Infrastructure

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.

One belt, one road

(source: https://qz.com/983581/chinas-new-silk-road-one-belt-one-road-project-has-one-major-pitfall-for-african-countries/)

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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(source: africanbusinessmagazine.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Africa-infrastructure-1k.jpg)

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; anzetsew@gmail.com

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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(source: http://tweakyourbiz.com/management/files/shutterstock_128167007.jpg)

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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(source: http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/images/wednesday/Poverty_Standard_040913.jpg)

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

 

Infrastructure investment and economic growth

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


There appears to be an on-going assumption that publicly funded infrastructure investment will spur economic and social growth and development in Kenya. In fact, the government is so certain of this that they are getting into substantial debt in order to finance infrastructure projects. Indeed according to the International Budget Partnership, Kenya’s 2016/17 national budget 30.4 percent of total gross expenditure was allocated to energy, infrastructure and ICT. Infrastructure investment in this article refers primarily to investment in energy and transport infrastructure.

There are several arguments that support massive infrastructure investment. The first, no brainer argument is that Kenya’s and indeed Africa’s infrastructure needs are so dire that any investment in the sector is bound to have positive effects. According to the Africa Infrastructure Country Diagnostic, the continent’s infrastructure spending needs stand at about $93 billion per year. Clearly, there is a need for this investment.

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(source: http://kbctv.co.ke/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/construction.jpg)

Additionally, the lack of infrastructure can be argued to be eating into economic growth. Some estimate that the negative effect of poor power supply alone reduces per capita growth by 0.11-0.2 percentage points in Africa. Further, other studies show that infrastructure investment increases the growth potential of an economy by increasing the economy’s productive capacity by lowering production costs or providing opportunities for human capital development for example.

Infrastructure is also tied into social development. According to a report by European Commission, good quality infrastructure is a key ingredient of sustainable development because countries need efficient transport, energy and communications systems. So some argue that not only does infrastructure boost economic growth, it can lead to a better quality of life for citizens as well.

This all sounds very impressive but massive and aggressive infrastructure investment carries sizeable risks. According to the London School of Economics emerging research seems to suggest that the magnitude of infrastructure’s contribution (to growth) display considerable variation across studies. So the notion that infrastructure is directly linked to or even engenders economic growth is not cast in stone.  Indeed recent literature tends to find smaller effects on links between infrastructure investment and economic growth than those reported in the earlier studies. So perhaps estimates that have previously linked infrastructure investment to economic growth and development may be overstating the causal effects.

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(source: http://www.startyourbusinessmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/economic-growth.jpg)

Further, it is assumed that government is making the right infrastructure investment decisions for Kenya and that the contracts are being given to the right people. The Economist makes the point that even in countries like the USA public investment is wasted on inflated contracts with politically connected suppliers. The same magazine also makes the point that even in countries like the USA whose public financial management is considered to be more transparent with lots of bureaucrats to conduct cost-benefit analyses, identifying the most beneficial investments is hard. These problems are magnified in countries like Kenya where there is limited information on how infrastructure projects were chosen, how the cost benefit analysis was done and how contractors were or will be selected.

Finally, the manner in which the infrastructure plans are implemented will inform if Kenya will truly gain from this investment drive. A study by FONDAD argues that in order for infrastructure investment to truly stand a chance to create economic and social development shifts, they have to be done with great economic scrutiny at the selection stage, integrity in procurement, efficiency in implementation, effective post-completion management to ensure maintenance and efficient operation and, continuing accountability to users.  Does Kenya tick all these boxes?

It is clear that infrastructure investment is a priority for government and the continued emphasis in government spending in this docket will continue. Bear in mind that, as KPMG states, a significant portion of these infrastructure projects are debt financed. It is therefore crucial that Kenyans are cognisant of the need for infrastructure investment but risks associated with aggressive infrastructure investment, and direct the warranted scrutiny at related projects.

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

 

 

 

Land issues hampering Kenya’s development

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This article first appeared in my weekly column in the Business Daily on August 21, 2016

Kenyans are well aware of the tensions and dynamics around land ownership in the country. The contentious issues around land are often linked to tribal and ethnic tensions; indeed land issues informed the ferocity of post-election violence in 2007/8. But beyond being a tension between different communities, land ownership issues are hampering the country’s economic development.

