Africa Update for September 2019

Here’s the latest edition of my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got the Nigerian space program, trans-African highways, online therapy in Kenya, why the Sahara is bad for infant mortality, and more.

A long pier stretching out into the sea, viewed from aboveA stunning shot of Malindi pier by Peter Ndung’u

West Africa: In Cameroon, Anglophone separatists have been attacking children who attend government schools in an attempt to force the government to negotiate with them.  Political space is closing in Equatorial Guinea with the closure of a prominent human rights NGO.  Here’s a good background read on Equatorial Guinea’s oil-fueled politics.  In Nigeria, the descendants of enslaved people are still fighting for justice and social inclusion.  This was an interesting history of Nigeria’s space program.  Senegal’s sutura culture of privacy and modesty both constrains queer women and gives them space to pursue relationships.

Central Africa: Rwanda has lots of women in national decision-making positions, but their representation drops at more local levels of government.  In Uganda, paralegals are giving legal aid to trans people who have been arrested for not expressing a gender identity that matches their IDs.  Burundi has lost another independent media house with the forced closure of the BBC’s local bureau. The DRC’s dilapidated phone network briefly made it a hotspot for early mobile phone adoption in the 1990s.

A map showing that forced displacement in Africa is highest in Nigeria, Ethiopia, the DRC and SudanMap of forced displacement via the Africa Center

East Africa: This was an informative thread on the challenges of getting access to government IDs in Kenya.  In Nairobi, “informal housing” often includes multi-story apartment buildings, not just shacks.  One year after Eritrea’s peace agreement with Ethiopia, the borders are closed again and little domestic reform has occurred.  I didn’t know that one of Somalia’s major export products is dried lemons, mostly sent to the UAE for cleaning supplies.  Salaries for Somali army officers take up fully 20% of the country’s defense budget.

Southern Africa: South African has given women in customary marriages the right to inherit property.  Harare is running out of water.  3000 students in Mozambique are back in school after the government lifted a ban on pregnant people attending school.

3 trans african highwaysPerhaps one day we’ll be able to drive across the continent on completed highways (via Facts about Africa)

Economics: Six West African countries have committed to adopting a common currency, the eco, by 2020, but the underlying differences in their economies may make this difficult.  What can be done to get more investment flowing to local African entrepreneurs instead of expats?  This was an interesting long read about the state of the Nigerian banking sector.  Uganda’s high unemployment rates come from a lack of decent formal sector jobs, not low skilled job-seekers.  Here’s all you need to know about industrial policy in Kenya.

Health: In the DRC, high school students with Ebola have still found ways to take their final exams.  A corrupt procurement process left Kenyan hospitals saddled with expensive equipment they didn’t need, even as they were short of basic supplies.  Kenya’s national census is counting intersex people for the first time this year.  Wazi is a new online therapy program based in Kenya.  In Ghana, the national health insurance system is being undermined by the fact that the government rarely pays hospitals on time.  Less than half of Kampala’s toilet waste gets routed into water treatment facilities.

4 rose podcastRose Mutiso, Mawazo’s CEO, recording the introduction to the Nairobi Ideas Podcast

Environment: Check out the Mawazo Institute’s new Nairobi Ideas Podcast about African conservation leaders. Here’s how protecting Africa’s elephants could help to slow climate change.  These Kenyan activists successfully fought back against a plan to build a coal-fired power plant that the country didn’t really need.  Dust from the Sahara substantially increases infant mortality across West Africa, because small particulates damage babies’ lungs.

Arts + literature: Check out Dave Evans’ project to read one book from each African country this year.  African Storybook offers free downloads of kids’ books which are customizable in various African languages.  Don’t miss this new book on women’s activism in Africa.

An ad for the Macondo Literary Festival, which brings writers from Lusophone Africa and Brazil to Nairobi, from 27 - 29 SeptemberIf you’re in Nairobi later this month, don’t miss the Macondo Literary Festival!

Conferences + scholarships: Submit your papers on economics in Africa to the Centre for the Study of African Economies by October 18.  Here’s why all academic conferences should be in Ethiopia.  Apply to be a visiting fellow at the African Studies Centre Leiden.  The Ibrahim Leadership Fellowship gives young Africans the chance to work in various international organizations.  Chevening scholarships for MA study in the UK are open until November 5.  Female scientists in Africa should apply to Science by Women’s visiting fellows program in Spain by September 30.

15 ways to steal money from public infrastructure contracts in Kenya

A flat river passes in front of a distant range of hills on a cloudy day
The Kerio River, via Wikipedia

There’s recently been a spate of good investigative journalism about the Kimwarer and Arror dams scandals in Kenya.  These two dams were supposed to be built in the Kerio Valley in the west of the country, but after four years and nearly Ksh 20 billion / US$200 million spent, no progress has been made on either of them.  The resulting scandal has already taken down the top two officials at the Treasury.

