This article first appeared in my weekly column in the Business Daily on November 20, 2016
I have been getting several questions pertaining to what is ‘really’ happening in the Kenyan economy. Many Kenyans see incongruence between economic growth statistics and their own lived experience. According to the World Bank the economy is expected to grow by 5.9 percent in 2016; the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics reported that Kenya’s economy expanded by 6.2 percent in Q2 2016. However, several companies have closed down operations in the country and thousands of jobs have been lost this year alone. There are numerous variables that may be informing why Kenyans do not seem to be feeling the positive effects of economic growth.
The first is that GDP growth and Ease of Doing Business data do not capture the reality of the growth and Ease of Doing Business in the informal economy where over 80 percent of employed Kenyans earn a living. Therefore, one cannot extrapolate positive overall statistics as reflective of performance of the informal economy. To what extent does Ease of Doing Business research reflect improvements in the business environment for informal businesses? Parameters such as increased ease with regards to tax compliance and business registration inform Ease of Doing Business performance, yet these are parameters with which informal businesses largely do not intersect. Thus, perhaps the incongruence stems from the fact that the economy from which millions earn a living is largely ignored by official data gathering and analytical efforts.
With regards to companies closing and job loss, several factors at play; I will focus on manufacturing and the banking sector. Manufacturing in this country is under threat because the cost of doing business for manufacturers in Kenya remains high particularly with regards to electricity, transport, cross-county taxes and, frankly, corruption. Additionally, the country has allowed the entry of cheap goods, particularly from Asia, to flood the market; goods that benefit from protection and subsidies in their home economies which is not reflected here. The combination of these factors is making Kenya an increasingly uncompetitive location for manufacturing which is diametrically opposed to the Government’s industrialisation agenda. With regards to the banking sector, job shedding seems to be informed by automation and the interest rate cap. Mobile and e-banking means that many customers do not need direct human contact to effect the transactions they require. The interest rate cap has removed a key risk management tool that banks used to manage information asymmetry with regards to credit worthiness. As a result, banks seem to have limited space to make numerous loans as the risk buffer is no longer present. Fewer loans means fewer staff are needed to monitor loan compliance.
Kenyans are also concerned that economic growth is not associated with job creation; the country seems to be stuck in the ‘jobless growth’ rut. Again, this is informed by several factors. Firstly, Kenya’s economic growth is services driven, and services produces far less jobs than manufacturing for example. The main services sub-sectors that are labour intense are health, education and hospitality; sub sectors such as telecoms and financial services need far less labour. It is no secret that tourism in the country has been hit leading to job losses; and even when there is marginal recovery, a limited number of jobs are created and those are seasonal. Until the manufacturing sector is given the attention it requires such that economy is driven by export-led manufacturing, the ‘jobless growth’ challenge will continue. Finally, the education system in the country is doing a gross disservice to the youth by making millions of young people essentially unemployable. 62 percent of Kenyan youth aged 15-34 years have below secondary level education. Further, Kenya is characterised by a persistent mismatch of skills between what is taught and the skill requirements of the labour market. Thus most youth are poorly educated and those who are well educated are not trained in skills the labour market seeks.
Finally, financial mismanagement at both national and county levels is compromising growth. It seems that government funds that are meant to be economically productive and generate economic activity do not reach intended projects. As long as this continues to occur, jobs and growth that could have been created by government investment and financing will not materialise.
All these factors inform the disconnect between rosy economic statistics and the reality Kenyans feel on the ground; and these will persist if there is no change in financial management and economic development strategy going forward.
Anzetse Were is a development economist; firstname.lastname@example.org