frontier markets

Key Concerns with Kenya’s New Eurobond Issue

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This article first appeared in the Business Daily on February 13, 2018

The Government of Kenya has announced that it intends to issue a new Eurobond of between USD 1.5 to 3 billion mainly to retire key debts that consist of USD 750 million for the first Eurobond as well as a USD 800 million syndicated loan. There are key concerns with a new Eurobond being issued by the government at this time.

The first issue is Kenya’s current debt status; our current debt to GDP ratio stands at about 60 percent. Please bear in mind that just over five years ago, this figure was around 40 percent. It is important to note that while debt in itself it not objectionable, the use of the debt is important. Given concerns with the financial management record of the Kenyan government at both national and county levels, any new debt issued ought to be scrutinised.

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This links to the second point; debt sustainability. Kenya’s debt stood at KES 4.48 trillion as of September 2017. Several entities have expressed concern with Kenya’s debt status; the World Bank made the point that a rapid build-up of public debt in the past few years has put the Kenyan economy at the risk of turbulence adding that borrowing to finance infrastructure projects should be balanced with the dire risks of over-borrowing. The African Development Bank made the point that Kenya could struggle to meet its public debt obligations as more long-term loans mature and the IMF stated that the rising public debt is a concern that needs to be checked to avoid any shocks to the economy in the future.

Thirdly, these are not the only voices with concern; Kenya’s current debt portfolio has made credit rating agencies anxious. Kenya’s debt generally sits in the ‘high speculative’ space in credit rating, one tranche above the ‘substantial risks’ tranche. Indeed, Moody’s expects the government debt burden to continue rising due to high budget deficits and interest payments. Moody’s is concerned by Kenya’s debt accumulation rate and has started considering Kenya for a downgrade. A downgrade in national credit rating would make it difficult for Kenya to access cheap funds from international markets- yet here is Kenya trying to issue a new Eurobond.

Some argue that despite current credit rating, the fact that Fitch shifted Kenya’s rating from ‘negative’ to ‘stable’, Kenya’s overall rating should be viewed positively, especially in the African context. But the view here is that, if Kenya expects to issue Eurobonds affordably, every effort should be made to improve credit ratings. Yet such effort is not being made in that direction.

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Indeed, over the past 5 years, three key trends in the fiscal policy of the current administration have been made evident: Expenditure is higher than anticipated than in the Budget Policy Statement (BPS); revenue generation targets are generally not met and thus, borrowing is higher than expected in the BPS. Bear in mind that the Eurobond and concerns by international finance institutions as well as credit rating agencies are not the only point of concern as these understate the presence of a very important creditor; China. As of September 2017, Kenya’s debt to China was the highest of any nation, and stood at USD 4.7 billion; two thirds of Kenya’s bilateral debt.

In addition to the factors elucidated above, it is important to note that Kenya’s bond issuance this year is operating in a very different context than that in which the first bond was issued. During the first bond issuance, interest rates in Europe and North American were very depressed with weak economic growth, and Africa was riding on a commodities boom, which made the continent a bright spot in the global economy. At that time, yield hunters turned to Africa as a key income growth market to viably compensate for subpar growth in other parts of their portfolios.

Since then, the commodities bust occurred which crippled key African economies, there is notable recovery in Europe and North America, and Africa is, once again, viewed with scepticism in global markets. When one adds Kenya’s debt warnings and credit rating status to the picture, it is easy to see the concern being raised here about the prudence and affordability of a new Eurobond issue.

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Further, if one looks at the current Eurobond objectively, while it is true that in January 2018 the bond yields stood at 3.7 and 5.5, the country has paid far more in the past. Around 2015, the opposition party in Kenya raised concerns about how the first Eurobond was being used and alleged embezzlement. The allegations and speculation during this time drove Eurobond yields up to 9.4 percent. Thus, while the government Eurobond currently enjoys relatively low yields, domestic dynamics could change the context quite quickly raising issues about the affordability and sustainability of Eurobond debt once more.

