Africa Update for December 2019

Welcome to the latest edition of Africa Update!  We’ve got the competitive rollerbladers of eastern DRC, the Nairobi governor’s prison break, African women on boards, the health threats of kids’ facepaint in Uganda, and more.

West Africa: This was a wild story about a Nigerian sailor who got hijacked by pirates, forced to work for them, and then arrested for piracy himself.  Older Nigerians find WhatsApp easier to use than other social media or internet platforms, but it also leaves them less able to check on false news before spreading it.  The Senegal-Mali railway line has slowly been falling into ruin, with workers showing up though they haven’t been paid for nearly a year.  An ECOWAS court has ruled that Sierra Leone must stop kicking pregnant students out of school.

Central Africa: Meet the competitive rollerbladers of eastern DRC.  In Burundi, the president continues to consolidate his power and crack down on civic space.  Qatar Airways has acquired a 60% stake in Rwanda’s planned new international airport.  Agro-processing accounts for almost 70% of Uganda’s manufacturing sector, but many factories are still sitting idle.

A mural of a colorful blue and pink face on a cement wall
Art at the Nairobi Railway Museum, via Nanjala Nyabola

East Africa: This piece debunks a lot of harmful stereotypes about northern Kenya.  The leading Janjaweed commander in Sudan exported almost a ton of gold to Dubai in a single month in 2018.  South Sudan has stopped paying civil servants but is still spending lavishly on the military and perks for MPs. Here’s some useful background on ethnic politics in Ethiopia.  Somalia’s president is stacking the deck to get re-elected in 2020.

Governance in Kenya: The Kenyan Red Cross collected almost US$10 million after a 2011 famine, but a new investigation shows that most of the money never reached the victims.  The governor of Nairobi is in trouble for failing to disclose that he escaped from prison in 1998.  Kenya may be losing up to 1/3 of its national budget to corruption every year.

Southern Africa: In South Africa, climate change protests often discuss environmentalism as an individual responsibility rather than a need to rethink the structure of the economy.  Private CCTV networks are creating a new type of racial apartheid in South Africa.  This was an insightful illustrated guide to Zimbabwe’s ongoing currency crisis.  In Mozambique, kids as young as four are forced to mine mica, which is used in electronics and makeup.

A graph showing the gender and national breakdown of startup founders in Africa
Women are still substantially underrepresented as start-up founders across Africa, according to Forbes

Human rights: A militia leader in eastern DRC was convicted of war crimes less than two years after they occurred, in an unusually rapid turnaround for the Congolese courts.  On Congo’s palm oil plantations, workers are consistently being exposed to toxic chemicals.  Who is policing the police in Kenya?

Politics + economics: Here’s an insightful overview of the state of judicial systems in West Africa. I’m looking forward to reading this new book on the politics of social protection in Eastern and Southern Africa.  A new study shows that giving cash transfers to families in Kenya is very good for the local economy and doesn’t lead to inflation.  Tullow Oil has seen its stock price crash after problems with its oil investments in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda.  Jumia has pulled out of Tanzania, Cameroon and Rwanda in the last few weeks.

Environment:  In northern Uganda, conflict is leading to deforestation.  But are movements to plant more trees in Africa to fight climate change just a new kind of colonialism?  In Ghana, fisheries observers are facing threats for reporting illegal fishing by Chinese trawlers.  Read about how four African mega-cities are adapting to climate change.

Lake Malawi, with a large mountain in the background
Scenic Lake Malawi, from Kim Yi Dionne

Health: Most African countries still haven’t banned lead paint, leading to concerns that kids are being exposed at home and via facepainting.  Burkina Faso has a controversial new plan to wipe out malaria by sterilizing mosquitos.  In Zimbabwe, doctors are striking over missing medical supplies and inflation which has wiped out their salaries.  Millions of unsafe abortions are performed annually in Nigeria, where the procedure is illegal in most circumstances.

Gender: TheBoardroom Africa is connecting African women with corporate and non-profit board positions.  Kenya’s national homicide data doesn’t list the gender of victims, but one MA student is working to change that.  Many African countries have laws which protect women and children, but don’t address the specific risks faced by young girls.  These were moving ethnographic interviews with women doing sex work in Uganda.

Education: Check out this review of research on African education by scholars based in Africa.  A Nigerian effort to make Igbo an official language of instruction is running into opposition from parents and students, who feel that English and Pidgin are better languages for business.

