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We must take charge of our environments

By Suleiman Shahbal | October 13th 2020

Environment Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko during a City clean-up exercise at the Michuki Memorial Park and enforcement action along Nairobi River. [File, Standard]

I am a product of Nairobi School, one of the few grand national schools then. We were the proud inheritors of a once grand institution that the British had built to emulate their aristocratic traditions and to create their own new aristocracy here.

But by the time I went to school the grand institution was on a rapid decline, a victim of budget cuts and indifferent school management. In my last year of high school, I was the Head of House and we were faced with even more budget cuts that essentially reduced the workforce by over 60 per cent. In no time at all, the toilets began to smell, weed had overgrown our house and garbage was littered all over the place.

One night I announced that we would be cleaning the toilets ourselves and that everyone must join in the exercise – failing which they would be welcome to go do their thing in the bush. I could hear the murmurs of discontent from the rich boy babies. We had children from rich families who still believed they were above us all. I announced that everyone, without exception, would be cleaning, then I announced the teams.

I was in the first team of cleaners. The next day, all the students waited to see if the head of the house would actually clean the toilets. At exactly 4.30pm, I led the first team in cleaning the toilets. All the discontent ended immediately. In no time, we had the cleanest house in the school. We took control of our destiny instead of allowing our environment to control us. It was an early lesson in leadership and personal responsibility.

Last week I picked a friend at his apartment block in Mombasa. In front of his apartment, a large pool of rainwater and sewage had accumulated, a product of burst pipes and a small ridge that had grown there. As I waited, a few kids were gingerly navigating the huge pool of rainwater and sewage. The stench was unbearable. On inquiring, I learnt that at least 50 people lived in the block.

I asked why the 50 people suffering from that drainage could not be bothered to cover the ridge and clear out the drainage and my friend started complaining about the inefficient county government. This is our problem. We are waiting for the government to come and solve all our problems. Keep waiting, the government is not coming. Like the kids in high school, it is time that we started taking responsibility for solving our own problems.

I once visited a wealthy banker living in Nariman Point in Mumbai. This is the Muthaiga of Mumbai where the who’s who of India live. You walk in a neighbourhood of million-dollar apartments but outside the apartments, the neighbourhood had gone to rot. They cannot be bothered to clean outside their apartments as if they don’t live there. They too are waiting for the government.

I have visited a number of schools in Mombasa and the state of toilets is pathetic. The stench is unbearable. Often, doors are missing and water stopped running years ago. Yet the headmasters, teachers and parents all seem oblivious of this. Because it’s our kids who have to use these toilets, the time has come that we must start involving the kids and parents in sorting out this problem. 

The teachers should organise teams to clean the toilets on a daily basis. They have to learn to take responsibility for their environment. Parents should be brought to school to help repair the doors. If we taught our children responsibility at a young age, then they would not be living in apartment blocks reeking of sewage, waiting for the government to come. We must take responsibility.

The strategy

I recall a conversation I had in Dubai with a leader in the private sector who told me they are discussing how to make their people and national assets more productive. What is interesting is that this initiative is being led by the private sector – not the government. The strategy is not rocket science. People’s productivity is improved by training and changing their mentality to know that they are the change. Asset productivity can be improved largely through privatisation or by linking compensation with performance.

Michael Porter wrote a great book called “The Competitive Advantage of Nations” and the major thesis is that countries that are endowed with natural resources are not necessarily the best performing. It is nations that create competitive advantages that are the most successful. Perhaps we should learn something from that. Let's acknowledge that we have to start by taking personal responsibility for what we can do and then push the government to do its bit.

Mr Shahbal is chairman of Gulf Group of Companies. [email protected]

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