The final concern with the current Eurobond issue is that it will saddle the country with substantial future debt. It seems as though, through the new Eurobond issue, the current administration is pushing debt maturity to 2024, when it will no longer be their headache to address. Well aware that their tenure ends in 2022, it is fair to ask whether the current administration is pushing debt repayment to a point beyond their tenure.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;


TV Interview: The effect of the elections on the economy

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On September 7 2017, I was on a panel on Citizen TV discussing the effect of the elections on the Kenyan economy.

Is the mall economy in Kenya viable?

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on September 3, 2017

Over the past few years the hype of the emerging African middle class has made headlines across the world. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) makes the point that consumer spending power in Africa has risen from USD 470 billion in 2000 to over USD 1.1 trillion in 2016. In Kenya we have seen investors angling for a piece of that pie evidenced in the rise the mall economy. Kenya has about 53 malls of which about 30 are in Nairobi; another 19 are under construction. This mall obsession begs the question as to whether the aggressive growth of mall space is sustainable. HBR states that some multinational companies (many of whom sell products in malls) are finding that their business in the region is underperforming. In a survey of 20 senior executives working in Africa, 6 said they struggled to hit revenue targets. So, what’s going on?


There are two sides to this story. On one hand, yes it’s true that growing incomes have increased spending power and some of that will be directed to spending in malls. Some consumers prefer the setting and security of malls as they can let children wander freely, buy items that probably cannot be found elsewhere (think golf equipment or high quality makeup) and enjoy the variety of products on sale in a mall space. Also as Johnson Nderi from ABC Capital points out, supermarkets in malls do well because of the convenience, variety and relative affordability of goods offered there. There is also the Kenyan customer who enjoys the exclusivity of the mall experience and feels that money spent in a mall is money well spent because the experience simply cannot be found anywhere else. Ergo, demand for shopping malls will continue to exist.

On the other hand, according to the Deloitte’s 2015 African Powers of Retailing report, approximately 90 percent of retail transactions in Africa occur through informal channels. Why is purchase in the informal economy so strong and how does this impact malls? There are several factors that inform purchase in the informal economy; the first is quality and variety. For example, most Kenyans prefer getting fresh food items from informal open air markets, not supermarkets in malls because there is a feeling the produce bought in open air markets are fresher and thus are of better quality. Most Kenyans buy clothes from informal second hand clothes vendors because the variety and quality of products on offer there often cannot be matched by shops in malls at that price point.

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This leads to the second issue which is pricing; malls have underestimated how sensitive Kenyans are to value for money. Kenyans don’t see why they should pay for expensive mall rent added to the purchase price of goods bought in malls. Why are we paying for the rent of stores in shopping malls? Kenyans are also ingenious in getting value for money. For example, Kenyans prefer to search online for furniture or go to a furniture shop in a mall and then go to an informal carpentry outfit to get a replica made at a fraction of the cost. Why pay the full mall price when there are alternatives? This purchase psychology eats into the appeal of shopping in malls.

Unpacking the spending habits of the African middle class and the psychology that determines that spending is complex. Sadly an oversimplification of this complex mind may be leading to some poor investment decisions.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;

What China’s One Belt, One Road initiative means for Africa

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on May 21, 2017

Last week China announced a plan to build a vast global infrastructure network linking Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East into ‘One Belt, One Road’. China plans to spend up to USD 3 trillion on infrastructure in an effort that seems to be centred more on linking 60 countries in the world with China, not necessarily each other. This One Belt initiative is perhaps part of China’s determination to position itself as the world’s leader in the context of Trump’s insular USA. This initiative has two-fold implications for Africa: the opportunities and potential problems that it creates.

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In terms of opportunity, obviously African needs continued financial support in infrastructure development. The Africa Development Bank (AfDB) estimates that Africa’s infrastructure deficit amounts to USD 93 billion annually until 2021. In this sense any effort to support the development of Africa’s infrastructure is welcome.

Secondly, this is an opportunity for Africa to negotiate the specifics of the type of infrastructure the continent requires and create a win-win situation where Africa leverages Chinese financing to not only address priority infrastructure gaps, but also better interlink the continent.

However there are multiple challenges the first of which is that Europe, India and Japan seem edgy about this initiative and have distanced themselves from it. According to India’s Economic Times, India and Japan are together embarking upon multiple infrastructure projects across Africa and Asia in what could be viewed as pushback against China’s One Belt initiative. The countries have launched their own infrastructure development projects linking Asia-Pacific to Africa to balance China’s influence in the region.

