frontier markets

Neglecting the youth hampers the development of Africa

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on March 5, 2017

A few weeks ago, a local television station aired the story of a young man who is an orphan, had been admitted to some of the most prestigious learning institutions in the country but was now living the life of a pauper. Dishevelled and unkempt, he looked like he was living the life of a homeless man; yet when he spoke, his clarity of mind and intelligence were unquestionable. This week a video of African children in the Congo working in mines went viral. The two children in question were eight and eleven year old boys, working in awful and dangerous conditions, barely making income and living a life of destitution and hopelessness. Why are these stories important? They are important as they reveal the extent to Africa is mismanaging the potential and promise of young people on the continent.

The average age of an African is 19.5 years, yet the average age of an African leader is 65. Is there any wonder then, as to why Africa’s leaders seems to be chronically unable to catalyse a young labour force and apply it to the development of young people themselves, that of their countries and the continent at large? In fact, sometimes it seems youth are seen as a demographic liability, not asset.

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In Kenya the rate of youth unemployment is dire; 80 percent of those unemployed are under the age of 35. There are several factors that contribute to this figure the first of which is poor education. The Brookings Institution points out that 62 percent of Kenyan youth aged 15-34 years have below secondary level education, 34 percent have secondary education, and only 1 percent have university education. Skills are a crucial path out of poverty; indeed education makes it more likely for Kenyans to not just to be employed, but to hold formal jobs that are more secure and provide good working conditions and decent pay. So the fact that the country is doing such a poor job in educating the youth translates to the relegation of those young people to the periphery of the promise of the country.

Secondly, even among those who are educated, most are ill-equipped to be absorbed into employment. A study by JKUAT made the point that the commercialisation of tertiary education in Kenya has led to overcrowding in the institutions due to the increase in enrolment. This ‘massification’ policy by universities is characterised by degree programmes that do not address the job market. As a result, millions of Kenyans are poorly trained and become frustrated graduates who cannot find employment. Another report released by the World Bank stated that tertiary education in Kenya is characterised by a persistent mismatch of skills between what is taught and the requirements in the labour market. Thus, even education itself does not guarantee employment in this country.

Thirdly, due to the aforementioned dynamics, most young people are left to fend for themselves, invariably in the informal economy. The informal economy employs 80 percent of Kenyans and yet this sector of the economy is grossly neglected. Sadly in many ways, the neglect of the informal economy is the neglect of the youth as it is only in this sector that most youth with limited resources are able to start ‘hustling’ and earn a living. The cost of formalisation from tax payments to compliance to minimum wage, means that the informal sector is the only choice, as it has the lowest barriers of entry for economic enterprise.

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The good news is that it is not too late to act, but the nature of action must be very different to ongoing activities. At the moment, most youth interventions either operate in silos with the limited creation of long lasting structures and partnerships; are funded unsustainably where programs end when donors pull out; or provide interventions that do not address the needs of the youth effectively (think Youth Fund). Youth need a combination of on-going employment opportunity; credit lines for enterprises through the deployment of blended financial vehicles (grants AND loans); skills upgrading (life, business, management, financial and technical skills) and mentorship. Only in doing this will the country, and indeed continent, leverage the demographic dividend that is the young people of Africa.

Anzetse Were is a development economist; anzetsew@gmail.com

 

TV Interview: State of the Nation with a focus on the economy

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On Monday February 27, 2017 I was interviewed by Citizen TV on the State of Kenya’s Economy.

Africa’s Energy Puzzle

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This article first appeared in my weekly column in the Business Daily on February 26, 2017

Last week I had a chance to attend and speak at the Africa Energy Indaba in South Africa. Several themes emerged during the conference that spoke to the need for and potential of the development of energy infrastructure on the continent, as well as the constraints that hold energy development back.

The first was the issue of energy inter-dependence versus energy sovereignty. Should nations seek to be self-sufficient with regards to energy production or should nations collaborate and pool energy resource to service populations across borders? The idea of energy sovereignty is an important part of national security particularly in countries such as Kenya with porous borders and the threat of terrorism looming. Energy sovereignty allows the country to secure all generators of energy for the country and control access in a manner that interdependence would not allow. If Kenya agrees to rely on neighbours for a significant portion of the electricity servicing the country, it has limited room for recourse should power stations be compromised in neighbouring jurisdictions. At the same time, there is a case for inter-dependence and the creation regional sources of energy where countries support each other as needed. For example, Kenya is current facing a crisis in the energy sector, specifically electricity, due to the drought that has led to insufficient power generation from hydro sources. Had Kenya been in a substantive agreement with neighbours, the country would be able to address the crisis in hydro power and draw energy from regional sources.

