Month: June 2018
Africans are so used to us and our continent being portrayed negatively that we latch onto any positive story about us in international media. Whether it’s about idyllic holiday destinations, masais playing cricket or mobile money transfer systems, we welcome the positivity. And perhaps because we’re used to a narrative that seems bent on painting us as the irredeemable basket case of the world, we accept ‘positive’ portrayals without question. We leave ourselves open to falsely generous narratives and fail to critique them or their rigour, accuracy and nuance. We’re just relieved someone is saying something nice about us.
We seem too easily disarmed at a positive storyline to the extent that we’re beginning to enable a pernicious narrative on the continent. A narrative which, on the surface seems generous and kind, but when further unpacked, actually emboldens the notion that Africans are inherently incompetent and incapable.
I first came across this narrative a few years ago when the Africa rising commentary was gaining traction. Look at Africa, it said, it’s actually not doing badly. Lots of economic growth, growing middle class, maybe we can make money here after all, it said. But the core reason behind Africa’s rise was not us or our intelligence, it was population growth. The main argument was that Africa’s population is the fastest growing in the world and soon one in four people on the planet will be African. And that’s why we should be noticed, according to this narrative.
It was as though our rise was being linked to some serendipitous stroke of demographic luck rather than to the ingenuity, determination, intelligence and grit of millions of Africans. I’ve seen Africans retweet the ‘Africa rising population story’ with pride. They want the world to know we matter. But the problem is that people look at Africa’s growing markets as the main motivator for engagement with us. Many do not seem to care about our ability to adapt, solve problems and turn problems into opportunity. Anyone who lives in Kenya, or any country in Africa, knows that many of us are problem solvers. With a low number of formal jobs, millions wake up every day with plans on how to generate income and hopefully wealth for themselves and those who depend on them. With limited financing options for their ideas and basically no government social security net, most Africans know they must figure out how to get money on the table on a daily basis by themselves.
The mental math, emotional calculations, soft skills, negotiation capability, ingenuity and problem solving skills demanded on some days can be substantial. But these qualities seem ignored. We rarely hear of the knowledge and skills systems Africans are building and using to drive economic growth. Instead, the narrative that is gaining traction is the population growth story, and how it’s the reason behind the rise of Africa.
The subtle nature of this narrative, clothed in complimentary language, actually erases the agency of Africans in the growth of the continent. And that is saddening. But this is not the first time Africa has been underestimated. Let them continue. We’re working.
Anzetse Were is development economist; email@example.com
This article first appeared in China Daily on June 1, 2018
A few weeks ago it was revealed that Kenya refused to sign a free trade agreement that China has been negotiating with the East African Community (EAC) since 2016. The core motivation for the rejection seems to be seated in intent to protect Kenya’s nascent manufacturing sector from being dominated by China’s massive and efficient manufacturing sector.
This development highlights the concerns Kenya has with the balance of trade between the two countries. According to The East African newspaper, China accounts for less than 2 percent of Kenya’s exports yet 25 percent of Kenya’s import bill is from China. In 2017, Kenya exported goods worth USD 99.76 million to China but imported goods worth USD 3.37 billion resulting in trade deficit of USD 3.2 billion. Between January and May 2017 alone, Kenya was importing an average of goods worth USD 348.9 million from China per month.
The trade deficit has made Kenya, and many other African countries in a similar position, very uncomfortable. Clearly, the trade deficit path is unwise and presents an additional financial problem the country has to address. There are also concerns by some that such massive trade deficits compromise Kenya’s ability to negotiate trade terms. Sino-phobic narratives will argue that this is a deliberate effort by China to put countries such as Kenya in a position where they cannot protect the country’s interests in trade matters.
However, it ought to be considered that the trade deficit exists between Kenya and China, not necessarily because China is pursuing this deliberately, but because China is better at producing what Kenya wants than Kenya is at producing what China wants. The trade deficit is arguably the result of market supply and demand dynamics. Top products imported from China include machinery, railway stock, iron and steel, vehicles and plastics; these compose more than 50 percent of imports from China. The truth is that Kenya largely doesn’t manufacture these and thus imports them from China.