 

A portrait of a young woman on a colorful pink and purple background
I’m loving Kenyan-French artist Evans Mbugua’s colorful portraits

Research roundup: The latest round of Afrobarometer data is out, for all your opinion polling needs.  The British Journal of Political Science has ungated a selection of articles on African politics until the end of December 2019.  The Africa Science Desk has an open call for scientific journalism.  What does impact evaluation capacity look like across Africa?  I agree that the African Studies Association of Africa should get to be the main “African Studies Association,” and the existing ASA should be renamed “African Studies Association of America”!

Art + literature: Did you know that Nando’s is the biggest collector of South African art? Here’s a great interview with the founder of Bakwa, Cameroon’s first literary magazine.  The Nigerian publisher Cassava Republic has a new grant for publishing in local African languages.  Read about the history of Hausa feminist literature in Nigeria.  Nairobi has a vibrant literary house party scene.  Check out this open access sound archive of Nairobi.

Africa Update for November 2019

Here’s the latest edition of Africa Update.  We’ve got a new metro system in Abidjan, culinary imperialism in Kenya, plans to refill Lake Chad with a giant canal, how hospitals in Malawi are getting men to do more housework, and more.

A view of Nairobi with Karura Forest in the foreground

A stunning view of Nairobi, via Kenyapics

West Africa: Follow 5 young Nigerian journalists as they travel across 14 West African countries along the Jollof Road.  In Nigeria, former members of Boko Haram and ISIS trafficking survivors have found it very difficult to re-integrate into civilian society.  Hundreds of children, some as young as 5, have been arrested by the Nigerian police on suspicion of involvement with Boko Haram.  Abidjan is getting a metro system.  A new policy that lets cocoa farmers plant in “degraded” forests could lead to widespread deforestation in Côte d’Ivoire.  This is a great resource on the history of West Africa at a glance.

Central Africa:  This was a thoughtful piece about breaking the cycle of motorcycle theft and violent retribution in the CAR.  Members of opposition parties are regularly being killed in Rwanda, although no one wants to point a finger directly at the government.  Rwanda is also getting a new nuclear research reactor with support from Russia.  The Uganda Law Society has released a new app meant to connect women and girls to legal advice.  LGBT+ rights are under threat again in Uganda, with discussion of another law to make gay sex punishable by death.  Check out this incredible mixed media piece about one family’s experience becoming refugees after the Congo Wars of the 1990s.

A cartoon showing a Chinese dragon scaring the crane and impala away from the Ugandan national crest

Here’s Atukwasize ChrisOgon‘s take on Chinese investment in Uganda

East Africa: In Kenya, the urban middle class is increasingly turning to “telephone farming” to diversify their income streams.  Here’s a wonderful piece about khat and precolonial cuisine in Kenya.  See also this piece about the history of culinary imperialism in Kenya.  Meet the the Jehovah’s Witnesses targeting Chinese immigrants in Kenya.  This is a good overview of Ethiopia’s complicated ethnic and regional politics.  There’s an ambitious plan to refill Lake Chad by piping water in from the DRC via the CAR.

Southern Africa: A novel campaign strategy has been spotted in Botswana, where the opposition handed out menstrual pads with the party logo on them.  This was a heartbreaking piece about sexual violence in South Africa and the #AmINext movement.  Check out this photo essay on the mine-clearing women of Angola.  Here’s an insightful long read about what really happened to the billions of dollars that were to be spent on Angola’s post-war reconstruction.  Why is Zambia planning to finance almost 10% of its 2020 budget through a mysterious “exceptional revenue” source?

Sunset on a beach, with a boat and a person in the foreground

Kismayo sunset, by Said Fadhaye

Gender: Meet Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, the first female mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone.  Roughly 1/3 of African businesses have no women on their boards, and another 1/ 3 have only one woman.  In Malawi, a program which gives pregnant women housing close to hospitals before they deliver their babies has increased their husbands’ housework commitments while they’re away.  This is a remarkable portrait of three generations of women who have stood up to dictatorship in Sudan.  Kenya’s Gladys Ngetich is breaking barriers about women in STEM with her PhD on improving the efficiency of jet engines.

