Professor Tyler Cowen’s article “Kenya is Poised to Become the “Singapore of Africa” is one of the more optimistic but inaccurate assessments of the country’s socio-political and economic fortunes I have read in quite some time. While I appreciate the professor’s optimism about the country’s prospects, I would contest many of the claims he makes – claims which do not seem to be borne out by the facts. On the most basic measurement of good governance, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), Kenya is one of the region’s more corrupt country.
So let me address some of the main points that Cowen makes in the article, and why I think they mischaracterise Kenya, and predict an implausible future for this East African country.
The founding father mocked opponents for failing to “eat matunda ya uhuru”
Kenya, the region’s one-time leading economy is neither Africa’s benchmark of competent and incorruptible government nor a cohesive and unified society where responsible citizens pick up after themselves or obey the most basic, if admittedly inconvenient, public ordinances and traffic laws.
While Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kwan Yew, laid out strict, uncompromising guidelines for developing the nascent former British colony, Kenya’s founding father, Jomo Kenyatta, mocked those who did not use their office to help themselves to “matunda ya uhuru.” As Yew worked to unite his diverse and potentially fractured society, Kenyatta asked an increasingly entitled ethnic base and “Kitchen Cabinet” to oath loyalty to him and tribe, not to the young and increasingly fractured nation.
Prof. Cowen barely explains why Kenya suffered “negative shocks to the prices of imported food and energy”. This is a significant oversight, because the reasons for these shocks underpin my counter to his optimism. The level of corruption and self-dealing surrounding these two drivers of any economy is embedded in Kenya’s DNA, thanks to its first president.
These “shocks” were not simply external factors beyond Kenya’s control, but where rather caused by the illegal importation of food items, including those of suspect quality, and the political control and manipulation of the country’s energy sector, both of which were done by a handful of politically connected and protected cartels.
This was something that Singapore’s leadership carefully avoided. Kwan Yew and his son and current premier, Lee Hsien Loong, have not allowed the unchecked and unbridled accumulation of wealth by members of their respective governments. Similarly, any head start Kenya may have (had) due to its supposed geographic advantages has been whittled away by a succession of corrupt governments.
This helps to explain why major infrastructure projects come in massively over budget, despite often being of poor quality. The billion-shilling SGR (Standard Gauge Railroad), for example, features outdated technology even as Tanzania and Ethiopia both boast more modern equivalents.
A neighbor that “wants everything.”
At fifty-seven million people, Kenya’s population is less than half of Ethiopia’s – the region’s leading economy. Partly as a result, its efforts to present itself as a regional (and continental) leader have not been well-received. This is well evidenced by the embarrassing rejection of the country’s former Foreign Affairs CS Amina Mohammed as the Chairperson of the African Union (AU).
This point is key given Prof. Cowen’s argument that the regional market, with almost 500 million potential customers, has a “larger population than West Africa.” Any advantage this may offer to Kenya risks being undermined by the perception that it is an aggressive state with a self-serving foreign policy. Most notably, four regional neighbors, Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, and Tanzania, did not vote for Ms. Mohammed candidacy. One of the reasons cited was “how Kenya relates with its neighbors” and the feeling that it “wants everything.” An unnamed South African diplomat, for example, remembered that some AU members felt Ms. Amina was too “close to her president (Uhuru Kenyatta).” They feared she “could use the position to advance Kenya’s rather than Africa’s agenda.”
A viable alternative for East Africa’s landlocked countries?
Aside from rejecting Ms. Mohammed, it is significant some landlocked countries are looking to Tanzania’s railroad instead of Kenya’s (SGR). They see it as a “mutually beneficial” alternative to their seafaring trade relations. Tanzania’s port offers “relatively easy access to China and India, large markets and sources of capital.”
To be clear, Kenya’s position as East Africa’s premier economy and financial/administrative capital is not without merit. Britain positioned the East African nation to be just that as the sun was setting on its empire. To maintain its “great power syndrome,” London elevated the former colony’s status to “significant” like South Africa’s and Rhodesia’s, and this has continued in part due to Kenya’s international economic ties well beyond the continent.
Yet this has not always translated into a better life for ordinary Kenyans. High levels of poverty remain, in part because Kenya is extremely unequal, both in terms of the disparities between rich and poor, and between regions that have “held” the presidency and those that have not.
A source of hope
There are some areas in which Cowen’s optimism is better placed, however. In my 2023 book Bob Collymore: A Short Impactful Life (?), I argue that there is one thing that places Kenya on a similar level to the four original Asian Tiger economies. Like Singapore, Kenya has a well educated and industrious population. This is one of the reasons some of the world’s iconic blue-chip technology companies set up shop in Nairobi. It has also underpinned the success of Safaricom PLC, Kenya’s premier internet service provider (ISP) and information & communication technology (ICT) company.
The telecommunications sector now represents a growing proportion of GDP, contributing billions of dollars to the economy.
In an ironic twist, the same factors that fuelled Kenya’s rise are doing the same for her neighbors. Access to the Internet, capital (traditional and fintech/MPESA), and an entrepreneurial workforce have combined to inspire Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda, and others in the region to up their game. Leading Kenyan companies such as Equity Bank and Safaricom have taken their product and marketing chops beyond their base west to Rwanda, north to Ethiopia, and northwest to S. Sudan.
This is an undeniable boon for these Nairobi-based companies, and it is one that may help to sustain economic growth in the future. In the present, however, Kenya is suffering mass protests in part inspired by the high cost of living which is causing severe hardships for millions of its citizens. To argue that such a country is on the verge of becoming “Africa’s Singapore” is, in my opinion, a bridge too far.
Washington M. Osiro is an author and Operations & Quality Management Systems/Quality Systems Regulations (QMS/QSR) professional in the medical device industry. He is a graduate student at Arizona State University researching the intersection of technology and public policy.