“You cannot grow an economy on mitumba, matatu and boda boda,” a former presidential candidate once told me.
“You see,” he persuaded me, “these ones largely live hand-to-mouth and little is left to save or pass around at end of the day.”
His thesis was that an outward-looking economy that focused more on finished goods for export and a revamped tourism offers the best route out of economic stagnation. A Special Report in The Standard last week brought out glaring differences between the reign of President Mwai Kibaki and the Jubilee administration: the difference is all in the jobs.
Though Uhuru’s numbers are higher; Kibaki created more white-collar jobs, Uhuru, more blue-collar jobs. This irony was not lost with Deputy President William Ruto and Housing PS Charles Hinga doing so much to outwit each other in the last few weeks.
Dr Ruto, the self-styled hustler, donated car-wash equipment, salon dryers and even a matatu to various youth groups while Mr Hinga inundated his followers on Tweeter with pictures of hordes of youth taking part in the Kazi Mtaani fashioned as a cushion for casual workers unable to get work as the economy grinds to a halt in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. His “before and after” pictures – from all over the country- echoed a fashion TV series.
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The cynics were quick to point out the folly of engaging in gimmicks akin to those in Ancient Rome where the rulers entertained the masses with breadcrumbs and a dose of circus.
Perhaps the cynics were right this time. What Ruto and the good PS were doing offered the usual tried-and-tested solutions.
Gavin Kitching, a British author and professor of Social Sciences and International Relations at the University of New South Wales says those who go into the informal sector have a worse option.
At the elections in 2013, President Uhuru Kenyatta sold transformation as his main agenda. He must find it hard when voters exclaim that that promise has not been kept. Public finance is a mess with corruption, leakages, wastage (in seminars and benchmarking trips) rampant and the pervasive old boy network.
The economy is still under the choking grip of a select few.
What Kenya needed most besides robust institutions and sound leadership to drive the desired transformation was the reengineering of the politics and the economy to make it people-focused. None of the above has been attained.
Governments exist to provide a social protection to those whom they govern. Without that as is seemingly the case here, poverty will rise as more people fall into the informal sector and most move to back to tilling land.
The elephant in the room is that Jubilee - in which Hinga and Ruto serve - has throttled meaningful social, political and economic change and hence the imbroglio it finds itself.
So there is a stark realisation there is so much to do with the little time in their hands. The dearth of realpolitik coupled with the diminishing status of a second-term president is clouding the issues and perhaps the reason for the frenzied activity.
Good roads to take farm produce to the market; cheap and reliable electricity, clean water and sanitation; cheap and modern education; affordable healthcare; decent wages; access to credit and finance would surely make a great deal of difference. At the least it would make it easy to give real jobs to the youth.
Complemented by sound leadership, good governance and the rule of law and you are in nirvana.
Yet most of the above remain Work-In-Progress.
Ironically, though the GDP has expanded significantly, jobs have become scarce even as firms lay-off to stay afloat. Translated, that means aggregate production has reduced. Is this then a case of badly designed policies?
By any measure, the short and long term look grim. The chance of those who fall off the job’s wagon getting another one soon is slim. And as many become jobless, many of those who offer services like cleaning and minding babies in middle income neighbourhoods will lose their jobs and Dr Ruto and Mr Hinga will realise that they can’t cope up with the swelling numbers.
Kenya’s fate was doomed by harsh conditions that torpedoed the floriculture sector and derailed tourism. Alone, these sectors offered real returns in terms of jobs and hard currency.
Deliberate efforts must be taken to ensure these and factories and corporates stay open even if it means paying companies to keep people at work as is happening elsewhere. There is a guaranteed trickle-down effect.
Else, Mr Hinga could soon discover that a new German-made machine is on the ground clearing the thicket and unclogging the blocked drainage. That will be his (and Kenya’s) loss.
-Mr Kemboi is The Standard Associate Editor for Partnerships and Projects. [email protected]