Business: This is a must-read piece on the political economy of foreign start-ups in Kenya.  Orange is developing a new feature phone for the African market which includes social media apps.  Uber is launching boat taxis in Lagos.  Africa has 15% of the world’s population, but fully 45% of the world’s mobile money activity.  African cosmetics companies are getting acquired by international corporations which want to offer better products for black skin and hair.  Check out my Mawazo co-founder Rose Mutiso’s TED talk on how to bring affordable electricity to Africa.

Maps showing that there appears to be much more poverty in Africa when it's measured at the district level rather than the country level

The geographic distribution of wealth in Africa looks very different depending on whether it’s measured at the country, province, or district level (via Marshall Burke)

Politics:  Africa Check has a great Promise Trackers page checking on the campaign promises of ruling parties in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.  In many African countries, political parties aren’t obliged to disclose private donations, in an area ripe for campaign finance reform.  In Ghana, the “I Am Aware” project successfully helped people push their local governments to improve the quality of public services like sanitation.  More than 45% of African citizens live in a country where the last census was done more than 10 years ago.  It turns out that most of Africa’s “civil wars” are actually regional wars.

Public health: Dr Jean-Jacques Muyembe of the DRC discovered Ebola in the 1970s, but has been largely written out of the historical record, until now.  Check out this incredible photo essay about Ebola first responders in eastern DRC. Also in the DRC, snakebites are an underdiscussed public health crisis. A new study finds that more than 40% of women are verbally or physically abused while giving birth in Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria.  Here’s how toxic masculinity can lead to the spread of HIV in Uganda.

A colorful portrait of a man and a woman on a red and pink printed background

Don’t miss Bisa Butler’s inspiring portraits of Black Americans done in African fabrics

Art + culture: A Togolese vintage clothing dealer is making waves in France by re-importing cast-off clothing previously sent to Togo.  Meet Kenyan sculptor Wangechi Mutu, who’s taking over the façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until January 2020.  What can be done about the spike in fake South African art?  Check out the first print issue of Cameroon-based Bawka Magazine, about travel stories.  Let’s celebrate these six inspiring young climate activists from low income countries, including Kenya and Uganda.  Learn about all the unusual ways that African countries got their names.  Here are the rising female artists of Kampala.

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.

Interesting academic articles for July 2019

Here’s what I’m looking forward to reading these days!

Emmanuelle Auriol, Julie Lassebie, Amma Panin, Eva Raiber, and Paul Seabright.  2018. “God insures those who pay? Formal insurance and religious offerings in Ghana.” Working paper.

This paper provides experimental support for the hypothesis that insurance can be a motive for religious donations by members of a Pentecostal church in Ghana. We randomize enrollment into a commercial funeral insurance policy, then church members allocate money between themselves and a set of religious goods in a series of dictator games with significant stakes. Members enrolled in insurance give significantly less money to their own church compared to members that only receive information about the insurance. Enrollment also reduces giving towards other spiritual goods. We set up a model exploring different channels of religiously based insurance. The implications of the model and the results from the dictator games suggest that adherents perceive the church as a source of insurance and that this insurance is derived from beliefs in an interventionist God. Survey results suggest that material insurance from the church community is also important and we hypothesize that these two insurance channels exist in parallel.

Sudhanshu Handa, Silvio Daidone, Amber Peterman, Benjamin Davis, Audrey Pereira, Tia Palermo, and Jennifer Yablonski.  2018. “Myth-Busting? Confronting Six Common Perceptions about Unconditional Cash Transfers as a Poverty Reduction Strategy in Africa.”  World Bank Research Observer.

This paper summarizes evidence on six perceptions associated with cash transfer program- ming, using eight rigorous evaluations conducted on large-scale government unconditional cash transfers in sub-Saharan Africa under the Transfer Project. Specifically, it investigates if transfers: 1) induce higher spending on alcohol or tobacco; 2) are fully consumed (rather than invested); 3) create dependency (reduce participation in productive activities); 4) in- crease fertility; 5) lead to negative community-level economic impacts (including price distortion and inflation); and 6) are fiscally unsustainable. The paper presents evidence refuting each claim, leading to the conclusion that these perceptions—insofar as they are utilized in policy debates—undercut potential improvements in well-being and livelihood strengthening among the poor, which these programs can bring about in sub-Saharan Africa, and globally. It concludes by underscoring outstanding research gaps and policy implications for the continued expansion of unconditional cash transfers in the region and beyond

Apollo Kaneko, Thomas Kennedy, Lantao Mei, Christina Sintek, Marshall Burke, Stefano Ermon, and David Lobell.  2019. “Deep Learning For Crop Yield Prediction in Africa.”  Presented at the International Conference on Machine Learning AI for Social Good Workshop.  