Firstly, land directly affects agricultural productivity, or the lack thereof. At the moment, statistics indicate that small-scale farming accounts for at least 75 percent of the country’s total agricultural output and 70 percent of marketed agricultural produce. In short, most of the meals eaten by Kenyans come from a smallholder farmer working away on his or her small patch of land. However, one of the reasons why agricultural productivity is so low in the country is precisely because the vast majority of farmers are farming over-worked, nutrient-depleted, small pieces of land that have been subdivided for generations. The situation is made more complex by the fact that many small holder farmers do not have the title deed to the land.

So while there may be a general acknowledgement by their community that the land they farm is indeed theirs, the costs related to registering land and acquiring titles are too high for most smallholder farmers. As a result the farmers do not legally own the land and thus cannot use the land as collateral to access credit that could allow them to make improvements to their farms and farming practices. More importantly, smallholder farms cannot be conglomerated in one large piece that can be more efficiently farmed with higher levels of mechanisation, productivity and profitability. As a result, Kenyans agriculture sector is stuck in a rut with no foreseeable way out because of the land issue. If anything, the situation will worsen as the average size of land holdings continues to reduce due to the cultural practice of subdivisions of the land for each son in the family for inheritance purposes.

(source: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01537/farm_1537840c.jpg)

Manufacturing is also affected by Kenyan’s land problem because even if a company wants to expand operations to another part of the country, the process of procuring land on which the factory or plant will be built is daunting. The lack of legal title depresses demand for land because potential buyers do not want to negotiate the complexities of proving ownership. No one wants the nightmare of procuring a piece of land that is then mired in contention that prevents business activity from moving forward. Thus it must be asked: to what extent are land issues hampering the expansion of industry and manufacturing in the country? Further, the lack of legal ownership also makes it difficult for land holders to come together and combine smaller pieces of land into a mass that can more effectively attract capital investment. In short, both supply and demand are affected by the land question.

Finally, infrastructure development is more costly, mired in delays and incredibly complex because of land issues. In some cases communities do not agree with the valuation of land engendering renegotiations, in other cases absentee landlords make the process of land acquisition long and arduous. However, the most complex is where communities live on what they consider their ancestral land but the land is legally owned by another person or entity. Who is to be compensated in such cases not only from a legal, but also moral point of view? How is compensation to be negotiated without engendering protest? Land is a core factor behind the accrual of delays and expenses in some of the infrastructure projects in the country.

(source: http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/image/view/-/2918134/medRes/528395/-/maxw/600/-/t4i5alz/-/infra.jpg)

In short, a great deal of Kenya’s economic potential is locked in the land. Sadly, due to the way politics is linked to tribal identity and thus land in Kenya, it may be decades before the country sees a crop of leaders prepared to address the land issue and unlock a great deal of the country’s economic potential.

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

What to expect in Kenya’s economy in 2016

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on January 10, 2016

The year 2015 was instructive for the Kenyan economy and government. So what is in store for the economy in 2016? There are key factors that will bolster economic growth as well as factors that may threaten growth.

Inflation

Inflation started inching upward last year and reached 8 percent in December 2015, above the 7.5 percent limit preferred by the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK). The bulk of this inflation has been import inflation associated with the KES weakening against the USD pushing up import bills. This spillover effect may continue to drive the cost of imports upward fuelling more rises in inflation. Therefore, the CBK should continue to keep an eye on inflation and take action to pull inflation below the 7.5 percent limit when needed.