At the Daily Nation, Nyambega Gisesa has a great listicle covering the top 15 tactics that officials and contractors used to fraudulently spend the project money.  (And no, none of them will surprise you.)  Click through to read the whole thing.

1. NEMA

  • The National Environment Management Authority (Nema) approved an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) which gave the nod for the projects yet there is no evidence that it was ever carried out. The environmental agency also ignored protests from other state agencies not to approve the projects.

2. NATIONAL TREASURY

  • Sh643 million was released by the National Treasury for the compensation and resettlement of people who would be affected by the said projects, yet there is no evidence that land has been acquired

5. CMC DI RAVENNA

  • Officials went ahead to award the contracts to CMC di Ravenna despite being aware that the firm was getting into voluntary liquidation back in Italy.

6. MEGA PROJECTS

  • CMC di Ravenna was awarded the contract despite being awarded three other mega projects that were either incomplete or yet to commence.

11. INSURANCE

  • Sh11 billion for insurance was paid upfront yet a government guarantee would have sufficed at no cost to taxpayers.

12. INTEREST LOAN

  • Sh4.6 billion was borrowed in addition to the principle amount to pay interest in advance during the construction period, which to date has not commenced. This means that the government borrowed a loan and later on borrowed another loan to pay the interest of the first loan.

Africa Update for July 2019

Here’s the latest edition of my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got the CAR’s only pediatric hospital, Zambian superheroes on Netflix, new books on medieval African history, the feminists of Cameroon, and more.

West Africa: Lagos alone accounts for 70% of Nigeria’s tax base.  Check out this reading list on Nigerian political history.  Here are 10 essential Nigerian recipes.  This was a great read about feminist organizing in response to the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon.  In response to increasing attacks by armed Islamist groups in Burkina Faso, the government has adopted a troubling policy of extrajudicially executing suspected sympathizers.

A map of protests in Africa, showing increased activity from 2007 to 2017
Protests in Africa, via ISS Africa

Central Africa: In the DRC, president Tshisekedi’s power continues to be constrained, with a majority of Cabinet seats going to ex-president Kabila’s coalition, and Kabila still living in the presidential villa. In Burundi, the ruling party has begun charging people a new “election tax” as often as they’d like to do so.

East Africa: This was a good profile of Hemedti, the former Janjaweed commandernow leading Sudan.  In South Sudan, decades of conflict has pushed most people away from growing their own food and towards purchasing it at markets.  I wrote about what traffic tickets can tell us about statebuilding in Kenya.  This was an interesting history of economic protectionism in Kenya.  A new Human Rights Watch report documents the disturbing record of extrajudicial killings by the Kenyan police.

lamu
A dhow off the coast of Kenya, by Khadija Farah

Southern Africa: So many Zimbabweans are trying to leave the country that the wait time for a passport is more than a year.  Netflix is launching its first original African animated series, about teenaged female superheroes living in Lusaka.  Congratulations to Botswana’s Gogontlejang Phaladi, who joined the ranks of great explorers by discovering a new body of water in Switzerland and naming it Letamo.

Public health: This is a remarkable story about the Central African Republic’s only pediatric hospital.  One of the coordinators of Liberia’s Ebola response team offers unconventional suggestions about incentivizing people to cooperate with Ebola vaccinators in the DRC.  The DRC is also one of the world’s largest quinine exporters, producing 30% of the world’s supply of the anti-malarial drug.  In South Africa, the urban environment in Johannesburg makes it difficult for women to get enough exercise.

aida muleneh
“Denkinesh: Part Two,” by Ethiopian photographer Aïda Muluneh

Research corner: Read about the challenging experience of being a female researcher in eastern DRC.  Check out TMC’s summer reading list on African politics, and this wonderful review of books on medieval African history.  Here’s what needed to improve the quality of research output at African universities.  Researchers in many African countries can get free online access to Taylor & Francis journals through their STAR program.  African students interested in a science PhD should apply to the RSIF PASET PhD scholarship program by July 22.

The arts: This is a great thread on affordable, contemporary architectural design across Africa.  Did you know that Bollywood films are huge in Somalia?  If you’re in Accra this summer, don’t miss the Accra Animation Film festival from July 27 – August 2.  African writers should apply to the Miles Morland writing fellowship by September 30.

A history of homebrewed alcohol in Nairobi

A large plot of houses made of tin, with rubbish on the ground in front of them
Houses in Mathare, via Wikipedia

I’ve written previously about the challenges of accessing justice, clean water, and other basic services in Nairobi’s Mathare neighborhood.  Now another insightful article about the area has come out, with Antony Adoyo, Jackob Omondi, Juliet Wanjira, and Naomi van Stapele’s account at Elephant of the critical role that homebrewed alcohol (or chang’aa) plays in the local economy.