Sadly with China, Kenya is sticking to the usual yet unwise path of exporting raw materials and importing manufactured goods; a reality that reflects the weakness of manufacturing capacity in Kenya and Africa as a whole. And sadly, even in the export of raw produce such as fish where there is growing demand in China, Kenya is not exploiting the opportunity. Kenya fish output dropped by 10.2 percent in 2016, compromising the country’s ability to exploit demand for fish in China.
The trade dynamics between Kenya and China accentuate the importance for Kenya to shift current behaviour to one that strengthens the country’s position. The first step is to enforce local content laws to limit the importation of goods in public projects and rather, procure goods manufactured locally. The good news is that there seems to be indication that for the next phase of the development of the Standard Gauge Railway, local purchases will not be lower than 40 percent of total procurement. These types of provisions are important because they provide a market for Kenyan manufactured goods thereby boosting manufacturing activity, but they also highlight the extent to which local manufacturers can (or cannot) meet large orders consistently which provides valuable lessons on what the country needs to do to improve industrial capacity.
Secondly, Kenya needs to take advantage of the off-shoring of manufacturing capacity from China to other parts of the world. Partly informed by rising wages, China has been increasingly automating and off-shoring manufacturing; and Africa is benefitting from the latter to a certain extent. A report by McKinsey last year indicated that 31 percent of Chinese firms in Africa are in manufacturing and they already handle about 12 percent of industrial production in Africa with annual revenues of about USD 60 billion; revenues in manufacturing outstrip that of any other sector listed. If Chinese private sector are domesticating manufacturing capacity from China, then indigenous Kenyan firms can do the same. The constraints preventing this ought to be analysed and addressed.
Thirdly, Kenya needs to develop a trade strategy for China. The government needs to audit products with growing Chinese demand and seek to build Kenyan capacity to better exploit market opportunities presented by China. Kenyan producers ought to better leverage opportunities such as the China International Import Expo and work with the Chinese Embassy to exploit opportunities and tap into supplying the domestic market in China, thereby increasing the country’s exports to China.
Finally, Kenya should focus on revenue streams coming from China and strengthen these. Tourism is a massive opportunity for Kenya; hotel bed-nights of Chinese tourists to Kenya have increased 45.8 percent in 2017 compared to 2016, preceded only by Germany, UK, and USA. Government and private sector can be more deliberate in better understanding the needs of Chinese tourists and more aggressively market Kenya as a tourist destination in China.
In short, given Kenya’s concerns with the growing trade deficit to China, the government and private sector ought to become more proactive in meeting market demand in China. The concern should provide impetus for the country to do the hard work of building manufacturing capacity as well as better understanding the Chinese market and leveraging diplomatic and private sector ties to achieve clearly defined trade strategies and goals.
Anzetse Were is a development economist; firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on June 10, 2018
Last week Kenya became the first country in East Africa to export oil. Media reports indicate that the crude oil was transported in the Early Oil Pilot Scheme and will be kept in Mombasa as the country looks for viable international markets. While Kenyans may be jubilant at the prospect of earning revenue from oil, and hope that those proceeds will lead to prosperity and an improvement in their quality of life, key risks have to managed.
First is the Presource Curse. We are all familiar with the resource curse where natural resources such as oil lead to conflict, facilitate corruption and generate an immense income divide with most citizens failing to benefit from the process of natural wealth. The presource curse, as the IMF points out, indicates that on average after major oil discoveries, growth underperforms post-discovery forecasts. The presource curse is especially pronounced in countries with weaker political institutions. These countries not only fail to meet growth forecasts, their average growth rate is lower than before a discovery.
IMF points out that an oil discovery should increase output, and hence growth; oil discoveries are worth 0.52 percentage point a year in higher growth over the first five years. Kenya has only transported the oil to port, whether a buyer has been found is unclear and raises questions as to whether the country has the expertise to consistently find good quality buyers as well as ensure consistent supply. In the presource curse, countries are tripped up by the steps needed to turn discoveries into dollars. Time will tell whether Kenya will buck this trend.
