In former US President Barack Obama’s seminal autobiography, 'Dreams from My Father', the profundity of Obama Senior’s influence over his son is revealed. An excerpt from the book tells of a time when the older Obama was confronted by racists in a pub. Rather than cower in the face of bigotry, he walked over to them and proceeded to give a lecture on the folly of their ways. At the end of it all, everyone in the bar was clamouring to buy Obama a beer. It is this confidence that Obama Senior appears to have bequeathed his son.
The senior Obama's confidence stemmed from excellence in school and an anticipation of Kenya’s independence in 1963. It was expected that the educated would take over the political and economic reigns of the country. Then, national confidence was predicated on hope for better prospects.
But the situation in Kenya is different today. There is low public expectation. National elections come and somehow fail to deliver the respite sorely needed. Fundamental drivers of the economy - the poor and middle classes - remain a despondent lot. When one impoverishes these classes, they undermine democracy itself.
However, not all hope is lost. Despite corruption, a lot has been achieved in Kenya. But we still have a long way to go before we can take our place at the table of fully industrialised countries. One step towards this end is to learn from countries that have gone before us, such as Turkey. Geographically, it straddles Europe and Asia. Culturally, it has Arabic and European influence. Islam is the dominant religion but there is freedom of worship.
Twenty years ago, Turkey was regarded as the “sick man of Europe.” At that time, her challenges were identical to those prevalent in most African countries today. Infrastructure was dilapidated and inadequate. Electricity supply was expensive and erratic, especially during winter. Water supply was often contaminated with sewerage and hotels had signs admonishing guests not to drink tap water. The local currency, the lira, was exchanged in terms of millions to the dollar. Today, Turkey has overcome all these challenges and is currently the 13th biggest economy in the world.
Kenya can follow the same trajectory to grow her economy. One step would be to stop depending on poor decisions by Government. Some of these have led to the cost of electricity getting prohibitively high. Others have seen private solutions to public challenges such as illegally or poorly constructed dams and water pans. The recent Patel Dam tragedy in Solai, Nakuru County, is symptomatic of a failure to provide adequate water, which is a basic human right.
The next step would be to transform our economy to be more export oriented. In addition to the traditional markets of the West, Turkey offers an additional outlet for our tea, coffee, flowers, beef and a potential for high net-worth tourists.
Last, corruption in Kenya must be dealt with decisively. It must be called out for what it is. There should be no more factual distortions to gloss over the misdeeds of those who cause jarring hardship to the citizenry.
Nor should corruption be phrased delicately to avoid offending the sensibilities of those in power. The Government has been supine in the face of corruption. This must change for the people to begin to trust it.
The Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI) has been at the forefront of making trade overtures to Turkey. Its delegation to Bursa, Istanbul and Konya recently extolled the advantages of doing business in Kenya. Among the things negotiated were the need for preferential treatment for a reduction of taxes from the current 185 per cent. Also discussed were the possibilities of direct shipment of Kenyan produce to avoid the logistical challenges of trans-shipment.
Clearly, the Government ought to work closely with KNCCI, with its networks in 130 countries. There is empirical evidence that governments that work closely with Chamber networks do very well and develop faster. Examples are Dubai, Singapore, Malaysia and India, where exponential economic growth has been achieved with the help of Chamber activities.
The KNCCI is making a bid to hold the World Chamber Congress in Kenya in 2021. If it is to be successful, it would put Kenya firmly in the international trade spotlight. Turkey holds two votes. KNCCI has secured both. In addition, the Turks have helped us secure Belgium. Turkey has shown that it has confidence in us. It is high time we started having confidence in ourselves!