The roots of the chang’aa economy go back to the colonial era.

 As early as the 1930s, women who settled in abandoned parts of the quarry that later came to be known as Mathare earned money through sex work and selling home-brewed alcohol such as busaa and chang’aa. The colonial capital Nairobi only allowed a limited number of ‘native’ bachelors living in designated housing facilities. This area was also wedged in by the Royal Airforce Eastleigh Base (currently known as Moi Air Base), an askari barrack, and a transit camp for the Kings African Rifles.

These women were among the many young people who were forced to leave their increasingly overcrowded homesteads in the ‘Native Reserves’ in the pre-WWII colonial period in search of work for cash to pay for hut tax, among other things. Even if women comprised the majority of residents in Mathare from the onset, men also increasingly came to live here. During the late 1930s, many of the rural-urban migrants also came from other illegalized squatter communities in the Rift Valley, where former farm workers had been displaced from European farms as a result of the gradual mechanization of farm work.

After independence in 1963, chang’aa distilling continued on a smaller scale.  Then the rapid urbanization of the 1990s caused it to expand:

It was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s that parts of Mathare gradually became the epicenter of the largescale production and distribution in Nairobi of chang’aa. According to several bar owners we spoke with, the influx of rural-urban migrants during this period boosted the selling of chang’aa to unprecedented levels. Demographic records and academic estimates vary greatly but it is safe to say that the population in Mathare rose from a few thousand during the colonial era to many tens of thousands between the 1960s and 1980s.

Today, the chang’aa distillers are regularly shaken down by the police for bribes, and risk having their equipment destroyed if they don’t pay up.  (Manufacturing chang’aa is legal, although basic sanitary standards must be met.  The penalty for not meeting them is supposed to be a fine rather than destruction of equipment.)

Shosho Kingi has distilled and sold alcohol for more than four decades and has raised her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren while doing so. The police had poured her kangara, the distilling mixture, which had been almost ready for cooking. Subsequently, she had lost 4500 shillings [US$45], her monthly earnings, and was left seriously in debt. Thousands of small business owners and their employees and tens of thousands of their dependents suffered the same fate. On Monday, all the jiko’s (‘kitchens’) near the river remained closed; no one could work while the police patrolled in search of alcohol and production tools to destroy.

There are very few other livelihood options in Mathare, which makes the regulation of chang’aa a serious economic issue for the area.

Are M-Pesa’s poverty reduction powers overstated?

A Kenyan woman stands in front of a green kiosk with the word MPesa prominently painted on it

Photo via Fiona Graham / World Remit

There’s been a bit of a stir on Kenyan Twitter lately about a new (and ungated) Review of African Political Economy article by Milford Bateman, Maren Duvendack, and Nicholas Loubere.  In it, they take on Tavneet Suri and William Jack’s claim in Science that the M-Pesa mobile money platform has led to reductions in poverty in Kenya by making it easier for people to access remittances from family and friends, and consequently giving them more money to start small businesses.

Writing at Developing Economics, Bateman et al. argue that Suri & Jack’s argument falls short in several ways.  First, informal microenterprises are rarely profitable.  In addition, there’s a question of general equilibrium effects:

Some of the purported gains made by M-Pesa clients inevitably come at the expense of existing microenterpriseswhich will contract, lose income, and possibly close. Moreover, the influx of new microenterprises has undoubtedly had negative knock-on effects for entire local economies, driving down already tiny profit margins and exacerbating hypercompetitive markets dominated by the poor acting as producers.

Second, M-Pesa facilitates not just remittances, but also borrowing.  More than 25% of Kenyans have taken out a loan through one of the many mobile money borrowing facilities available, and about half of those borrowers have struggled to make payments on time, according to a CGAP report.  There’s an implicit argument here that trapping poor people in debt is unethical, although it’s not obvious to me that cutting poor people off from credit is ethical either.

Third, Bateman et al. also question Suri & Jack’s methods, suggesting that the observed increased in wealth in areas with more M-Pesa agents is driven by clustering of agents in wealthier areas, rather than changes facilitated by access to M-Pesa.  I’m not as convinced by this.  Suri & Jack used panel data from 2008 – 2014 to measure the impact of M-Pesa expansion up until 2010.  They picked this cutoff date for M-Pesa because the distribution of agents up till that point (but not afterwards) wasn’t strongly correlated with local income levels.

My take on all of this is that I don’t think Suri & Jack have fundamentally misunderstood the economic effects of M-Pesa expansion.  However, I think the point about general equilibrium effects is an important one, and one that’s generally underdiscussed in the literature on microfinance and microenterprises.