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Another theme of the conference was approaching energy infrastructure development from a regional perspective. This regional approach to energy infrastructure development seems to already be happening in parts of the continent, particularly Southern Africa. However, formal regional cooperation can only be effected through deliberate planning at the regional level. Regional energy planning has to be methodical and cannot be merely an amalgam of national energy plans of member countries; Africa has found this to be difficult. Another factor constraining regional energy development is the reality that although regional energy plans can be cheaper and more sensible in the long term, getting political buy-in is difficult. Regional energy projects can take years to deliver concrete benefits to member populations; however the politicians leading the creation of such initiatives exist in the bubble of 5-year political cycles. So how can one expect politicians to commit to plans the fruits of which will likely emerge after their tenure? Thus the question then becomes: How can Africa create stable regional bodies that lead and ensure continuity in regional energy development regardless of the politicians in power?

The final theme of the conference was a familiar one: the battle between renewable energy (wind, solar, geothermal and hydro), and non-renewable energy (diesel, coal and nuclear). Both have advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantages of non-renewable sources are that they are pollutants both in extraction and consumption, are finite and some are very expensive. However, they deliver a solid and stable baseload on which other energy sources can build, and technology is making them cleaner and safer. It is not a secret that renewable energy sources have gained popularity in recent times as climate change and global warming have become issues of growing concern. Renewable energy has the advantage of being clean, infinite, easily deployed off-grid in remote areas, and some are becoming affordable. However, the challenge with renewable energy is that it tends to be intermittent and cannot truly provide a baseload. The main renewable that can generate baseload is hydro, but even that is not reliable as Kenya is witnessing during the ongoing drought. Thus what is Africa’s ideal energy mix?

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The concluding position was that each country has to assess its domestic energy sources and create energy development strategies based on their own assets and eventually link these to regional energy assets and development plans.

Anzetse Were is a development economist; anzetsew@gmail.com

Kenya: What should be demanded of the next administration

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This article first appeared in the Business Daily on February 12, 2017

The election year in Kenya is contextualised in two conflicting realities: on one hand the country is among those growing the fastest in Africa and the world and is successfully attracting mega investment. On the other hand, companies have shut down or left the country, poverty and unemployment levels remain high and cost of living continues to rise. How do we reconcile these two conflicting realities?

The first is to acknowledge that the economy is growing; by 6.2 percent in Q2 and 5.7 percent in Q3 of last year. Juxtapose this with an African GDP growth rate of about 1.4 percent and a global growth rate of about 3.4 percent in 2016. Analysts point to several sources for this growth; agriculture, forestry and fishing; transportation and storage; real estate; wholesale and retail trade as well as mining and quarrying. Kenya was not only buffered from the decline of commodities, Kenya saved nearly KES 50 billion in the first half of 2016 alone due to low global petroleum prices. Further, the Kenya Shilling remained steady with regards to major currencies, standing at around KES 100 to the US Dollar. This is important for Kenya which is an import economy; currency depreciation places upward pressure on inflation. With regards to inflation, the country remained within the Central Bank of Kenya’s (CBK) inflation target range of 5 plus or minus 2.5 percentage points; annual average inflation dropped from 6.5 percent in November to 6.3 percent in December, the lowest reading since November 2015. In addition, the country made progress on the Ease of Doing Business Index. Kenya ranked 92nd up from 113 in 2015; this is the first time in seven years Kenya has ranked among the top 100.

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Further, Kenya’s profile as an attractive investment destination grew in 2016. FDI Markets ranked Nairobi as Africa’s top foreign direct investment destination with inflows surging by 37 percent in 2015. Indeed, reports indicate that Kenya recorded the fastest rise in FDI in Africa and the Middle East. The FDI intelligence website indicates that a total of 84 separate projects came into Kenya in real estate, renewable and geothermal energy as well as roads and railways worth KES 102 billion, all of which provided new jobs for thousands of Kenyans. Additionally Peugot announced a contract to assemble vehicles in the country joining Volkswagen which opened a plant last year, Wrigley invested KES 5.8 billion in a plant in Thika and a contract worth KES 18.74 billion was signed with the French government to build a dam.

