Local content is vital to our economic development

Monday October 27 2014

On one of my recent trips abroad, I met a group of MCAs on their way back from a benchmarking tour in Europe.

From the brief discussion we had, I gathered that they learnt very little from the trip. Their county ranks poorly in the poverty index, and they would probably have learnt much more if they had visited Murang’a, for example, instead of Iceland.

But as I thought through about what they should have done, I realised that they may not be aware of any lessons to be learnt from other counties in Kenya.

It occurred to me that someone has to get on the ground, complete research on our local situation, and create the necessary content in a palatable format that can arouse appreciation in our own local development as it relates to other parts of the country. 

Last week, Mumbi Z. Ngugi told us aptly in her Business Dailyarticle, “Why academic neo-colonialism must be fought”, that much of our past is reported by our colonial masters. She argued that no country can develop and gain self-identity when most of its knowledge is generated elsewhere. 

If we cannot develop our own local content here, and engage with our brothers and sisters from different parts of this country, our MCAs will continue to travel abroad to benchmark that which they can never conceptualise.



There is much to learn from local counties such as Murang’a, which despite looking similar to others, has excelled when you look more deeply at various indicators. Its infant mortality rate is below 30 deaths per 1,000 live births.

That is slightly worse than earlier published data, but still significantly below the national average of 48 deaths per 1,000 live births (World Bank 2013), and way below Siaya County, where the infant mortality rate stands at 135 deaths per 1,000 live births. 

Whilst Kenya’s birth rate of 4.46 per cent compares unfavourably with the world average of 2.5 per cent, Murang’a, at less than 2 per cent, compares favourably with the rest of the world. The birth rate gives an indication of quality of life and the higher the percentage, the poorer the quality of life becomes.

From the 2009 census report (Kenya Open Data) Murang’a has the least (0.3 per cent) percentage of its population that practices open defecation. It beats even Nairobi (0.7 per cent). Some rural counties have as much as 70 per cent of their population practicing open defecation.

Murang’a has its challenges, especially unemployment, crime and its publicly declared war on jiggers. Unemployment and crime affect virtually every country on the globe.

But the strength of the Murang’a people comes from the willingness to admit failure, such as the jigger menace that has afflicted its people. 


It is the only county that has made such a public admission. Virtually all counties suffer from the same menace but are too afraid to admit it. Yet we know that in alcoholism, one has to first admit being an alcoholic as a condition of starting the healing journey. 

This is perhaps what John C. Maxwell meant when he said, “A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.” Murang’a is correcting its mistakes and will eventually lead the nation on what needs to be done.

Several counties have a poverty gap (measure of the intensity of poverty) that is far better than Nairobi’s, which is at 6.9 per cent.

CountyPoverty Gap (per cent)
Uasin Gishu11.4

It can therefore be assumed that there is something other counties can learn from those that have performed well. Turkana at 67.5 per cent, Mandera at 45.7 per cent, Samburu at 42.4 per cent, Marsabit at 42.2 per cent and all other counties whose poverty index is above 15 per cent could learn from counties with better indices. 

Nyeri has the best record on infant mortality rates, and at some point had a better result than some developed countries until the advent of excessive alcohol in the region. The question that we must ask is how two different counties that have similar characteristics could have a significantly different poverty gap.

Let me attempt to answer that question using Murang’a, on which I have collected more data than any other county. If you fly past Murang’a or spend time on Google Earth, you may realise that much of the county is covered with tea.


The people themselves are coalescing around small villages with the resemblance of rural urbanisation. This has enabled them to access services more cheaply than places like Kisii, where the villages are scattered everywhere, making it difficult to access modern services.  

Owing to small land sizes, they have employed strategies against the effects of the small land holdings that hamper productivity and are the cause of poverty in many parts of the country.

The focus on cash crops may have informed the decision to avoid multiple cropping coupled with keeping of livestock. They simply could not have made money if they pursued subsistent multi-crop farming. 