Lack of food security persists in many regions around the world, especially Africa. Tracking and predicting crop yields is important for supporting humanitarian and economic development efforts. We use deep learning on satellite imagery to predict maize yields in six African countries at the district level. Our project is the first to attempt this kind of prediction in Africa. Model performance varies greatly between countries, predicting yields in the most recent years with average R2 as high as 0.56. We also experiment with transfer learning and show that, in this data sparse setting, data from other countries can help improve prediction within countries.

David McKenzie and Dario Sansone.  2019.  “Predicting entrepreneurial success is hard: Evidence from a business plan competition in Nigeria.”  Journal of Development Economics.

We compare the absolute and relative performance of three approaches to predicting outcomes for entrants in a business plan competition in Nigeria: Business plan scores from judges, simple ad-hoc prediction models used by researchers, and machine learning approaches. We find that i) business plan scores from judges are uncorrelated with business survival, employment, sales, or profits three years later; ii) a few key characteristics of entrepreneurs such as gender, age, ability, and business sector do have some predictive power for future outcomes; iii) modern machine learning methods do not offer noticeable improvements; iv) the overall predictive power of all approaches is very low, highlighting the fundamental difficulty of picking competition winners.

Pia Raffler, Daniel N. Posner, and Doug Parkerson.  2019.  “The Weakness of Bottom-Up Accountability: Experimental Evidence from the Ugandan Health Sector.”  Working paper. 

We evaluate the impact of a large-scale information and mobilization intervention designed to improve health service delivery in rural Uganda by increasing citizens’ ability to monitor and apply bottom-up pressure on underperforming health workers. Modeled closely on the landmark “Power to the People” study (Bjorkman and Svensson, 2009), the intervention was undertaken in 376 health centers in 16 districts and involved a three wave panel of more than 14,000 households. We find that while the intervention had a modest positive impact on treatment quality and patient satisfaction, it had no effect on utilization rates or health outcomes (including child mortality). We also find no evidence that the channel through which the intervention affected treatment quality was citizen monitoring. The results hold in a wide set of pre-specified subgroups and also when, via a factorial design, we break down the complex intervention into its two most important components. Our findings cast doubt on the power of information to foster community monitoring or to generate improvements in health outcomes, at least in the short term.

Thomas Calvo, Mireille Razafindrakoto, and François Roubaud.  2019.  “Fear of the state in governance surveys? Empirical evidence from African countries.”  World Development.

The need to collect data on governance-related issues has been growing since the 1990s. Demand gained momentum in 2015 with the adoption of SDG16 worldwide and Agenda 2063 in Africa. African countries played a key role in the adoption of SDG16 and are now leading the process of collecting harmonised household data on Governance, Peace and Security (GPS). Yet the possibility has recently been raised that sensitive survey data collected by government institutions are potentially biased due to self-censorship by respondents. This paper studies the potential bias in responses to what are seen as sensitive questions, here governance issues, in surveys conducted by public organisations. We compare Afrobarometer (AB) survey data, collected in eight African countries by self-professed independent institutions, with first-hand harmonised GPS survey data collected by National Statistics Offices (NSOs). We identify over 20 similarly worded questions on democracy, trust in institutions and perceived corruption. We first com- pare responses from AB survey respondents based on who they believe the survey sponsor to be. No systematic response bias is found between respondents who believe the government to be behind the AB survey and those who consider it to be conducted by an independent institution. Our estimations suggest that the observed residual differences are due to a selection bias on the observables, which is mitigated by propensity score matching procedures. The absence of a systematic self-censorship or attenuation bias is further evidenced by means of an experimental design, whereby responses from GPS surveys conducted by NSOs (the treatment) are compared with AB surveys sponsored by reportedly independent bodies. Our results provide evidence, at much higher levels of precision than other existing data sources, of the capacity and legitimacy of government-related organisations to collect data on governance as a matter of national interest and sovereignty.

Maya Berinzon and Ryan Briggs.  2019.  “Measuring and explaining formal institutional persistence in French West Africa.”  Journal of Modern African Studies.  