However, the reality elucidated above seems theoretical in the minds of millions of Kenyans, most of whom are not feeling the positive impact of all these rosy statistics. Media reports indicate that that thousands jobs were lost last year due to company restructuring or company shut down altogether. 600 jobs were lost when Sameer Africa announced that it would shut down its factory. Flourspar Mining Company also shut down, leading to a loss of between 700-2000 direct and indirect jobs. Oil and gas logistics firm Atlas Development also wound up operations and the Nation Media group shut down three of its radio stations and one television channel. But perhaps it is in the banking sector where job losses were most pronounced. This paper reported that more than six banks announced retrenchment plans in 2016: Equity Bank released 400 employees; Ecobank announced it would release an undisclosed number of employees following a decision to close 9 out of its 29 outlets in Kenya; Sidian Bank, formerly known as K-Rep, made plans to release 108 employees, and the local unit of Standard Chartered announced plans to lay off about 600 workers and move operations to India.

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Why is this happening? How can economic growth be juxtaposed with massive lay-offs and economic hardship? There are several factors at play here. With regards to the employment cuts in the banking sector, these are linked to two factors, the adoption of technology and the interest rate cap. Technology adoption has translated to the reality that millions of Kenyans no longer have to visit banks to access financial services as they can make financial transactions digitally, transactions that range from money withdrawals and transfers, to loan applications and disbursement, and the payment of bills. This automation has led to the attrition of jobs.

Secondly, the interest rate cap has placed pressure on the profit margins of banks leading to job forfeiture. The interest rate cap effected by the government stipulates that banks cannot charge interest rates above four percentage points of the Central Bank Rate (CBR). Interest rate spreads have several functions for banks, of which perhaps the most important is insulating banks from bad borrowers. There is an asymmetry of credit information in Kenya due to the fact that the creditworthiness of most Kenyans cannot be established. As a result, when banks make loans to Kenyans, they often do not know if the borrower will be a good or bad one. Thus to insulate themselves from the risk of lending to bad borrowers, interest rates are raised in order to ensure that the bank recovers as much money from the borrower in as short a time as possible. In removing this provision, the interest rate cap is essentially forcing banks to lend money to both good and bad borrowers at the same rate. This in turn threatens profit margins as there is a real risk that the bank now has no buffer against bad borrowers. As a result, some banks have responded to the interest rate cap by shedding jobs to cut down operating costs and safeguard profits.

However, the interest rate cap is having a more insidious effect on the economy. A report by the IMF released last month states that the interest rate controls introduced in Kenya could reduce growth by around 2 percentage points each year in 2017 and 2018. The IMF also expects a slowdown in the growth of private sector credit linked to the cap. Additionally, the growth of the economy has been revised downwards due to the cap. What does this mean for the average Kenyan? The interest rate cap means that SMEs and individuals who used to get loans, albeit at higher rates, are likely to get no credit at all. Banks will simply not lend to individuals and businesses whom they think cannot service the debt credibly at that capped ceiling. Sadly it is the most vulnerable who will be disqualified first as these are seen as high risk and high cost borrowers. As they are shut out of credit SMEs cannot implement growth plans and are unable to create jobs and wealth. The contraction in liquidity engendered by the cap may also mean there will be less money moving in the economy; Kenyans will feel that there is less money around and feel more broke as they cannot get loans to grow their business or meet personal costs.

However, one of the biggest factors behind why Kenyans don’t feel the rosy statistics is because most Kenyans operate in the informal economy whose performance is generally not captured in official figures. GDP growth and Ease of Doing Business data do not capture the reality of dynamics 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. Perhaps the incongruence Kenyans feel stem from the fact that the economy from which millions earn a living is largely ignored. The hardship and challenges of Kenyans living and working in the informal economy continues to be neglected and thus policies and action that could help most Kenyans are never developed or implemented. Until the gross negligence of the informal economy is addressed, one can expect the average Kenya to feel a disconnect between economic growth and their lived reality in the informal economy.

