poverty Kenya

Causes of Poverty in Kenya
land corruption

First-hand Report: Guest Essay on Poverty in Kenya

Deadly Wizardry: Poverty in Kenya

by Silvano Borruso



Last year's take for the Nairobi Agricultural Show was a discreet 17 million Kenya shillings (exchange rate approx. 80 shillings to the dollar). The Show officials had already planned how to spend the money, when a message came from on high peremptorily demanding 9 million cash. Such messages cannot be ignored, sidetracked or answered negatively. The officials complied, and not a word reached the press.

The nightmarish system of licensing for the most innocuous economic enterprise can have a rather paralysing effect on operations of a certain magnitude. But it can be bypassed, at a price. A telephone call to a certain well-oiled gentleman, who takes a cut of anything, between 10 and 30 per cent of the value of whatever it is, quickly ensures the start of a new industry, the securing of an import or export licence or whatever.

The foregoing examples of extortion, multiplied all across the nation, give an idea of the heavy handicaps under which the development of a country as full of potential as Kenya labours. The slightest economic success is invariably accompanied by demands for percentages by powerful individuals. Dire consequences are in store for anyone rash enough to say no.


The Ogiek are (or were until recently) a forest-dwelling, self-supporting tribe living in an area well out of the way. They only asked to be left alone. In a classical example easily predicted by Georgist economists, their land suddenly acquired value when a new road was routed close to where they live. Attempts at land grabbing were immediate and threatening. The judiciary, nominally independent but de facto obeying orders, were unable to stop the powerful from dispossessing the Ogiek. The Ogiek lost the case. They have appealed. The issue is still in the courts, but the outcome is a foregone one.

On a different occasion another powerful tycoon eyed a piece of land for one of his operations. He offered a price to the people living on it, but they were unimpressed. They would not have accepted even ten times the price, for they had no intention of selling their ancestral land to anyone. The tycoon summoned a contingent of armed APs (Administration Police) who promptly arrested the chief and a few representative of the community. After a year in jail the tycoon repeated his request and forced the sale of the land.

The land question in Kenya still labours under the British colonial legacy. They brought here the institution of the title deed, which has had in Africa the same deadly effect it has had in Britain since Henry VIII's time.

But ownership of land does not necessarily have the salutary effect Henry George had predicted. Bad laws prevent farmers from enjoying the fruit of their labour. The Agricultural Boards, another British legacy, are institutions run at their beginning by the (settler) farmers themselves. After independence the boards were nationalised, little by little tightening the noose round the (African) farmers' neck. Payments were increasingly delayed, at times by years. Free movement of produce was restricted, but lifted upon request by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank (IMF/WB). The lifting, though, is nominal. A police road block will demand to see "the licence," and if the driver objects that it is no longer required, he will be held long enough to ruin the fresh produce he is transporting unless, of course, he is willing to bribe. As a result, the owner of a 60-acre farm-cum-stone house, unable to make ends meet, finds employment in Nairobi as a driver; another, as a small-scale usurer; a third, as a high school factotum (for 25 years). The list could continue, but the examples give a good idea.

Debt and Liquidity

A further reason why land ownership and farming are not as productive as they could be is the dearth of liquidity due to the policy of IMF/WB. For reasons never explained, the shilling was "pegged" to the dollar some thirty years ago. As a result, Kenya can only issue money according to the amount of dollars it holds, and not according to the needs of its economy. On top of that, every Budget sees the disappearance of billions of shillings from the taxpayer's wages into the maw of debt repayment, which makes it impossible to maintain the existing infrastructure, let alone build new infrastructure. The State has crowded out ordinary investors from the financial market, where the interest rate has stood at more than 20% for the past fifteen years. One of the results of this policy has been the inexorable shrinking of the real economy, killing any hope of industrialisation by 2020 as hoped for by utopian planners.

The dearth of liquidity is especially crippling in the rural areas where most of the population live. In desperation, they come to crowd the slums around Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu, the three largest towns. The availability of cash is the main reason for chaotic urbanisation: Nairobi passed from 0.5 million people in 1960 to more than 3 million today.


The inadequacy of political representation, not to say the lack of it, is largely due to the misconception, cherished by an erstwhile US ambassador, that the institution of the political party has been as good for Africa as for America. Its imposition on Kenya has been lethal in the literal sense of the word. In Kenya no political party has anything like a programme: the leader says "I want to be President" and that is that. His (or her in one case) tribesmates vote for him regardless. The bigger the tribe the more votes he gets. Naturally the incumbent considers voting against him as an act of war, and punishes the opposition tribes accordingly: systematic disruption of rallies by brute force, so-called "clashes" (in reality armed raids by well trained paramilitary personnel), utter neglect of infrastructure, destruction of the existing ones, like sending bulldozers to strip tarmac off roads, etc. Some 20-30,000 people have lost their lives in the last decade of the 20th century following the siren song of the party system.


If it could be reduced to one sentence, the unwillingness (or inability, or both) to see the African social reality as it is, both from inside and outside, is the root cause of African social disorder, with the concomitant distorted image of Africa that Europe and America have. Living among the African people is another story and another experience, which maybe time and space will allow some day.


Silvano Borruso lives in Kenya.

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