Europe is also edgy because the initiative has not been collaborative and comes across as an edict from China; countries in the initiative were not consulted. Europe is also uneasy with the lack of details and transparency of the initiative seeing it as a new strategy to further enable China to sell Chinese products to the world.

Secondly, analysts have pointed out that from an Africa perspective, the One Belt seems to continue the colonial legacy of building infrastructure to get resources out of the continent, not interlink the continent. Will the initiative entrench Africa’s position as a mere raw material supplier to China and facilitate the natural resource exploitation of the continent?

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Additionally, there are concerns with how the financing will be structured and deployed. Will financing be debt or grants? It can be argued that China needs to increase its free aid toward Africa in order to build its image as a global leader. Further, who will build the infrastructure? Africa has grown weary of China linking its financing to the contracting of Chinese companies. Will this infrastructure drive employ Africans and use African companies? If not, then it can argued that Africa will merely be borrowing money from China to pay itself back.

Linked to the point above, is the fact that Africa is already deeply indebted to China. In Kenya, China owns half of the country’s external debt. Kenya will pay about KES 60 billion to the China Ex-Im Bank alone over the next three years.  Kenya and Africa do not need more debt from China, and if this initiative is primarily debt-financed (in a non-concessionary manner), it will cause considerable concern in African capitals.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;

Problems with financial accountability at county level

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on May 7, 2017

The management of public funds is an issue about which the Kenyan populace is passionate. However, the conversation on financial accountability in Kenya tends to be focused on National Government only. While this is right and warranted, Kenyans ought to extend the scrutiny on the accounting of public finances to county governments as well. One of the main purposes of devolution was to bring public finances closer to citizens in a manner that would allow them to have a say in how county budgets were planned for and used. This does not seem to be happening.

As the research firm International Budget Partnership (IBP) points out, the constitution of Kenya and the 2012 Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) require each of Kenya’s 47 counties to publish budget information during the formulation, approval, implementation, and audit stages of the budget cycle. In February 2017, IBP assessed documents related to budget estimates and implementation by county governments that were meant to be produced and made available on their websites between July and December 2016. IBP found that only 2 counties, Elgeyo Marakwet and Siaya, had approved budget estimate documents available on line. In terms of budget implementation documents, IBP found again, only two counties, Baringo and Kirinyaga, had published their first quarter implementation reports for 2016/17 online.

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The dearth of information on budgets by county governments is worrying due to several reasons. Firstly, citizens cannot be sure of how public funds are being planned for and used. The lack of budget estimates and implementation documents means that not only do citizens not know how county governments stated they would use funds, they also do not know how county government actually used the funds. The lack of both budget estimates and implementation documents means that citizens cannot hold county governments financially accountable; there is no documentation against which accountability can be gauged.

Secondly, although the lack of information does not automatically mean funds are being embezzled, the lack of budget reporting facilitates embezzlement.  The fact that most county governments are not accounting for funds, as per the PFMA, provides leeway for unauthorised spending by county governments.

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So why aren’t county governments publishing budget related documents? The first could be a capacity issue. In work I have done on county governments, it is clear that there are massive capacity constraints in county governments. Does every county government have competent and well staffed financial management staff and systems? If not, this constraint should be communicated by county governments so that remedial action can be taken. Obviously the second reason why county governments are not publishing documents is because they enjoy the lack of scrutiny as it allows ‘flexibility’ in the use of public funds.

As Kenyans gear up for elections in August, they should demand considerable improvements in the accounting of public funds by their respective county governments. Aspirants should be taken to task on how they will ensure that the citizenry is fully aware of budget use and that all documents are made public within the stipulated timelines.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;


How counties can attract smart investment

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on April 16, 2017

The decentralisation of Kenya ushered in the county structure giving county governments power that was previously unavailable at that level. Sadly what seems to emerging is a focus by county governments is a focus on revenue generation through the imposition of new fees and levies on the private sector. This is arguably one of the most intellectually lazy means of generating income. In some ways it can be argued that the imposition of CESS, advertising fees and myriad of other fees is actually killing the business environment and the ability of private sector to generate jobs and money. So what short, mid and long term, can counties can deploy to attract the right type of investment and generate revenue?

