The snake in the room

Monday January 11 2016

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Supposing you walk into your house and find a large cobra in the house. What will you do?

Many people will not go to bed in that house until they deal with the snake.

Others will seek help from the neighbours to deal with the serpent.

Some will even call the police, while those who know will call in the Kenya Wildlife Service.

Generally, no one will want to focus on any other matter as long as the snake is in the room.

If we took poverty and unemployment as analogous to the snake in our country, we shall perhaps focus more on these twin problems as if they were the real snake in our house.

This snake in our midst is threatening to tear down many African economies.

But we are not taking any urgent steps to deal with it. Simple logic and the imperatives of survival dictate that we at least make an attempt to kill the snake before we move on with any other agenda.

My work with the youth over the past three years led me to believe that collectively, we should effectively deal with this snake of poverty and unemployment as a matter of urgency, just like the Europeans did at the start of the industrial revolution in the 17th century.


Indeed, we can take a script from that period and set off the fourth industrial revolution.

First was the fact that the Europeans were fed up with poverty and wanted out. To achieve this, they wanted sustained economic growth.

Economists say that the immediate impact of the industrial revolution was that the standard of living for the general population began to increase consistently for the first time in history.

In the same period, Britain was going through an agricultural revolution, which also led to improved standards of living.

Circumstances forced the Europeans to think differently and set off a revolution that spread throughout the World.

William and Kenneth Hoper, two brothers who authored The Puritan Gift: Triumph, Collapse and Revival of an American Dream, detail the competition that existed between Britain and America.

If a locksmith in London came up with a new locking system, an American would come up with an improved version.

This series of innovations brought the greatest change and spread through to Japan.

The Hopper brothers believe that the sustained, healthy development of a work environment is a product of spiritual and historical traditions.
In other words, a value system must underpin development if we must succeed.


From this brief on past industrial revolution, you can see that we have problems that we must deal with before we start dealing with the snake in the room.

Top of the agenda is that we must spur our anger at the snake that is in our room. It is the anger that will drive us to get rid of it.

Our problem is that we are not angry enough to create a life-changing revolution like other parts of the world.

Instead, a majority of Kenyans are made to believe that they are entitled to some livelihood that they do not have to work for.

A few handouts from the political class numb us into hoping that something is in the works to change our lives for the better.

The fact is that it has never changed since independence. We are still complaining about poverty, ignorance and disease, the same things our founding fathers sought to eliminate.

We waste most of our time dwelling on non-issues or issues that are totally irrelevant.

Take, for example, the school fees issue that has engulfed the entire country.

In fact, the Ministry of education can issue a policy statement stating simply that no child should be expelled for not paying extra fees beyond the fees in the Gazette notice. You will never hear of this issue again.


We should spend time talking about adequate funding that is critical to improved learning in schools.

At Kenya High School, where I served as chairman of the Parents Teachers Association, we ensured that no child was expelled for not paying fees.

Instead, we raised funds to maintain the standards. Most poor students, some of whom could not afford any form of fees, benefited from the initiative that ensured both equality of opportunity and quality education.

Any economist will tell you the consequences of forcing the price downwards, especially when we do not know the actual cost of effectively educating a child.

It will disenfranchise the entire education system by bringing down some of the schools that already offer quality education.

It may even lead to black marketeering in education where rich parents will pay teachers separately to ensure their children get the best of the education.

If we focus on dealing with funding of education, the government may see sense in consolidating resources from areas like the Constituency Development Fund, the Presidential Bursary Scheme, which the president recently said has over Sh400 million, and other bursaries to adequately fund our education.


Indeed, MPs should not be handling any resources that can be directly appropriated into the education budget.

Our problem is not the fees we pay but how the government is allocating resources and its failure to deal with poverty. Making hapless headteachers villains of our failures really defeats logic.

Kenya today is such that virtually all policymakers have their children in private schools and truly have no sense of what it takes to educate a child in public schools.

In any case, we would not be talking about school fees if we dealt with poverty. Parents would have enough to pay school fees. Poverty is indeed the snake biting us. We just don’t want to kill it.

If we spent more time discussing how to deal with poverty, chances are we would begin to see changes.

If the media, for example, spent less time on politics and more time on ways of dealing with poverty, there would be a significant income shift for the better.

This is true because every Saturday, two of the major publications cover opportunities in agriculture and in the process create unprecedented inspiration in agriculture in this country.


Similarly, media should create the same inspiration in value addition of the agricultural products and set of a new industrial revolution.

The media in 17th century Europe and US played a key role in the promotion of new innovations but also helped create necessary social networks that were critical to the success of the revolution. This is what Benedict Anderson refers to as “print capitalism” in his book The Imagined Community.

Ted Zervas, in an article on the Industrial revolution published On in the US, says, “Small local newspapers and mass-produced papers of large cities were important outlets for social networking during the Industrial Revolution.

"Newspapers not only reflected the pluralism of American society, but they also helped foster communication and debate among network participants by presenting various interests and perspectives.”

With the current social media revolution, it is a million times easier to promote a product among friends than it was in the 17th century.
Instead, we are using this powerful tool to gossip.


The people in your WhatsApp group could be turned into formidable consumers of new products, starting with new simple recipes of making anything from soup to soap.

Take, for example, the Gates research on sweet potato that is used to make gluten-free bread.

For centuries, we have viewed potatoes as the staple in a poor people’s diet. We even feed them to cows.

However, with simple research, it has been converted into a rich people’s product with a premium price.

There are more than 1,000 other agricultural value-added products.

In the next several blog posts, I will concentrate on the how we can possibly kill this poverty snake that is smack in the middle of the room.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School.