International Finance

How Africa can leverage growing insularity in Europe and the USA

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on March 19, 2017

 It had been brewing for years, but was fully exposed last year when Brexit happened. It was bolstered by Donald Trump being elected as the President of the United States, growing popularity of Le Pen in France and now Geert Wilders, the Dutch right-wing politician who wanted to be Holland’s next Prime Minister. While celebrating Trump’s victory, Sarah Palin termed it a movement. What is it? The growing popularity of a specific strain of right wing politics in Europe and the United States.

Sitting in Africa there seem to be common threads that run through this ‘movement’; it’s anti-Islam and selectively anti-immigration with a specific strain of aggressive (white) nationalism. It also comes across as racist, self-involved and insular. Europe and the United States have grown weary of taking care of the world, the rhetoric argues, having sacrificed the welfare of ‘real’ Americans and Europeans at the altar of immigration, laissez faire economics (the Chinese are taking over!) and generous aid packages to under-developed (and corrupt) continents such as Africa.

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Naturally right wing populism is making some in African capitals jittery. Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) heavily rely on Europe and North American organisations for financing, which, they argue, allows them to engage in activities that alleviate poverty, protect the vulnerable, and fight for human rights and good governance on the continent. Kenya was one of Africa’s top Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) destinations in 2015 with key investors coming from the USA, UK and the Netherlands. Large companies from Europe and the United States have also set up shop across the continent buoyed by the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative (now somewhat battered) and the growing African middle class. And military and security support from Europe and the USA have been important for countries such as Kenya currently trying to fight Al-Shabaab.

Just as Africa was starting to be seen as more than a basket-case of poverty and poor governance by Europe and the USA, just as the continent was beginning to be perceived as a serious and attractive destination for investment, right wing populism stepped in and changed everything. Some Africans worry aid from the US and some of Europe will drop; in fact last week State Department staffers in the USA were instructed to seek cuts in excess of 50 percent for funding UN programs. And the combination of the economic recovery of the USA coupled with right wing populism juxtaposed with slowing economic growth in Africa may relegate Africa to the periphery of investment once more. Right wing populism wants to Make America/Britain/the Netherlands/France great/ours again; and it seems continents such as Africa will be very low on the ‘to do’ list.

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However, there is another side to the story. Gone are the days where African economies were dominated by western metropoles. We now live in a multipolar world where countries such as China and India have become important economic partners for Africa. Research from a French research institute indicates that the share of Europe in Africa’s total trade has steadily declined from around 68 percent in 1990 to 41 percent in 2016. Asia has surpassed Europe as Africa’s biggest trading partner, accounting for around 45 percent of the continent’s total trade. And while some of Kenya’s top FDI investors were from Europe and the USA, key investors also came from India, Japan and China.

And it must be stated, frankly, that some Africans are relieved by the growing insularity in Europe and the USA; perhaps now those countries will have less impetus to meddle in African affairs and focus on their own domestic issues. Older Africans have not forgotten how the UK and USA in particular took out post-colonial African leaders such as Lumumba and Sankara and many modern Africans are not ashamed of being Africans; in fact we revel in Africa’s culture and newfound economic dynamism.

So while the growing popularity of (extreme) right wing politics may negatively affect the continent in some ways, let Africans also leverage the reality of a multipolar world. As some retreat into self-involvement and insularity, let the continent intelligently engage the many who are still seated at the table.

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

The effect of the interest cap on monetary policy

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

Last year I opposed the interest rate cap before it was approved and came into effect. I opposed it because I knew it would lead to a contraction of liquidity, particularly for SMEs who are often viewed as high risk by mainstream banks. A few months later, the fears I had have become a reality. Last week this paper reported that Kenya’s private sector growth moved towards stagnation in February partly due to a decline in private sector credit. Treasury reports indicate that credit growth slowed down to the lowest level in a decade, partly due to banks becoming reluctant to lend under the rate cap regime.

As this paper reported, Treasury data indicates that lending to businesses and homes grew just 4.3 percent in the year to December, down from 20.6 percent in a similar period in 2015. The 4.3 percent credit increase is well below what the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) says is ideal loan growth of 12 to 15 percent which is required to support economic growth and job creation

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(source: https://loanscanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/credit-score-scam-1.png)

The irony of this situation is two-fold. Firstly, the interest cap did not expand lending, it contracted it, particularly for SMEs. Strathmore Business School indicates that most SMEs in Kenya struggle to raise capital from banks. With rate caps, refinancing of credit from financial institutions has become even more of a challenge. Secondly, even with the interest rate cap, most SMEs find current interest rates unaffordable. Credit is still too expensive.  So what did the interest cap achieve? Firstly, it has made it even more difficult for SMEs to get access to credit and secondly, it is an effort in futility as credit is still too expensive for most, even with the cap.

This is when monetary policy would usually come in to try and address the situation. In a normal scenario with no cap, a contraction in liquidity would usually lead to a drop in interest rates to encourage banks to lend. However, the CBK would not do this due to two reasons. Firstly, the ongoing drought is already placing upward pressure on inflation; the overall inflation rate for February this year was 9.04 percent, well above the ceiling of 7.5 percent. Thus even in a normal situation, the CBK would likely not drop rates as this would place further upward pressure on inflation. Secondly, this is an election year where billions enter the economy in an almost artificial manner, putting further upward pressure on inflation.

