Two years ago, my good friend and Gatundu South MP Moses Kuria told us, tongue in cheek, that his constituency’s main export to the rest of Kenya is “presidents” – an obvious reference to the fact that two of Kenya’s four Presidents (Jomo Kenyatta and Uhuru Kenyatta) have hailed from there.
But while this hyperbole can be a risky “black humour” in our ethnocentric settings, it brings to mind Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, who once said: “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest”.
Four events have convinced me that prioritising investment in ideas and great minds is Africa’s best hope for greater returns than any other resource or capital investments.
The first are the lessons from Kenya’s participation in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from August 5 to 21.
Although Kenya nominated a team of 50 athletes to the Rio 2016 Olympics, the participation of nearly 30 other athletes born (and some even raised) in Kenya representing and winning gold for their adopted nations has stoked a vexing debate in the public sphere.
Sparking the debate was the victory of Ruth Jebet, who won gold in the women’s 3,000 meters steeplechase for her adopted country of Bahrain, beating her former compatriots Hyvin Jepkemoi and Beatrice Chepkoech.
The debate is framed by a resurgent sensibility of Kenyan nationalism. Why are Kenyans running for other countries? Kenya is cast as a country caught up in “internal war” between its own athletes and its former citizens representing foreign countries rather than battling its traditional rivals like the Ethiopians. In this configuration former Kenyan athletes now thriving abroad are seen as “mercenaries” changing allegiance from their motherland to other countries in order to gain financial rewards. But the question is also asked: is Kenya investing enough in nurturing its nationhood?
Lack of patriotism, however, is hardly an explanation why Kenyans are running for their adopted countries. The real reasons are economic.
On a more pessimistic note, the increasing number of former Kenyans in the Olympics seems to suggest that the old problem of Africa’s brain drain to wealthier nations in earlier centuries is now overlaid with a new haemorrhaging of the continent’s best athletic talent in the age of globalisation. But a less cynical view is that the Rio 2016 Olympics reveal athletes as Kenya’s newest export to the world as its talents explore opportunities across the globalised world.
Some Kenyans are married abroad. Lucia Kimani, who represented Bosnia-Herzegovina in the women’s marathon, is married to a Bosnian man who is also her coach.
Others have prospered abroad and secured jobs that require them to be citizens. Two Kenyan-born and active-duty US soldiers, Shadrack Kipchirchir and Leonard Korir, who also represented the US in the Rio 2016 Olympics, joined the World Class Athlete Programme after successful college track careers. Three, access to training facilities not present in Kenya is a pull factor. Finally, others have used the opening global space to secure a chance to qualify and participate in the Olympics as competition for qualifying in Kenya has becomes a cutthroat affair.
The opening of athletic space abroad is providing meaningful self-realisation to talented Kenyan youth. Expectedly, these athletes are sending remittances to their families back home, and are better endowed as prospective “foreign” investors in the economy.
As number 16 in the world medal chart in Rio and currently top in Africa, Kenya is in the league of the world’s sports powers. Kenya should fund its nationalist project as part of its sports diplomacy and projection of soft power. There is no reason why gold medallists should not be full ambassadors and remunerated accordingly. The country must consciously and innovatively invest in its sports talents, including setting up world-class academies.
Second, on Friday, August 12, 2016, I was an expert consultant at a public forum of its own kind titled “The University We Want”, convened by James Mwangi, who is the chancellor of Meru University of Science and Technology and chief executive officer of Equity Bank, to chart the institution’s future as a centre of excellence in innovation and technology.
It emerged that two years ago, Dr Mwangi’s family had donated Sh100 million for building an incubation centre at the university, which was completed this year as the first phase of a Sh600 million facility to transform the university into the “MIT of Africa”.
One might have wondered why Dr Mwangi did not think of investing that colossal amount in the Murang’a University College of Science and Technology in his native Murang’a County. Then came his message to the Meru elite: “Let the butterfly free to fly and show its colours!” The message is clear: universities should be international centres of excellence not enclaves of ethnonationalism that most of them are now.
The third example on investing in ideas, skills and knowledge comes from Cuba where Kenya recently sent a delegation to learn a lesson or two on how to revive Kenya’s ailing sugar industry.
The delegation, which included the Meru County Senator, Kiraitu Murungi, was shocked to find that Cuba had shut down 71 of its 156 sugar mills, and assigned 14 others to produce sugar derivatives. It had also done away with its Ministry of Sugar that supported the production of 8 million tonnes of sugar before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead, it was retraining its former sugarcane workers as doctors and engineers, convinced that it is easier and more rewarding to export human skills than sugar.
Finally, this week, I was hosted by the new United Nations Country Resident Representative in Nairobi, Mr Siddharth Chatterjee, who co-published a powerful article titled “Countering Violent Extremism — Put Youth at the Centre of the Narrative” in the The WorldPost on May 14, 2015.
In a nutshell, Charterjee’s argument is simple: with Kenya having one of the youngest populations in the world today, its choices are clear. It can either maximise on the potential of the youth for economic and social progress or face the risk of the youth bulge becoming its worst disaster and targets of radicalisation and violent extremism.
The message from Rio is that in our globalised world, funding innovative ideas, knowledge and skills is Africa’s best chance of turning the youth bulge into a demographic dividend.
Prof Kagwanja is the chief executive of the Africa Policy Institute.