Colonial institutions are thought to be highly persistent, but measuring that persistence is difficult. Using a text analysis method that allows us to measure similarity between bodies of text, we examine the extent to which one formal institution the penal code has retained colonial language in seven West African countries. We find that the contemporary penal codes of most countries retain little colonial language. Additionally, we find that it is not meaningful to speak of institutional divergence across the unit of French West Africa, as there is wide variation in the legislative post-coloniality of individual countries. We present preliminary analyses explaining this variation and show that the amount of time that a colony spent under colonisation correlates with more persistent colonial institutions.

Benjamin Rubbers.  2019.  “Mining Boom, Labour Market Segmentation and Social Inequality in the Congolese Copperbelt.”  Development and Change.

The study of the impacts of new mining projects in Africa is generally set in a normative debate about their possible contribution to development, which leads to a representation of African societies as divided between beneficiaries and victims of foreign investments. Based on research in the Congolese copperbelt, this article aims to examine in more detail the inequalities generated by the recent mining boom by taking the processes of labour market segmentation as a starting point. It shows that the labour market in the mining sector has progressively been organized along three intersecting lines that divide it: the first is between employment in industrial and artisanal mining companies, the second is between jobs for mining or subcontracting companies and the third is between jobs for expatriates, Congolese skilled workers and local unskilled workers. Far from simply reflecting existing social in- equalities, the labour market has been actively involved in their creation, and its control has caused growing tensions in the Congolese copperbelt region. Although largely neglected in the literature on extractive industries, processes of labour market segmentation are key to making sense of the impacts of mining investments on the shape of societies in the global South.

Benjamin Chemouni.  2019.  “The rise of the economic technocracy in Rwanda: A case of a bureaucratic pocket of effectiveness or state-building prioritisation?”  Effective States and Inclusive Development working paper #120.

The Rwandan Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning (MINECOFIN) is recognised as the most effective organisation in the Rwandan state. The objective of the paper is to understand the organisational and political factors influencing MINECOFIN’s performance since the genocide and link them to the wider conversation on the role of pockets of effectiveness (PoEs) in state-building in Africa. It argues that, because of the Rwandan political settlement and elite vulnerability, MINECOFIN is not a PoE but only a good performer in a generally well functioning state. The Ministry overperforms first because, unsurprisingly, the nature of its tasks is specific, requires little embeddedness and allows a great exposure to donors, making its mandate easier to deliver in comparison to other organisations. MINECOFIN also performs better than other state organisations because it is, more than others, at the frontline of the elite legitimation project since it is the organisation through which resources are channelled, priorities decided, and developmental efforts coordinated. Given the rulers’ need for an effective state as a whole, MINECOFIN appears only as the lead climber in a wider dynamics of systematic state building.

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.

Traffic tickets and statebuilding in Kenya

Last year I had my first experience with the Kenyan courts when I got a traffic ticket for making a left turn into a street against a “no left turn” sign, which I hadn’t seen.  Paying it cost me Ksh 20,000 / US$200 in cash, and took four hours at three offices over two days. It was quite a contrast to the last time I got a traffic ticket in the US, where I paid about $60 by mail after speaking with a police officer for about 10 minutes.  The whole experience left me thinking about the enormous investments in administrative capacity which are necessary to simplify this type of bureaucratic interaction with the state.

Traffic tickets in Kenya

The Kenyan process was logical, if also quite slow.  After an officer stopped me for the turn, he took me to a nearby police station, where I waited for half an hour while someone wrote up my charges in a massive paper ledger.  I also had to pay Ksh 5000 / US$50 in cash bail, and promise to come to traffic court the next day. Anyone who skips court has a warrant put out for their arrest, although I’ve heard that these are rarely enforced.

The bail system is in principle an improvement over an older system where people accused of traffic violations were jailed until their day in court.  However, in practice half of Kenyans live on less than Ksh 10,000 / US$100 a month, and might end up getting jailed until their court date anyway.  It’s also not possible to just plead guilty to the traffic offense and pay at the station, as all accused traffic offenders have to come to court to plead their case.  I assume this rule is in place to centralize financial flows and avoid the risk of officers charging fines and then failing to remit them to their stations.

I came to the Milimani Courts the next day for my hearing.  After waiting for an hour and a half, the judge entered the packed traffic courtroom and began reading through people’s names and offenses.  Common charges included having expired insurance, failing to wear a seatbelt, and failing to immediately remove a car from the roadway after it broke down.  No one could leave the room until everyone’s charges had been read, almost an hour later.

