Is it safe?

This is probably the most frequent question I get when I tell people I am working in Kenya.  The string of terrible bombings and shootings in Kenya makes news all around the world.  I also travel to Nigeria on a regular basis, and the horrific abductions of Nigerian girls by Boko Haram are even worse.  So it is entirely reasonable to wonder what it’s like to actually work here, and whether it is as horrific as the media reports make it out to be.

Unlicensed taxi

Intended and actual destination may vary.

To start with, I can honestly say that at no point since I arrived here have I felt in physical danger.  I have been offered dubious taxi rides, shaken down for bribes by police, and received all manner of offers from attractive, unattached women to go places that would not be likely to benefit my long-term health.  But aside from being given the opportunity to decline some monumentally stupid ideas, I have at never actually had my safety threatened.

You might ask, “Isn’t it scary knowing that kind of danger could always be just around the corner?”  The best way I know to answer that is with a metaphor:  I once had a conversation with a guy who trains lions, tigers, and other big cats for a living.  I asked him if it was scary working every day with animals who could eviscerate him in the blink of an eye, simply because they happened to be in a bad mood that day.  He told me that the key to not living in fear was developing a strong sense of respect.  “Never forget what the cats are capable of, have that respect guide your interactions always, and just enjoy their amazing presence.”

So how does that respect manifest on a day-to-day basis?  It starts with learning some basic ground rules.  Don’t walk outside after dark.  Only book a taxi from your hotel or some other trusted source.  Never use an ATM that isn’t inside a secure building.  The first time you go someplace new, go with someone trustworthy who is familiar with the area.  It doesn’t take long for these kind of considerations to become second nature.  In many respects it is like being an American, going to the UK, and driving a car on the wrong side of the road for the first time.  Initially quite daunting, but over a surprisingly short period of time, you adapt and get on with your life.  We humans are astonishingly good at that.

Security barrier at my hotel

There is an important caveat to the perspective I just shared, which is that my professional life in Nairobi unfolds in a series of very secure locations.  My hotel, my office, and my client sites are protected by both hefty physical measures and professional, decently trained security teams.

Not to be trifled with.

Many people, both foreigners and locals live in communities that do not share the same level of security, and burglars in Kenya are no joke: they usually operate in heavily armed gangs of 8-12 people and violence is their first resort in the event of meeting any resistance.  For anyone thinking of living in Africa, I can’t stress enough that choosing a secure place to live is the single most important choice you will make in your time here.

A very common sight

On the other hand, dire warnings like that only throw in sharp relief how delightful Kenyan people are.  Kenya is far more unsafe for locals than it is for foreigners, yet despite all the troubles they endure, most Kenyans are resolutely happy, friendly, and delighted to engage.  Mind you, I’ve lived in the UK for the past decade, so saying that people are socially outgoing compared to Brits is damning with faint praise, but even compared to my native California, people here tend to be cheerful, social, and welcoming.

So to answer the original question, is it safe?  By any objective standard, the answer would have to be no, but that is no reason to shy away from the experience. The metaphor of training big cats is once again a very apt one.  Imagine having the opportunity to interact with a fully grown tiger.  Most of us would not turn down the chance, but we would also treat the situation with the caution and respect it deserved.  Thus it is with living and working in Kenya. Maintain a healthy respect, and savour what a delightful experience you are having.


Okay, maybe my metaphor wasn’t completely hypothetical



Machetes and Solar Panels

One of the first things I like to do when entering any new country is pay a visit to a nearby supermarket; a stroll down the aisles provides a unique and informative view of the country and the people who call it home.

So it was that when I first arrived in Nairobi, I stopped in at the Nakumatt on Koinage Street in the city center, not far from my home at the Intercontinental Hotel.  And in a back corner on the upper storey of this two-floor supermarket, something quite curious caught my eye.  Not far from the cleaning rags and power strips, there was a loose clutter of machetes on sale.  And next to the machetes were offered a collection of solar panels of various sizes and power configurations.

machetes and solar panels

Regular household necessities

This tickled my sense of irony.  I took a blurry snapshot of the pairing and made a humorous post on my Facebook page.  But as I came to spend more time in Nairobi, and began to get a better appreciation of its people and culture, I came to realize that this strange juxtaposition was an astoundingly apt metaphor for life in this part of the world.
If you stroll into a Safeway in the US or a Tesco in the UK, I can guarantee that you will find neither machetes nor solar panels for sale.  One is too primitive; it would be viewed as a weapon rather than a tool. The other is too advanced; western consumers have yet to insist on the kind of empowerment they would need to wean themselves of dependence on utility companies, that empowerment is a necessity of survival here.  Judging by empirical evidence, it would appear that US and UK supermarkets deploy their limited shelf space more profitably by offering us a greater choice of potato chip and breakfast cereal flavors than you could find here.

That theme of shudderingly primitive and astonishingly advanced permeates Kenyan life.  For instance, Kenya is the world leader in mobile payment systems, both in terms of technology and penetration.  Not the leader in Africa.  Not the leader amongst developing countries.  The world leader.  No other country comes close, not even advanced countries with otherwise high technology penetration rates like Singapore, Korea, or the countries of Scandinavia (I’ll do a full post on MPesa and the unique market conditions that caused it to grow and flourish soon).  But this breathtaking level of innovation is often limited to areas of narrow focus, and conditions beyond those margins are truly barbaric; the other day, for example, I learned from my bosses Katharyn and Sreeram that the number of mobile phone users here exceeds the number of toilet paper users.

