to have Africa on your side.

This also comes at a time when African markets are working through their distrust of local brands. Increasingly it is important for big brands not only to have their logo on some shops in major cities but also to demonstrate presence in tangible ways (beyond bare minimum legal stipulations). More local brands are holding their “localness” in high esteem and foreign brands trying to look as local as they can without having to lie outright. Simple examples of this are the current transition of Barclays to Absa or AoN changing to Minet Group Africa to make their brands more comfortable to local audiences. Jumia, on the otherhand, is being taken to the cleaners on twitter over claiming Africanness despite being registered in Germany and doing most of its white collar heavily lifting out of Portugal.

And, given the winds of the global politic, it is only likely that this trend is set to rise as consumers continue to make the link between local shareholding and wealth redistribution.

So perhaps it is this opportunity that African governments seem to be in a hurry to take advantage of. Amidst this chaos is the perfect time to call for an increment of investment in the region by both local and foreign investors. Indeed we have seen a lot of work to encourage investment with business set up costs going down and the ease and processes being cut to the point that one can basically start up a business on their own. However, we also have to deal with increased taxes and licenses such as excise duty on bank withdrawals and the cost of bringing equipment into the country – which was supposed to be solved by the SGR, a story on procurement and ideas that deserves (and has received) several essays of its own.

And this isn’t even the biggest problem facing manufacturing in the country. Take this from the star:

While the cost of energy in Kenya has been the subject of debate time and again, efforts targeted at lowering the cost of energy have had minimal impact on the overall cost of energy. However, with the modernisation of Kenya’s energy legislative framework, through the Energy Act 2019 and Petroleum Act 2019, it is expected that the cost of energy will subsequently decline, signifying a reduction in the cost of production and ultimately an increase in Kenya’s international competitiveness.

Policy measures to support the manufacturing sector

In Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking-Glass Alice (from wonderland) comes across the Red Queen, the interaction goes as follows:

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Perhaps it is because they too inherited a country that was unprepared for the opportunity that lay ahead and, in a rush to meet the deadline, they have been forced to overleverage themselves, leaving us in a very vulnerable position. Or maybe it’s just bad management. Whatever the reason is, the rate at which debt is growing in relation to the amount we produce has set us up with the red queen’s race and it seems that we might have to run as hard as we can just to ensure that we don’t collapse under the weight of a burden in whose size we had no say.

Thank god we’re also a generation fascinated by running shoes.