What Kenya can learn from Germany's social economy

Canals in Hamburg, Germany. [X N Iraki]

If you went through the old A-level system and studied geography, you should remember a topic on Germany’s industrialisation.

Remember the Ruhr region and the Rhine River? Without videos and TV, it was hard to visualise what this region looked like.

All dreams are valid. After decades, I have finally visited this region, landing in Düsseldorf with a view of the Rhine River that empties its waters into the North Sea. The first surprise was a hotel called “Maritim.” A very Rift Valley name.

A 30-minute drive took me to Essen, the once-industrial city by the Ruhr River - a tributary of the Rhine.

It’s now in the post-industrial age with lots of heavy industries like steel having shifted to other countries. Services are filling the void.

We visited FON University which has taken online learning to another level with teaching studios that rival TV and radio studios. 

It was sentimental living in a hotel built in 1883. The Germans seem to put lots of effort to preserve old buildings with the date the building was constructed prominently displayed. New buildings rhyme with the old. We prefer to tear the old buildings down. This is against our tradition of respecting “elders.”

My next destination was Hamburg. A three-hour train journey at a speed of 200km per hour. With its canals and port, Hamburg is a wealthy city.

While in Kenya the wealthy live in the leafy suburbs or the ranches close to nature, in Hamburg they live by the canals. A boat ride reveals the beauty of this Hanseatic city.

A few other observations kept me awake as winter cold starts setting in and trees change their colours and shed leaves, that’s why the season is called fall. One is the diversity of German society. In one day I met a Serbian, a Gambian, an Afghan, a Chinese, an Albanian, a Turk, a Ghanaian, an Iranian and an Iraqi, among other nationalities. Germany because of its big economy has naturally attracted immigrants seeking jobs.

And you see them working in restaurants, taxis and other places. The other noticeable effect of immigration is the cuisine which seems heavily influenced by Eastern Europe.

And politics where AfD (Alternative for Germany), a far-right political party that has been anti-immigration.

That has not stopped American firms like Subway, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s from coming ashore.

I long for the day I shall find our cuisine abroad from muthokoi, kimanga, mukimo and matoke. Who told us the world would not be excited by our exotic food? How did the Chinese and Ethiopians crack the market?

But the immigrants do not seem to have had the same effect on German politics as seen in the UK or US.

I do not think we shall soon have a Barrack Obama or a Rishi Sunak in Germany. Two is the use of the railway, both for long-distance and urban transport. Hamburg has a very elaborate underground train or subway.

If not underground, it’s raised like some sections of the standard gauge railway (SGR) or the expressway.

Rail, despite its ties to history still remains one of the most efficient means of transport, particularly in an urban setting.

Like Americans, we are too attached to cars but lack the expansive land that makes it easy to use cars. Which bus can compete with a train?

Three, Europe seems to have given capitalism a human face. Finding shopping centres and malls closing at 8pm looks very unAmerican and their 24-four-hour services.

 Reduce travelling

I found shops opening at 10.00am and closing at 8.00pm in Germany. It seems we work too hard without getting rich! Or did Germans work till they realised they need a rest?

Four is the focus on sustainability. There are efforts to reduce travelling so that most goods and services are available within your locality.

That reduces carbon footprints and leads to healthy people, they walk instead of driving. Apartment blocks in the city centre focus on this concept. And from their food to just casual observation, Germans look healthier than another nationality which I shall leave anonymous.

Five is freedom. Whatever time of the day or night, you feel free to visit or even walk around. The fear of being mugged or conned is minimal. The heavy police presence in Nairobi is absent in German cities, and technology works.

That freedom is found in the school curriculum which focuses on students’ interests and competencies, not just the content.

Let’s add that citizens are more productive, and make a greater contribution to the economy.

Think of the money wasted in Kenya building walls around houses, hiring guards and making metallic window grills.

We even have walls around police stations and military barracks in Kenya. This siege mentality is not good for the economy.

Six, the media reports and reality are different. The Ukraine war might make you think Europe is at a standstill. But life goes on.

Except for gas prices nothing makes you think there is war in Eastern Europe with economic spillovers into Western Europe.

Seven is the use of technology everywhere. Taxis have meters, you are not randomly charged, bathing water temperature is controlled, you have no cashiers in fast food restaurants, and cards give you access to lifts and hotel rooms.

These countries seem to be out to leverage technology while we resist it. Technology is more than a mobile phone.

Eight is the uniformity of European countries. Once you have been to one, you have been to many.

The rail, old well-preserved buildings, farmlands, unique cuisines, order, no dust, silence and focus on own business or is it individualism? Nine, what really matters to the citizens is the improvement in standards of living.

You see that in Europe. In Kenya, we talk too much and let political fog crowd everything.

Why is there so much focus on who will be the next CS or PS and not what they will do or where jobs for the rest of the Kenyans will come from?

Ten, a visit to a developed country leaves me wondering who we should benchmark within our quest for growth. Is it Europe, the UK, the US or the east - read China or Japan? 

The author is on an academic pilgrimage in Germany.

While all these countries may appear the same to an outsider, they have their distinct cultures and uniqueness. We can never be Germans or Chinese.

We should define “Kenyaness” and then use it as the anchor as we get the best practices from these regions without reinventing the wheel. After 60 years of Uhuru, we should have coalesced into a confident nation ready to make up for the lost time. Two peaceful elections leave no doubt we are coming of age.

I hope in my lifetime, our grandchildren will reach a stage of development comparable to any developed country but with lessons from their mistakes. If you live in these countries, you will soon find they also have their soft underbellies.

The author is on an academic pilgrimage in Germany.