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Key economic lessons from colonial era we can build on

By X N Iraki | June 5th 2018
President Uhuru Kenyattaduring the Madaraka Day Celebrations, 2018 at Kinoru Stadium, Meru County

Fifty-five years ago, Jomo Kenyatta became the prime minister of Kenya with the Queen of England as the head of State.

A vast majority of Kenyans, including yours truly, were not born then. Such events are slowly fading into the fog of history.

It is hard for them to visualise the fight for freedom, smoke emanating from the hills as a prelude to independence and the Britons heading every institution in the country from schools to the police force and even businesses. Colonial titles used to address the whites such as Bwana and Memsahib are long forgotten.

In 55 years, the British legacy has been gradually eroded except for such relics as the English language and Christianity. The former colonisers, however, have regained some sense of influence in recent years with the English Premier League - which in my view is not really English if you factor in the nationalities of key players - gaining popularity.

Scanned copy

Other colonial legacies such as old buildings still dot the former white highlands, but most of which are in a sorry state.

Some have been converted into schools or public clinics. Their sheer size and elegance at times makes me think the Britons were here to stay.

How was the economy 55 years ago? 

A sneak peek into the statistical abstract published in 1960 just before independence captures the economic events of 1959. It is available on the website of Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS). The scanned copy was owned by J Tyrell and has a stamp of the National Bureau of Statistics.

In the introduction, the beauty of this country is extolled.  “There can be few countries of comparable size which contain such a variety of scenery, of climate, of people, and of types of economic and social development,” says the document in part.

The rest of it gives data on land and climate, perhaps underscoring the centrality of agriculture to the Kenyan economy.

Some comments therein stand out: “More than half the total land area of Kenya consists of unsurveyed crown land, mainly desert or semi-desert in the northern frontier district; 126,000 square miles are considered to be of little use economically.”  Have we made economic use of this land, like California in the US?

The next section is on the constitution and analysis of its membership. Lyttelton Constitution of 1954 and Lennox-Boyd Constitution of 1958 are highlighted. The legislature by 1959 had 65 elected members and 12 ministers. It seems colour mattered with reference to Europeans, Asians and Arabs. 

The wind of change was blowing with the coming of the Lancaster Conference that negotiated the framework for independence. There is a mention of East African Commission, formed in 1948, a precursor to the East African Community (EAC). 

Some of the services ran by this outfit included railways and harbours, post and telecommunications, customs and excise, income tax, scientific, economic and advisory, agriculture, and forestry research. 

One wishes such institutions were strengthened after independence. EAC broke up in 1977 before its revival in 1999. 

The abstract has a section on the population that I found quite surprising. It reports that the 1948 census recorded 87 tribes. How did they become 44 today?  The report estimates the population of Kenya was 6.45 million in 1959.  

Nairobi by 1957 had approximately 222,000 people made up of 115,000 Africans, 22,000 Europeans and 85,000 Asians.

The report notes a decrease in the number of immigrants to Kenya in the previous year, a trend that has persisted since 1955. Curiously, there is no mention of Mau Mau as the probable cause. 

On external trade, Kenya relied on the Commonwealth for exports and imports. But increased trade with Western Germany, the United States of America and Japan is noted.  Did these nations strategically plan for the post-independence period? On transport, the railway was still the king. Kenya had about 77,000 cars compared with almost two million today.

In agriculture, coffee was the main crop. Sisal by then was a major export in addition to tea.

The country exported livestock to the Arabian Peninsula. Mining was an important economic activity with cement, soda ash, copper from Macalder in Nyanza and silver and gold being mentioned too. What happened to these exports?  

Other highlights include trade and commerce, building activity, and a proposal by the Shell Group to build an oil refinery. The report also covers banking and public finance. Incomes and the cost of living are highlighted, with that of Nairobi having gone up by less one per cent at the time. Food carried two-thirds of the total weight in the cost of living index. A curious foodstuff called posho is mentioned in the report. What is it, anyone?

Employment is reported at 40 per cent, majorly in the agriculture sector while the minimum wage is said to be town-specific. At the time, there was a minimum wage for the youth. 

The abstract goes to show that in 55 years, we have achieved quite a lot as a country. We did not have Internet, M-Pesa and mobile phones while cars were crude and simple contraptions.

Having marked the 55th Madaraka Day last week, we need to think of Kenya in the next 50 years and avoid dwelling on the current achievement. Let us keep driving into the future.

The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi.

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