People who agreed with their charges had to pay fines of anywhere from Ksh 20,000 / US$200 to Ksh 60,000 / US$600.  This is under the maximum legal fine of Ksh 100,000 / US$1000, but is still high in light of average income levels, and also seems high given the fairly minor offenses with which people were charged.  I was fined $200, and had to pay it in cash, on the spot, before I could leave the courtroom. People who can’t pay are jailed until they come up with the money.   Finally, I spent another 45 minutes wandering through the courthouse until I found a representative of the police station where I had paid my bail, and was able to reclaim that money.

Traffic tickets in the US

It’s quite a big difference to the ticketing process in the US.  The last time I got a traffic ticket there was around 2007, when I got stopped for speeding on a country road in New Hampshire.  As far as I can recall, the police officer scanned my license, printed the ticket with a $60 fine on the spot, and then let me go 10 minutes later.  There were options to pay online or by mail within two weeks if you didn’t contest the charge, or to go to traffic court if you did.  If you fail to pay, punishments include having the fine sent to a debt collector or losing your driving privileges, with arrest warrants only issued for people who continued driving on suspended licenses.  I mailed in a check within the week, and that was the matter resolved.

The US ticketing process wasn’t simpler because we’re a more trusting or law-abiding society.  It’s because the US has systems of identification and options for punishment which don’t require physically holding someone in jail or the courthouse in order to be effective.  This requires a lot of investments in different aspects of administrative capacity, many of which on the face of it have nothing to do with traffic enforcement.

State capacity and the payment of fines

Let’s think through what it would look like to implement the US system of pleading guilty to a traffic offense via the payment of a fine (by mail or online) in Kenya.  The officer stops you, writes down your license information, and gives you a handwritten ticket with the proposed fine and a payment date within two weeks. We’ve already hit obstacle #1: as far as I can tell, there isn’t a digital record of the ticket integrated into any master database of traffic offenses, which means police can’t check on the spot to see whether this is your first offense.  (Free research idea: digitizing the absolutely massive stacks of handwritten police ledgers at local stations would provide really fascinating information about patterns of ticketing and arrests.)

Giving people two weeks to get together the money to pay the ticket is a good idea.  And these days, over 80% of Kenyans have M-Pesa, so it is possible to pay digitally.  But even a few years ago, this would have been impossible, since most Kenyans haven’t got bank accounts, which are required to pay by mail (with a check) or online.  That’s obstacle #2: assuming everyone has access to payment modalities other than cash.

Now we’re getting to the biggest issue: how do police enforce payment of the fine?  In the US, it’s technically illegal to jail people simply for failing to pay a fine.  This means that there are other civil penalties applied, such as turning the fine over to a debt collector, or suspending one’s license until the fine is paid.  (You can still be jailed for driving on a suspended license, so in practice many people are still eventually jailed for failing to pay, which is a significant problem.)  This approach assumes that there’s a robust credit reporting and debt collection system in place, and also a national system for flagging people with suspended licenses. Credit reporting and debt collection systems, in turn, only work well when individuals have fixed addresses, known places of employment, registered bank accounts, and identifiers such as a Social Security number to tie these disparate pieces of information together.

Informality and debt collection in Kenya

A lot of the infrastructure that facilitates debt collection doesn’t exist in the same way in Kenya.  More than 80% of Kenyans work in the informal sector (thus with no wages to garnish), 57% haven’t got bank accounts, 38% haven’t got any formal ID, and an unknown but presumably large number haven’t got formal addresses.  This means that a large amount of debt collection is done through highly personalized means, like having loan guarantors pressure the debtor, or by alerting the debtor’s family and friends that they’ve defaulted on a payment.  There is a credit bureau which blacklists people who default on loans, but it’s unclear how this information is used for debt collection efforts, as collection is rarely mentioned in articles about default.  Shopkeepers, who are a major source of non-bank credit for many Kenyans, seem to lose a lot of money on defaulted loans, suggesting that debt collection isn’t working very efficiently.

I don’t intend to sound overly friendly to debt collectors here.  However, this also explains the rationale for immediate payment of fines in traffic court.  If someone walked away without paying, there don’t seem to be good civil means like debt collection to enforce the fine, and presumably police don’t want to spend their time tracking down people whom they previously had conveniently collected at the courthouse.  Thus the pressure to pay immediately, which in practice must be a great hardship for most people who are issued a traffic ticket — and probably forces them further into debt elsewhere.