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An additional factor leading to the disconnect between economic growth and the lived reality of most Kenyans, is that the country seems to be in a ‘jobless growth’ rut where GDP growth doesn’t lead to formal job creation. This is partly because Kenya’s economic growth is services driven, and services produces far less jobs than manufacturing. 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. Bear in mind that 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. Kenya is currently deindustrialising as the manufacturing sector grows at a slower rate the economy. The manufacturing sector grew 3.6 percent in the Q1 and at 1.9 percent in Q3 of 2016. Compare this with a GDP growth rate of 6.2 percent in Q2 and 5.7 percent in Q3 of 2016; this means the share of manufacturing in GDP is shrinking. This should be of concern because, as analysts point out, industrial development is crucial for wealth and job creation. Exacerbating the already slow growth of the sector this year are the drought and cheap imports. As the Kenya Association of Manufacturers points out, the drought is having an impact on raw materials in sectors that rely on agricultural products. The drought will also lead to a higher cost of goods and services for Kenyan as electricity tariffs are adjusted upwards. The manufacturing sector is also threatened by the fact that 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.  These constrain the growth of the sector in Kenya.

Finally, financial mismanagement at both national and county levels is compromising growth. The top allegations of the financial mismanagement of public funds according to media reports include the laptop tendering debacle, NYS scandal, Ministry of Health and the GDC tendering scandal. It seems that government funds that are meant to be economically productive and generate economic activity do not reach intended projects. Thus the economic stimulus that ought to be garnered from public never happens because projects are either under-financed or not financed at all as public officials siphon money away from them. Further, business routinely complain that bribes have become a basic expectation of county officials around the country. A report released by the Auditor General last month revealed that Kenyans are asked to pay up to KES 11,611 by county officials; Mombasa County officials top the list of bribe-seekers followed by Embu, Isiolo and Vihiga. As long as this continues, jobs and wealth that government investment and financing could have created will not materialise.

So what should Kenyans demand from those vying for power in this year’s general election? The first and foremost is ending financial mismanagement where even opposition is culpable as counties under opposition engage in corruption as well. Kenyans must demand a clear plan that will take serious steps to make financial structures more robust and punish those engaged in the financial mismanagement of public funds. Secondly, Kenyans should push for the government to provide a detailed analysis on the impact the interest rate cap is having on Kenyans and the economy. If the analysis elucidated herein is anything to go by, Kenyans should also seek the reversal of the interest rate cap as soon as possible. Thirdly, Kenyans ought to demand the development of a policy aimed at supporting and developing the informal economy at both national and county level. The gross neglect of this sector must end given that it is in the informal economy where most Kenyans earn a living and are employed. Finally, Kenyans should push for a detailed plan on industrialisation for the country. While the Ministry of Industrialisation has developed the Kenya Industrial Transformation Programme, a detailed work plan and timeline of deliverables ought to be developed and shared so that Kenyans can reap the dividends that green industrialisation can create.

Anzetse Were is a development economist; anzetsew@gmail.com

Neglect of the informal economy perpetuates income inequality

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This article first appeared in my weekly column in the Business Daily on February 12, 2017


The Gini Coefficient (GC) measures income inequality where a value of 0 represents absolute equality and 100 absolute inequality. Countries with high GCs have a very wide gap between the richest and poorest while those with low GCs are more income equal. Countries with the lowest GC and thus are the most equal are Norway, Australia and Switzerland; the most unequal are Niger, Congo and the Central African Republic. As you can imagine Africa performs very poorly with regards to income inequality; the least unequal is Seychelles which is 71st. Kenya is 147th out of 187 countries assessed, with a score of 47.7. While the GC is not a perfect measure, it does have an indicative quality that helps countries get a sense of where they stand with regards to the levels of income inequality when compared to others.

There is a link between informality and inequality; a study by the University of Bath (UoB) found that high degree of inequality leads to a bigger informal sector. This is not a surprise for those who live in Africa where income inequality prohibits millions of Africans from entering the formal market or accumulating wealth due to a number of variables. Firstly, most informal workers are poor and most of the working poor are informally employed. Most informal workers are without secure income, employments benefits and social protection. This is because, as the UoB study argues, the activities of informal firms are often hidden from public scrutiny and not subject to labour standards such as minimum wages, decent and non-hazardous working conditions. Workers in the informal sector are vulnerable as they are paid less than formal workers and do not have benefits such as health insurance or even workplace insurance in the event of an debilitating accident at work.

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Secondly, the informally employed tend to have lower education and rates of literacy and tend to have lower wages. According to the ILO, wages are on average 44 percent lower in the informal sector. This explains why informality often overlaps with poverty. Additionally informal firms usually do not have the business and financial management skills, or sales and marketing skills to drive the performance and management of their businesses; as a result they tend to be chronically poorly managed. Thirdly, informal firms often are denied access to formal credit lines and thus cannot improve or expand. These factors link informality to poverty as millions do not have the skills to improve business performance and are unable to access credit lines that could do the same; thus they are stuck in a rut of poverty and informality.