So there you have it.  A microcosm of life in Kenya.  Machetes and solar panels.  On sale at a Nakumatt near you.




The expansion of China’s infrastructure bank

In Yesterday’s Financial times, there was an article about China’s announcement to double the funding for it’s new Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB), from the $50B announced last month to over $100B.

This is notable in its own right; most of Asia and Africa are in desperate need of infrastructure investment.  But what was just as interesting to me is how the AIIB is being written about — it is a brilliant example of the filters our perspective imposes on how we view the world.  Digging deeper, I found three different articles about the establishment of the AIIB, one written by Bloomburg, one by the East Asia Forum, and one by Devex.  Each article was a good piece of news analysis, and each raised valid points worth considering.  But most notably to me, there was almost zero overlap between the three in the conclusions they drew.  In other words, forming a well-rounded view would be impossible by reading any of them alone.

The article in Bloomburg unsurprisingly takes an American slant: it paints the move as a geopolitical threat, which it undoubtedly is.  The somewhat sensationalist headline reads “China’s $50 Billion Asia Bank Snubs Japan, India”.  The AIIB will be a direct competitor to both the World Bank, which by unwritten charter always has an American president, and to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which is funded by the US and Japan and is traditionally helmed by Japanese bankers.  During the recent recession, the US and western Europe have been scaling back their global infrastructure investments, while China has been rapidly expanding theirs, not just in Asia but in Africa and Latin America as well.  It is hardly surprising that China would be frustrated by their lack of ability to influence policy and priorities commensurate with their growing share of the world’s infrastructure investment portfolio.

The East Asia Forum article paints a rather different view.  It reads rather like a Chinese government press release: jingoism concealed within dry, technocratic, and tendentiously cautious prose.  An example, “If the new bank is managed professionally to finance commercially viable investments in economic infrastructure, it can begin to correct a very significant failure of global financial markets.”   But setting the bias aside, the analysis is a sound, cogent discussion of the business case for creating the AIIB and the challenges it can expect to face in fulfilling its mission.

un flagThe Devex article looks at the same news from the viewpoint of the international NGO and aid community.  Its headline “AIIB is coming… fast” draws the readers interest towards the potentially disruptive effect the AIIB will have on how NGO’s and aid organizations receive their funding.  Their analysis highlights that unlike the World Bank and ADB, the AIIB’s focus is on infrastructure rather than elimination of poverty.  They also call out that while the World Bank and ADB due diligence process includes social and environmental protections, the Chinese track record on environmental issues makes it unlikely that the AIIB will do likewise.

FigBashAnd what of my own filters? My own views are just as informed by my experiences and biases as the ones above.  As a believer in classical economics and as someone who has invested a significant portion of his career in working in the developing world, I view this as an almost unreservedly positive development.   Here is how I see it…

  • The world is desperately in need if infrastructure investment.  Even the World Bank, ADB, and AIIB combined won’t begin to satisfy the demand
  • The US and EU aren’t stepping up to the plate.  The US in particular is letting its own infrastructure crumble, let alone addressing the needs of the developing world. China is filling the void.  Here in Kenya, I have been told by bankers, policemen, and taxi drivers that infrastructure projects are first and foremost the government’s way of enriching its friends, but when they actually want something built, they bring in the Chinese
  • Competition is a good thing.  The World Bank is moribund and has no sense of urgency.  Paul Wolfowitz tried to do something about this during his brief stint as president, but was so tainted as one of the prime instigators of the Gulf War that his ideas were tossed out along with him.  A competitive threat, most particularly in the area of responsiveness and time to market, may be just the kind of wake-up call it needs.
  • The AIIB’s likely lack of concern for the environment is problematic, but the key is making the individual governments and the infrastructure projects themselves accountable; external political pressure on China has been spectacularly unsuccessful on most issues and is unlikely to be more successful here. Also, it is a mistake to think that improved infrastructure is automatically worse for the environment.  Lack of infrastructure can be just as damaging.  Look at Madagascar. Look at the Sahel.
  • Lastly and most importantly, the focus on infrastructure instead of directly on poverty elimination is a very good thing.  Aid programs are devastatingly unsuccessful.  Here in Kenya, it is estimated that less than 40% of the material aid that comes into East Africa actually reaches its intended recipients (more on what to do about that in a future blog post).  Time and again, I have seen first hand that the key to ending poverty is the commercial success of the impoverished.  Education is the number one factor enabling that success.  Financial inclusion is another key element.  But without access to infrastructure, the best skills and available capital will have nowhere to go.

Would love your thoughts


Picking up the pen again… an ongoing adventure in Africa

Hello everyone,

After a hiatus of about a year and a half, I have started feeling the urge to blog again.  As some of you know, I have been working in three African countries — Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana, since the start of 2014.  I started learning and absorbing all manner of interesting ideas, concepts, and folklore from the very beginning, and I suppose I could have started blogging from the outset, but for some reason I held back.  Lots of people write about Africa and what goes on here, and I didn’t feel qualified or informed enough to do anything but add to the noise.   But after half a year of being here, I am starting to feel like I do have something to say.  The reality on the ground here is a lot more nuanced that reading international news sources would have you believe, and I’d like to give you all a view of

  • How things are on the ground here, as compared to how they are written about
  • How the same events you read about are perceived by people who live here, and finally 
  • How the context for what happens here is framed by a history that is far richer than the post-colonial vacuum that most international news analysts have trouble seeing past

As before, I’m not interested in creating another business/politics/history blog.  There lots of excellent examples of these out there already.  I just want to give a personal narrative of my adventures here and what I have discovered as a result. 

Talk to you all soon.