Why thrift matters and yet it eludes us today

Sunday February 28 2016

Mr John Mwangi roasts maize along Nyeri town's Kimathi street on August 31, 2010. Kenyan youths ought to work hard to generate wealth. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Mr John Mwangi roasts maize along Nyeri town's Kimathi street on August 31, 2010. Kenyan youths ought to work hard to generate wealth. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NATION MEDIA GROUP  

I was truly disturbed by the recent survey of youth in Kenya, where a majority seemed to say it does not matter how one makes money and wealth as long as one has it. That particular finding upends what my generation was taught when we were their age.

Once upon a time, in the ancient 60s, 70s and 80s, generations were taught to save to invest for a better future, and that any money and wealth one obtained should be from honest and hard work.

They passed this on to their offspring. I remember in my mid-teens, together with a bunch of age-mates opening our Post Office Savings Account with Sh50, and getting the famous passbook. In those days, the save and invest culture was so strong, that when we got our first jobs out of university in the mid-1980s, I and a couple of friends opened savings accounts and bought 21 year life insurance policies with our first salary.

We were taught and believed those who saved and invested wisely would be the ones to be rich and wealthy in the years to come. This old wisdom still holds because what is true of thrift and prudent investments for individuals, also applies to communities and societies.

The evidence is clear in the arc of developed and rapidly developing nations in East Asia. It is said the average Chinese man or woman saves half of what they earn, and it therefore does not surprise one to find China as a whole seems to save just as much.

Similarly, even after being developed for two generations (in the case of Japan) and for one generation (Singapore and South Korea), the people and the governments of these nations continue to uphold thriftiness as a virtue, and are among the greatest savers globally. There is a powerful correlation between communities and societies that save in order to invest, and sustained economic and social transformation.

As one would expect, individuals, communities and societies that do not save enough find it hard to grow wealth individually or collectively. Without individual savings, it is almost impossible to invest for a prosperous life and future. If we cannot save enough to meet our current and future needs as individuals, we have two choices. Forego any current and future improvements in our lives, or borrow to close the gap between what we have and what we need.


Both choices involve making sacrifices for now and developing a greater appetite for delayed gratification. While this has happened in many of the societies we now see as prosperous we as a society are not moving in that direction. In fact, a cursory reading of our media and social media indicates a decisive move away from the previous culture of thrift and deserved riches.

Instead, we are now treated to the emerging contemporary one of conspicuous consumption and instant gratification. Today’s youth are being told they only live once (which is true) and therefore they must aspire to live large, even if it means living beyond their means. Even those born and raised in the older culture have been lured by the contemporary one, so that living large and beyond our means in now the in-thing.

At the same time, we are also acutely aware that as a nation, our public savings and investment ratio is low, averaging 11-13 per cent in the last decade.

Just like the individual, without high national savings, it is almost impossible for that country to find sufficient resources to invest for a prosperous society and future unless it becomes an excessive borrower. The tale of Greece’s woes is an example of what happens when a society of poor savers borrows to live beyond its means – the individual and collective pain afterwards is virtually unbearable.

Knowing all of this, and being acutely aware of the need to re-inculcate the culture of thrift and delayed gratification in Kenya, what then should we do? For a start, it is time to once again respect and admire achievements arising from grit, thrift and modesty. Our heroes must become people who built and continue to build enduring businesses and other achievements by being ambitious, hardworking, farsighted, prudent and honest in their dealings.

The list of such illustrious people is not lacking, but we tend to ignore them these days. By replacing the current idolisation of socialites and hustlers with that of outstanding entrepreneurs and achievers in all fields of endeavour, we will once again sow into our children a desire to live within their means and prosper through their sweat and integrity when their turn comes to run the affairs of this society.

This will also help us inculcate a culture of prudence and austerity in the raising and spending of public resources.

Sam Mwale is a commentator on economic and public policy issues.