(source: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01811/inflation_1811026b.jpg)

Interest Rates

Part of the conversation that dominated conversation about the economy at the end of last year was rising interest rates. A combination of factors such as rate hikes to control KES depreciation, aggressive borrowing from government in domestic markets and high T-bill rates contributed to some banks signaling intent to raise rates. Sadly the news does not get better this year; as mentioned, inflation is at 8 percent and as this is above the preferred CBK limit, it is possible that the CBK will raise interest rates to try and manage upward pressure on inflation. Further, as the US economy continues to recover, it may lead to a further strengthening of the dollar against the KES. Thus again, as we saw last year, CBK may raise interest rates to manage KES depreciation against the dollar. In terms of any foreign borrowing in which government would want to engage this year, IMF’s Lagarde makes the point that the increase of interest rates in the USA has already contributed to higher financing costs for some borrowers, including those in emerging and developing markets. Therefore, government should be ready to borrow on more expensive terms in international markets this year. Also bear in mind that government’s management of the Eurobond has negatively impacted investor confidence in government fiscal management; this is likely to translate into more expensive borrowing terms as well.

Intensification of Political Activity

It is almost certain that electioneering will start this year with politicians beginning to build momentum for elections next year. Sadly in Kenya, intensification of political activity tends to be correlated with lower growth. Luckily this is a threat that can be managed if politicians on all sides of the political divide are responsible in comments made and avoid negative political sensationlisation of issues in their bid to garner votes.

Infrastructure

The good news for the economy is that key infrastructure projects are progressing well. In terms of transport infrastructure, the construction of the standard gauge railway in Kenya is ahead of schedule. Further there are updates and expansions in the country’s airports and ports and the tarmacking 10,000 kilometres of new road is ongoing. Secondly, important strides are being made in energy infrastructure; solar power projects will add 1 gigawatt of power to the grid, there is a 310-megawatt wind farm in Lake Turkana as well as the drilling of 20 new geothermal wells. The implications of how such investment, some of which complete this year, could fuel economic growth is apparent.

(source: https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/windustry/pages/433/attachments/original/1437488150/ph2009112004317.jpg?1437488150)

Ease of doing business

Kenya climbed up 21 places on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index to stand at 108 in 2016. This is a positive sign to investors both local and abroad in terms of Kenya’s attractiveness as a business and investment destination. It is important that stakeholders keep the positive momentum going in order to bolster Kenya being perceived as san attractive country in which to invest.

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

Kenya’s absorptive capacity problem: Can we implement what we plan?

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This article first appeared in my weekly column in the Business Daily on May 3, 2015

A fourth quarter analysis of the Budget by think-tank Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) reveals that the government failed to spend 27 per cent of its annual budget. The main challenge is the low uptake of the development budget — only 52 per cent of this budget was utilised by the end of Q4. It further reveals infrastructure-related ministries are the slowest spenders.

IEA makes the valid observation that slow disbursement, especially of donor funds, is a core problem as only 51 per cent of donor-financed development budget was released by the end of the financial year. However, there is a deeper story to this under-spending — low absorptive capacity.

Absorptive capacity here relates to the macro and micro-constraints that countries face in using resources, in this case money, effectively. Although donor disbursement may be one issue, we still have to ask: does Kenya have the technical, intellectual and systems-related infrastructure, expertise and culture to competently implement all the development projects we have planned?

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(source: https://technopreneurship.files.wordpress.com/2007/04/absorptive-capacity.gif)

Take a look at some figures. Kenya’s current ratio of engineers is 1: 6,328, nearly three times the ratio of 1: 2,000 recommended by UNESCO. In short, in order for Kenya to meet its development needs in infrastructure, it has to triple the number of engineers. Kenya is getting into a great deal of debt to finance infrastructure in particular. Further, a preliminary look at this year’s Budget reveals that energy, infrastructure and ICT will take 16.6 per cent of the Budget. But does Kenya have the capacity to implement these ambitious plans?

It appears even if every engineer were employed to work on infrastructure projects, there would be a shortfall. And this is assuming all engineers trained are competent enough to manage the projects. So what is the government’s answer to this? Outsourcing ad nauseum. But there are serious problems with chronic outsourcing. Firstly, it hides Kenya’s skills deficit and, secondly, it pumps money out of the country.

The first point is obvious: if Kenya continues to rely on others to build our roads, the country will continue to lack the skillsets and capacity to competently build roads by itself. But since the roads are being built, the country doesn’t truly feel the weight of incompetence in this area and therefore does not have a sense of urgency to rectify this problem.