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An important action that can be done immediately is to determine the competitive advantage of counties. Within the County Integrated Development Plan (CIDPs), counties should articulate their competitive advantage, and strategies aimed at capitalizing on these in a manner that makes them profit and job generators. Further, it is crucial that important county leaders are identified. These include both those who live in the county as well as those with an attachment to the county. These leaders should be identified from all levels and include leaders in the private and public sectors, NGO leaders, village elders, women leaders, youth leaders as well as leaders from the disabled community. This county leadership should be consulted to develop an investment strategy in order to, among other things, identify county needs (health, education, infrastructure etc.), identify projects related to meeting these needs that are viable, identify sources of funding, develop the capacity required to raise the funds and source the skilled individuals needed to manage and implement the county projects.

In the mid-term, counties need to make an effort to make the county attractive for investment to both foreign and local investors. This includes reducing administrative and regulatory costs of doing business in the county, creating clear implementable strategies for ensuring stability and security, developing robust education and health structures and being seen to be visibly addressing corruption through the development of transparent county level public financial systems. Additionally, counties should participate in the Sub National Ease of Doing Business Index by the International Finance Corporation to determine how competitive their counties truly are.

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In the mid to long term the county can make efforts to develop Public Private Partnership mechanisms to pull in the private sector to address county population needs. County governments should also clearly define accessible career pathways for the current and future skill needs of the county so as to identify those who are already well suited for key activities in the county in order to catalyse economic activity.

In the long term, counties should consider the development of an investment fund where some revenue can gain interest. This can be divided into short, medium and long term strategies that include deposits, treasury bills, treasury and corporate bonds as well as strategic equities with the ultimate aim of creating a county ‘sovereign wealth fund’. Through these strategies, county governments can build capital in a sagacious manner.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;


Use Public Private Partnerships to reduce debt burden

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This article first appeared in my column with the Business Daily on April 9, 2017

When the budget was read two weeks ago, one of the key questions that kept coming us was the issue of growing public debt in Kenya.  In the 2017/18 National Budget, the Kenya government plans to borrow KES 524.6 billion (6 percent of GDP).

Views differ on whether Kenya’s debt is sustainable. Some are of the view that given the massive gaps in key sectors such as energy and transport infrastructure, the country must continue to do everything possible to finance and address the gaps and that debt accrued now will pay off in the long term. Further, they argue that at a debt-to-GDP ratio of about 53 percent, Kenya is still well below the World Bank ceiling (or tipping point) of 64 percent. And while the IMF has raised concerns about Kenya’s public debt, it is below what they view as the applicable ceiling for Kenya at a 74 percent debt-to-GDP ratio. Others are of the view that a debt-to-GDP ratio beyond 40 percent for developing and emerging economies is dangerous. Further, at about 53 percent, the debt-to-GDP ratio is above the government’s preferred ceiling of 45 percent raising questions as to why this ceiling is being openly flouted.

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Beyond the number crunching on debt figures, the broader concern for the country is that the substantial investment requirements for the country cannot be met by debt alone. This is where Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) come in. PPP refers to a contractual arrangement between a public agency and a private sector entity in which the skills and assets of each sector are shared in delivering a service or facility for the use of the general public. In short, government teams up with private sector to finance, manage and operate projects that are for public use.

There are numerous forms of PPPs ranging from projects where government owns the project and private sector operates and manages daily operations, to where private sector designs, builds, and operates projects for a limited time after which the facility is transferred to government. As the Africa Development Bank points out, PPPs are a useful means through which investment in development can continue in the context of growing pressures on government budgets. But as the World Bank points out, for PPPs to work the private sector needs political stability, a pipeline of bankable projects, transparent and efficient procurement, risk sharing with the public sector and certainty of the envisaged future cash flows.

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The good news is that the Kenyan government seems to be aware of the importance of PPPs at both national and county level. Numerous county governments are working with development partners to build their PPP capacity as well as identify viable county-level PPP projects. At national level, the government seeks to lock in investment through PPPs worth about USD 5 billion between 2017 and 2020. This will be important in managing the growth of public debt in the medium and long term. Through the intelligent use of PPPs, government can put the country on the path of sustainable development financing.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;