An additional means through which informality and inequality are related is linked to the fact that because those who work in informal sector tend to be the poorer segment of the population, they often cannot afford access to goods and services via formal channels. The most obvious means through which this is demonstrated is with regards to housing and shelter. Informal workers often work and live in informal structures of very poor quality. They live and work in structures that pose a risk to their welfare. With regards to education, if children are not absorbed into the public education system, they often attend informal schools with poor facilities and where teachers may not even be formally trained. The same applies to access to health services; while there are some good clinics often run by religious groups or non-profits in areas of high housing and business informality, millions of low income people access healthcare through informal channels such as unregistered clinics and pharmacies. This exposes them to counterfeit drugs and unlicensed health care workers.

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Given that income inequality and informality are related, it is important that the continent begins take the informal sector seriously and provide structures that support it. Interventions should not only aim to improve the quality of goods and services deployed through informal channels, informal businesses ought to be provided with the technical and financial support they need to truly graduate out of poverty. In supporting the informal sector, Africa will better bridge the gap between rich and poor.

 Anzetse Were is a development economist, anzetsew@gmail.com

Interview with CGTN (formerly CCTV): Kenya’s private sector credit growth falls to lowest in a decade

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More data is coming in pointing to the damage being done by Kenya’s interest rate caps. Inter-Bank lending has fallen by a third. 6 small banks, accounting for about 7% of sector assets, are struggling with non-performing loan ratios of over 20%, while the sector average was 9.3% by end October. Private sector credit growth has fallen to levels not seen in nearly a decade, at 4.3% in December. Earlier on CGTN’s Ramah Nyang spoke to Anzetse Were, one of the economists who had argued against these rate caps. I asked her if the data available now vindicates her position.

The economic cost of marginalisation

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on January 29, 2017


Over the past week I have been travelling around the country and have visited what can only be described as grossly neglected areas of the country. The difference between the state of infrastructure, water and sanitation systems, schools and even internet access in areas which have enjoyed government and private sector investment, and those which have not, is truly stark. And although devolution has brought some attention to counties and communities locked in neglect, a pattern of leaving ‘those areas’ to the NGO world and food relief organisations still lingers. This chronic marginalisation is costing the country millions.

Firstly, the lack of investment in human capital mainly in the form of education, healthcare as well as physical and food security has implications on productivity. In failing to ensure that every Kenyan is well fed and has access to basic healthcare and schooling, the country has written off millions of Kenyans, their ingenuity, their potential and their ability to develop the country. Individuals who are sick, poorly educated and malnourished are far less productive than those who are healthy, well-educated and food secure. The neglect has meant that employment-creating businesses were not opened, important innovations not discovered and ingenuity not tapped into, all of which could have had a positive impact on the country’s economic development.

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Secondly, there is a notable lack of support to businesses in vast swathes of the country. In those areas, businesses often fail to become successful due to external factors, not due to a lack of intelligence, determination or business acumen. Many good business ideas die due the lack of transport infrastructure and electricity rather than because the business idea was a poor one. If Kenyans marvel at how Thika Highway unlocked entrepreneurship along that road alone, imagine what a truly robust transport network could deliver. Business in many parts of the country do not take off due to external factors and as a result entire regions of the country fail grow and contribute to the GDP and wealth of the nation.

Finally, even if small pockets of private sector activity thrive in neglected areas, they probably function at subpar levels, unable to expand and grow optimally. Not only do they have to live with the reality of poor transport and energy networks, finding skilled labour for business operations is close to impossible due to low levels of education and a high disease burden. And if individuals manage to earn an education in such areas, they often leave the region as soon as feasibly possible. As a result, businesses in such regions operate below potential leading to subpar contributions to the economy.

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However, as with all clouds, there is a silver lining. There is a grit, resolve and spirit of determination in areas that have been forgotten. While some have resigned to their lot, others have a tenacious spirit determined to succeed. But what is clear is that there is a need for creative investment strategies to develop remote regions executed through blended financing and alliances of public, private and civil society actors. It is clear that just one type of financing or support is inadequate. There is a need for professionals and business people to step out of their bubbles and leverage their combined financial and skills assets towards shared interests. Without the pooling of resources and talent, the potential of millions of Kenyans will continue to go waste and fail to build the personal and communal wealth the country so desperately needs.

Anzetse Were is a development economist; anzetsew@gmail.com