The trust on tea farming as a vehicle out of poverty in Murang’a was not a coincidence. Equity Bank, in its formative stages, played a major role in stabilising their earnings. This indeed gave them confidence to buy other foods with the proceeds from tea. 

Most other parts of the country with similar land challenges divided their attention in growing food crops, cash crops and livestock. The subsistence nature of this farming practice helped impoverish the population, simply because farmers could not break even in any of these activities.


Once again, either by default or design, the communication of social and economic activities around Murang’a was greatly influenced by the musician Joseph Kamaru. 

Kamaru, one of Africa’s leading Benga maestros, is unknown outside Africa but history will come to remember him for the impact he created through coded messaging mostly through idioms in the Gikuyu language. 

In songs like “Njohi Ndiri Mwarimu”, often sung in the traditional Mucun'gwa elegance of the Gikuyu people, Kamaru illuminates the dangers of alcohol. His message emphasises that alcohol has no teachers; under its influence one loses control of one’s conduct.

He warns those who continue to drink that doing so endangers their lives, and advises those who don’t drink to desist.

Some of his music centred on encouraging his people to work together. His song "Chunga Marima", and its surrogate "Chunga Rûrîmî", were vital to the region’s economic development. They offered a broad advisory on socio-political life and business.

He advised that people should work together and help one another, and people in Murang'a had more foresight on cooperatives than most other parts of the country. 

As a result, Murang’a Tea Growers metamorphosed into Muramati and later into the giant Unaitas Sacco Society Limited.

Several studies on different musicians in Kenya found out that art has power to transform and unlike other musicians of his time, Kamaru succeeded with his messaging, particularly with economic messages in his idioms. 

This is what differentiated him from other musicians of his time, such as like Daniel Owino Misiani (born in Tanzania but settled in Kenya and largely composed his music in Dholuo) and Christopher Monyoncho Araka.


Akwasi Beats summarises Misiani’s life as always surrounded by controversy. In the 60s, when he started playing his songs in local villages, he was popular with the schoolgirls and young women drawn to his early love longs, so much so that fights broke out amongst the men of the villages keen to impress the large female gatherings that followed him around.

On several occasions he was forced to flee the villages after guitars were smashed by angry men and village elders. Later on in his career, being part of the Luo who are a large tribal group in Kenya that felt excluded from the government, many of his songs commented on politics and current affairs.

Therefore, he was always keenly followed by those in power, who wanted to be certain he wasn’t being critical of their policies. He was jailed a couple of times as a result.

Christopher Monyoncho Araka was a popular Kisii musician, whose compositions were largely in the Ekegusii language, dating from the early 1970s to the time of his demise in September 2013. 

His agenda centred on social issues but largely dealt with personalities. Virtually none of his songs touched on economics. 

We should blame ourselves for not utilising such powerful communication channel to propagate constructive ideas that can transform our part of the world. The entire world benefited and continues to benefit from Kenny Rogers, whose broad advice remains relevant today. 


Kamaru was the Kenny Rogers of Murang'a. What academics need to find out is why some Gikuyu counties that could comprehend the language did not take Kamaru’s message. 

Kiambu, for example, which neighbours Murang’a, initially had great ideas on similar empowerment through projects such as Nyankinyua Women Group and Mbo-I-Kamiti Farmers Company Limited but has failed to deliver.

It is possible that the failure was precipitated by a leadership crisis. Indeed Murang’a was the national benchmark for utilisation of the Constituency Development Fund, particularly Kangema and Gatanga under the leadership of the late John Michuki and former presidential candidate Peter Kenneth. 

Past leaders from the county, such as Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano and Kenneth Matiba, appear in literature as having been instrumental in developing the region to what it is today.

We must now begin to dig into the past and develop our local knowledge, discover the mistakes we have made and correct them. 

Travelling abroad for benchmarking exercises is unnecessary since we have the knowledge here at home. It is only through building our local content for the education of our future generations that we can free ourselves from the poverty that comes from lack of knowledge.

As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Bitange Ndemo is a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi's School of Business, Lower Kabete campus. He is a former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication. Twitter: @bantigito