The second risk is to manage profligate spending linked to an anticipation of oil-related revenue. Ghana is an example of a country that went on a borrowing spree based on overly optimistic revenue projections linked to generous oil barrel prices. When the commodity slump emerged, Ghana found itself unable to generate the revenue projected and service new debt obligations. Kenya has to manage this dynamic carefully because, as the IMF points out, if oil prices fall enough, Kenya may see projects cancelled and miss out on anticipated investment, taxes, and jobs. And even if prices go higher, Kenya may only get a share of the increased profits through taxes. Overly rosy expectations may lead to overly optimistic borrowing and risk over-exposure for both the lender and borrower. Thus, there is a need to manage exactly what oil can deliver in terms of revenue.
Finally, is the global tide away from fossil fuels; Kenya faces a conundrum. As the IMF points out, if there is no progress in combating climate change, poor countries are likely to be disproportionately harmed by the floods, droughts, and other weather-related problems. But if global actions to address climate change are successful, poorer countries that are rich in fossil fuels will likely face a steep fall in the value of their coal, gas, and oil deposits leading to a massive reduction in the value of their natural wealth.
In short, let Kenya be realistic that as a latecomer to the oil game, there are important risks to manage. And if we fail to manage these risks, the oil-related jubilance will fade very quickly.
Anzetse Were is a development economist; email@example.com
The last few weeks have been jarring for Kenyans as we found out that we’d had yet another maize scandal, and this time we lost KES 2 billion at the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) to 21 people. We also found out that we lost KES 9 billion to 10 companies that were irregularly awarded National Youth Service (NYS) tenders. That’s a total of KES 11 billion. A few days ago, it also came to light that we had lost between KES 70 – 95 billion at the Kenya Pipeline Corporation (KPC). This scandal is still unfolding.
I join Brenda Wambui of the ‘Otherwise?’ podcast to talk about the cost of corruption on our economy. What does this looting do to our country?
This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on June 3, 2018
The National Treasury tabled the Income Tax Bill 2018 which, among other actions, has the general thrust of taxing individuals and companies at higher rates than previously was the case. The focus here will be on the opposite ends of the financial spectrum: large companies with taxable income of more than KES 500 million and Micro and Small Enterprise (MSE) most of whom have fewer than 5 employees and generally operate informally, outside what government considers to be the tax net.
Treasury’s rationale for the new taxes and tax hikes is simple: government needs to raise more money in order to plug the fiscal deficit and reduce borrowing in the spirit of fiscal consolidation. But the core question should be: Are these tax hikes justified? With regards to the Corporate Tax, while it can be argued that large companies can afford to pay the 35 percent, the core question is, why? What will corporations get in exchange for the additional amount charged? Rather than approaching the income tax bill from a perspective of service enhancement, government is motivated by more aggressive revenue generation. Given the reality of high costs of doing business in Kenya, the proposed increases simply add another stone on an already heavy load. Perhaps if costs such as electricity, land and transport were more manageable, the effect of added costs in the form additional taxes would be less pronounced.
The proposed presumptive tax on the informal sector, of 15 percent payable by individuals with incomes below KES 5 million applying for single business permits, is unfair and short sighted. At the moment, government provides basically no services to MSEs to support their productivity, profitability and growth. Most MSEs operate in dilapidated shacks with no electricity, water and sanitation, and often next to open sewage and piles of garbage. Government, at both national and county level, seem unable to invest in supporting MSEs, yet here is government introducing a punitive new tax. The question MSMEs will have is, again, why? What will MSEs get in return for paying this new tax? The presumptive tax may motivate informal MSMEs to go further underground because they know they are the new tax target, and since most operate at a subsistence level, any additional cost will truly pinch. Thus, rather than creating an enabling environment for MSEs, government introduces a tax that will make it even riskier for MSEs to conduct business in an already difficult environment.
However, the strongest argument against the tax hikes is corruption and the flagrant lack of fiscal accountability. This Bill is being tabled in the context of one of the largest cases of the mismanagement of public funds Kenya has seen in recent years. Ergo, Kenyans will wonder whether these new tax hikes will improve service provision, or whether the money will be used to buy public officials new properties and cars after being diverted into personal accounts.
Unless government demonstrates that it is a responsible custodian of public funds, tax rates can continue to be escalated without translating into tangible benefits. Rather than scrutinise its own failings, government is being intellectually lazy and increasing tax on an already stretched private sector. Perhaps with some self-reflection and tough action within government itself, government would find it can live within its current means and need not saddle private sector with additional taxes.
Anzetse Were is a development economist; firstname.lastname@example.org