Secondly, companies implementing projects locally make a profit, sometimes after loaning Kenya the money to do the projects in the first place. Essentially Kenya is borrowing money from a country like China then paying it to do the project. This makes no sense because the country is getting into a vicious cycle as follows: Kenya doesn’t have the capacity to implement large-scale projects → Government outsources but fails to ensure skills transfer → Hides/ exacerbates the skills deficit → Kenya doesn’t have the capacity to implement large-scale projects.

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(source: http://www.bloomengine.com/cycles/vicious-cycles-logo.gif)

The government should use development projects led by foreigners as structured training opportunities for newly qualified professionals as well as incorporate seasoned professionals into the management structure of projects. Kenya cannot continue to so fundamentally rely on outsiders to do the basics for us such as building roads. But sadly, the government seems happy with outsourcing all the large-scale projects. It is time Kenya faced the absorptive capacity problem squarely and developed a clear strategy to foster sustainability.

Ms Were is a development economist. Email: anzetsew@gmail.com; twitter: @anzetse

The economics of geography and why it matters

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This article first appeared in my column with the Business Daily on April 5, 2015

There is a little known branch of economics called Economic Geography that Kenya could pay attention to in order to gain new insights on factors that inform social and economic development. It is essentially the study of location, distribution and spatial organisation of economic activities across a region, and the implications to development.The pertinence of the field of study lies in how the development of Kenya and Africa, or the lack thereof, can essentially be seen as a function of geography.

Some within this field argue that the underdevelopment of the continent is a case of ‘bad latitude’ and that income disparities within and between regions can be explained by erratic climates, poor soil, low agricultural productivity and infectious disease which then mutually reinforce each other in a ‘vicious cycle of destitution’. Jeffery Sachs makes the point that one of the reasons Africa has such a high burden of disease is because we do not have a winter; and winter essentially makes it impossible for most infectious agents such as parasites, viruses and bacteria, to survive.

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As a result, countries such as Kenya face chronic onslaughts of high levels of infectious agents because of our geographical location. If Africa were located in European climes, some argue, it would be Africa and not Europe that would have economically dominated modern history. One study even goes as far as saying that if Zimbabwe were located in central Europe, the resulting improvement in its market access would increase its GDP per capita by almost 80 per cent.

A country’s geographical location also pins down its position on the globe with regard to other countries and centres of power. This determines the importance of a country in international relations that in turn affects economic development. Some argue that one of the factors that fed the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is the proximity of the eastern coast of the USA and the western coast of Africa. If these regions had been further away perhaps a different area would have suffered the horrors of slavery.

slave_trade_1650-1860_b - www.slaveryinamerica.org(source: http://www.slaverysite.com/slave_trade_1650-1860_b%20-%20www.slaveryinamerica.org.jpg)

In Kenya a similar argument holds; the choice of Nairobi as the nexus of power by the British may have informed why regions in and around Nairobi are more economically developed than those in the outer regions such as North Eastern. Perhaps had the climate in North Eastern been more to the liking of the British, Kenya’s socioeconomic landscape would be vastly different.

Another point made by economic geography is that the sheer size of the African continent negatively affects its economic development. Africa is massive; indeed one can comfortably house China, Japan, India, the USA, Eastern Europe, Italy, the UK, France, Portugal, Germany and Italy in Africa with room to spare.

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The implication of this on the cost of building infrastructure and ensuring access to all points of the continent is obvious. Indeed a study argues that halving distance between Zimbabwe and all its trading partners would boost its GDP per capita by 27 per cent. If Africa were the size of Europe it would be much easier and cheaper to build infrastructure and interlink the entire continent; a factor that would catalyse economic growth and engender closer socio-political ties.

Africa’s geography has also been the foundation of its economic strengths; vast reserves of minerals and metals have been the backbone of the African economy. Sadly, these reserves have deteriorated into Africa’s “resource curse” where rents from minerals in African often tend to accrue to elite and fail to trickle down to the poor. There is an interface between geography and human behaviour. Political instability, the chronic mismanagement of funds by African governments also explain the continent’s limited growth and development, not just its geography.

Nonetheless economic geography provides a perspective of analysis, of which Kenya could make great use.

Ms Were is a development economist. Email: anzetsew@gmail.com; twitter: @anzetse