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Too much ado about conferences

By Tania Ngima | August 30th 2016

The Global Entrepreneurship Summit, US President Barack Obama’s visit, Pope Francis’ visit, the World Trade Organisation Ministerial Conference, UNCTAD, TICAD – the list goes on.

There is no doubt that Nairobi and indeed the country has received a significant vote of confidence contrary to the panic caused by terrorism and that tourism is set to see a boon. This is timely given the downside that has been experienced in the sector in the recent past.

Sometimes, in the midst of all the injustices we are suffering at the hands of larceny and poor leadership, we forget to acknowledge how instrumental our country is as one of the strategic entry points into the continent. There is a certain amount of national ego that comes with seeing countries vying against each other to align themselves with your nation.

For me, this is a breath of fresh air given that we just embarrassed ourselves at the 2016 Olympics with the scandals that besieged us in Rio.

But the reason I point out that it is not all doom and gloom is to emphasize that whatever critique I henceforth lob at the recent spate of events comes from a very objective place and is not just criticism for the sake of criticism.

There is a reason why so much frustration accompanies the multi-day conferences that the city has been hosting over the last few months.

From the logistical nightmare of road closures and inability to access certain parts of the city to the traffic that accompanies these events, the irritation is only likely to grow.

Granted, we are not the most disciplined road users, we lack basic motorway courtesy and we have a tendency to exacerbate already messy traffic situations. And lately it seems that the majority of lights around the central business district, for some inexplicable reason, have been shut down, the pointless yellow boxes have lived up to their impractical prophesy and we are back to being subjected to the whims of traffic police.

But away from the forecast costs of sitting in traffic for hours on end, there is an equal, if not bigger, concern revolving around how we are handling our new-found fame as a conference destination. Let’s take the example of hotels.

While it may appear that tourism is getting an immediate boon, in the short-term most of the gains are skewed in favour of accommodation in or around Nairobi, given that all the events are being held in the city.

While there may be transport or other infrastructure challenges preventing having these in other counties, I honestly do not think enough is being done to encourage decentralisation of Nairobi as the only alternative for large congregations.

The impact of reduced traffic and an effort towards developing other cities in the country by upgrading existing facilities would be felt in the longer term.

And while some of the international guests coming in for conferences have the opportunity to return in the future after their initial positive experiences, immediate spillover to the rest of the tourist attractions outside Nairobi is scanty and may or may not increase significantly in the long term.

It is no wonder then that international chains with financial muscles are literally falling over themselves to set up shop in and around the CBD.

However, the costs are too prohibitive for locals who are in the industry but cannot afford a couple billion dollars, leave alone afford to keep their farther situated resorts running. Secondly, it is claimed of, say the Sh250m (UNCTAD) or Sh600m (TICAD), the benefits will by far outweigh the costs. The only problem with these assertions is that while it is possible to calculate the cost to the country (taxpayers’ funds) it is much harder to even estimate how much of the benefit actually trickles down to the larger Kenyan populace.

And when I say Kenyan populace I do not mean the political elite who will position their firms as business partners, the inner circle who seem to benefit from all the lucrative contracts to supply services during and after the events or the tenderpreneurs who are benefactors of present and future engagements. I hear they are now referred to as the inner cartel.

If we are to be expected to suffer in silence every few months while our lives are disrupted significantly and our taxes pay to host international visitors, then should we not expect that the benefits trickle down to us to a very significant level? I could be wrong on this and I stand to be corrected.

For the half a dozen events or so events we have hosted, does anyone have an assessment of how the benefits can be measured or how they will impact the population past the inner circle of power and influence?

From listening to the experiences of entrepreneurs who have tried, unsuccessfully, to reap from what is being portended as the gains of having these events in our backyard because they don’t know the right people; to getting stuck in traffic for hours on end; to seeing even more agreements being signed that will continue to enrich the inner circle; how can we not be frustrated?

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