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However it is not business as usual, there is an interest rate cap to contend with. The interest cap has thrown monetary policy into chaos. In the current situation, the CBK cannot drop interest rates to encourage lending as this would engender further contraction in liquidity, shutting even more people and businesses out from access to credit. Lowering interest rates would make banks even more reluctant to lend. So the irony of the situation is that it appears that an increase in interest rates may encourage more lending from banks as it would raise the risk ceiling of those to whom banks are comfortable lending. Kenya is in an interesting position where increasing interest rates may actually expand lending; monetary policy has to work upside down. However, if the increase in interest rates were effected to try and address the contraction in liquidity and worked, it may then exacerbate the inflation being caused by the drought. Even in this upside down world there are reasons against raising interest rates as well as dropping them. Raising interest rates would likely expand liquidity and exacerbate inflation and dropping rates would likely engender a further contraction in liquidity.

The world is watching this experiment with interest rate capping going on in Kenya, and thus far it is making the case against interest rate caps even stronger.

Anzetse Were is a development economist; anzestew@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

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.

Interview with CGTN (formerly CCTV): Kenya’s interbank lending market still fearful, rigid

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Kenya’s 2016 rate caps continued to inflict damage on the wider economy. In its latest assessment of the Kenyan economy, the IMF warns that they could cut growth by up to 2 percentage points in 2017 and 2018 too. The rate caps have added to the sense of crisis triggered by last year’s liquidation of one bank, and receivership of two others. Inter-Bank lending volumes have fallen by about a third, and large banks are extremely reluctant to lend to smaller ones. CGTN’s Ramah Nyang spoke to me to better understand this crisis in the inter-bank market.

The Rise of Debt in Africa

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on December 18, 2016


Often when a conversation on debt in Africa emerges, the focus is on public debt. And this is warranted as African governments are accumulating a significant amount of debt. Since 2007, countries such as Zambia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire have issued sovereign bonds worth over USD 25.8 billion. In terms of local debt, African local debt stock rose from USD 150 billion to about USD 400 billion between 2004-14. In Kenya, government has already overshot its fiscal year debt target having borrowed KES 147.1 billion against a target of KES 106.0 billion.

Debt accumulation is unlikely to slow in the near future due to several factors: firstly, Africa needs to spend USD 600 billion-1.2 trillion to implement the sustainable development goals according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD); there is impetus to spend and thus borrow. Secondly, Africa continues to be an attractive market for debt. According to Bloomberg, yields on Kenya’s 5-year and 10-year Eurobonds declined by 2.8% and 1.9%, respectively from the mid-January 2016 peak, perhaps indicating that Kenya continues to be attractive investment destination able to attract even more debt. https://www.creditwritedowns.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/debt.jpg

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There are serious, multi-layered concerns with the accrual of debt by African countries. The most obvious is sub-par domestic revenue generation which compromises the ability of African governments to service both domestic and foreign debt sustainability. Foreign debt has additional risks: falling commodity prices have compromised the ability of African governments to raise forex; the strengthening US dollars makes servicing foreign debt more expensive and as the global economy recovers, there are forecasts for higher global interest rates. An additional point of concern as The Economist points out is that African governments are getting more money from private creditors. Official lenders are more willing to reschedule or reconfigure payment terms if governments get into trouble; private lenders are less willing to do so.

An additional overall concern is financial mismanagement and its implications on debt. Corruption spikes the costs of public projects to accommodate expectations of kick-backs by public officials thereby increasing borrowing demands beyond what projects actually warrant. Secondly, embezzlement of public funds means money does not reach intended projects, reducing the economically regenerative power of said projects.

However there is another, less publicised debt problem emerging on the continent: private debt.Figures on private debt in Africa (Kenya included) are hard to come by but perhaps a look at mobile loan figures may be indicative to the growth of private debt. According to the Business Daily, KCB-MPESA disbursed KES 10.3 billion to customers since inception to September 2016 and Equitel has issued KES 20.8 billion in loans since June 2016. Debt is a feature of life to Kenyans and Africans be it in the form of loans from mobile platforms, commercial banks, MFIs, SACCOs or merry-go-rounds. And it not only the rich and middle income individuals getting into debt; even low income individuals are accruing debt. Conversations with informal business people indicate that the presence of credit vendors has encouraged a pattern of a single individual receiving essentially unsecured loans from numerous credit vendors at the same time. This individual then faces massive financial pressure to repay numerous debts and is often unable to do so sustainably.

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Clearly, there is a need to further unpack the scale of private credit amassed in Kenya and continent to better understand the continent’s actual debt stock. Further, while African governments ought to be more prudent in debt subscription, perhaps the same ought to be promoted among private borrowers, many of whom do not necessarily have the financial literacy skills to fully appreciate the implications of debt and how to service it sustainably.

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

Factors affecting the Kenyan economy

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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.

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(source: http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/business)

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.

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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; anzetsew@gmail.com