Kenya is a crazy place . . . until you take a second and much closer look

Monday December 2 2013

Jamila Patunoi weeds kale at Segera area in

Jamila Patunoi weeds kale at Segera area in Laikipia North on December 3, 2013. Farmers in Embu and Laikipia counties have opted out of crop insurance due to failure by companies to honour their obligations when claims are made. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
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In the last fortnight, two reports that, as a colleague likes to put it, are “full of soup” were published.

One “Exploring Kenya’s Inequality: Pulling Apart or Pooling Together?” is by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics and the Society for International Development.

The other is The State of East Africa Report 2013, entitled “One People, One Destiny? The Future of Inequality in East Africa” by the Society for International Development’s Eastern Africa office.

The first report dealt with really weighty issues such as which is the poorest and richest county in Kenya.

But it is the small stuff, the oddities, the “soup” that usually tell the better story. The report notes that more than 40 per cent of Kenyans use pit latrines, buckets and bushes to relieve themselves in.

Use of the bush accounts for 17.5 per cent of the population.

Citing World Bank data, the report says every Kenyan who defecates in the open spends 2.5 days a year seeking a private place in which to relieve himself or herself.

These lost hours translate to Sh7.5 billion for the working-age population.

The report suggests this could be an underestimate since women, because they are more modest, usually seek more private locations that are usually farther away, and thus spend more time.

This resort to the bush and bucket, the report argues, exposes people to contagious diseases and demonstrates a failure to implement initiatives towards the use of alternative forms of waste disposal.

The beauty with such reports is not that everyone reads them the same way. A good Kenyan wrote me to say he saw in the report the very opposite policy opportunity than World Bank, KNBS and SID.

“This [the Sh7.5bn lost by Kenyans looking for bushes to relieve themselves] therefore implies that men who care less about decency by watering the nearest shrub, wall or parked car wheels (I’ve seen it happen on several occasions in traffic jam), actually support the economy of this country”, he said.

He added that: “My appeal is for you to request the City Council askaris, who normally pounce on men doing their thing in the open to tread softly because they are saving time to support our economy”.

Amazing! Even if you had given me 10 years to think through this matter, I would never have arrived at the conclusion that the men that urinate on street corners are helping economic growth.

But perhaps the most brain-frying piece of data was in the SoEAR 2013. Citing a 2012 unpublished study by Akiba Mashinani Trust, it reports that 65 per cent of Nairobi’s population lives on just 1.62 per cent of the city’s total land area, made up of over 260 slums.

Over 318 households, or an average of 1,177 Nairobians, live on one acre. Runda has two households per acre, and Muthaiga has one household per acre.

These kinds of inequalities drive progressives, leftists, and all sorts of good men and women crazy — rightly so.

And they are exploited by politicians like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe to seize white-settler-owned land and give it to the “natives”.

However, as the saying goes, every dark cloud has a silver lining. There is a view, that I share, that extreme attachment to land (and cattle) inhibits social and labour mobility, and can be bad for the economy.

Land fundamentalists will be reluctant to sell or leave it when it no longer yields value, and take their money to go and start up in a place where they can thrive. Land obsession also fuels conflict.

Those 1,177 Nairobians who are squeezed into one acre, and somehow still get up every morning to go out and work, can teach us important lessons in efficient use of land.

And this leads us to the next bit of intriguing data in the SoEAR 2013, in which Kenya emerges as very different from the rest of East Africa.

The share of non-financial or real assets — housing and land — in wealth per adult is rising sharply in Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. However, it is falling in Kenya.

In other words Kenyans are keeping more and more of their wealth in things like shares on the Nairobi Stock Exchange, fixed deposit accounts, and jewellery, and less in cement and soil.

In short, it is becoming a modern society faster than its East African peers.

[email protected] & Twitter: @cobbo3