“So how are you enjoying living in paradise?” Michael Geerts, the former German ambassador to Kenya asked me the other day. He was posted in Nairobi during the difficult years in the end of the 1990s, and continues to stay in touch with a country he loves dearly. Many colleagues, who once worked in Kenya have bought houses in Nairobi, and plan to retire in the “city under the sun”. But not everybody shares their passion and faith in the country’s future. There are many pessimists who feel that the country is moving in the wrong direction. Kenya, they say, will never rid itself from grand corruption, and crime such as drug trafficking will continue to flourish.
Are they seeing the same country? Maybe both perspectives are right, because Kenya is a country of extremes.Extraordinary success stands side by side with resounding failures. If you average these extremes you get a “median” outcome. If you rank all 48 African countries by per-capita income, Kenya comes out 24th, smack in the middle. This is not to say that Kenya is an average performer. Rather, it reflects the combination of extraordinary potential with equally spectacular failure to exploit these advantages. It is a low score for a country which everyone agrees should be at least among the top 10.
Between examples of success and failure lies a broad continuum of mixed performance that sets the agenda for the next administration. These discrepancies span all aspects of the development agenda. Kenya is a country of contrasts: economically, socially and geographically.
Economically, Kenya has developed some world class sectors (such as ICT and horticulture), while others have been declining for decades, especially agriculture, which is deeply affecting the wellbeing of large parts of the population. Kenya’s ICT revolution has been breathtaking, connecting all Kenyans to affordable communication in less than a decade, while creating an innovation cluster in the “Silicon savannah” around Nairobi. By contrast, the productivity of maize has declined steadily during the same period, and it is now the lowest in East Africa. As a result, Kenyan consumers must pay more than double the world market price for maize—their main staple food. This country produces some of the best tea in the world, but is the most inefficient producer of sugar. Kenya’s food policy has also complicated macroeconomic management, which has traditionally been very strong. High food prices have fueled inflation, especially during the 2009 and 2011 droughts.
Socially, Kenya has made a lot of progress over the last decade, but it is also falling behind in some key indicators. The country has achieved 92 percent net enrolment and closed the gender gap in primary education, earning a top ranking in sub-Sahara Africa. At the same time, there remain great differences across regions. Also, Kenya is unlikely to meet some of the basic health MDGs, especially for maternal mortality, which remains stubbornly high. To highlight another aspect of Kenya’s sharp contrasts, life expectancy has declined since the mid-1980s, even though child mortality is falling. When the AIDS epidemic struck, Kenyans lost on average 7 years of their lives. By 2000, life expectancy declined to 53 years, before it recovered again to 57 years by 2010.
Finally, Kenya remains a country of deep geographic inequality. Nairobi and Mombasa, with some ten percent of the population, account for about half of the country’s GDP. Kenya’s richest county (Kajiado) has a poverty headcount of 12 percent, compared to 93 percent in the poorest one (Turkana). In Nyeri, 20 percent of children successfully complete secondary education, but in Tana River only 6 percent do so. The contrasts are even more extreme when it comes to health services. In Uasin Gishu, there is one nurse in the public health system for every 1000 people. In Turkana and Mandera, that same nurse must look after 14,000 people, even though the distances are much greater in these remote regions!
These sharp contrasts can cause tensions, but they also constitute an asset going forward. To solve many of its problems, Kenya does not need to look outside its borders. Instead, it can learn from within to replicate success. There is no shortage of achievements in areas such as macroeconomic management, finance and ICT, where Kenya has not only fared well, but has become a world leader and pioneer. If all sectors performed as well as these, the country would be a prominent emerging economy, on par with East Asia’s dragons. This sets the agenda for the new government: learn from Kenya’s success stories and apply the lessons. Kenya will continue to excite passion, but mainly positive ones.
Follow Wolfgang Fengler on Twitter@wolfgangfengler.