The year was 1998, just after the second multiparty elections that, like the first, was marred by ethnicized political violence and allegations of massive fraud. The horizon was ominous. Moi would be coming to his two-term limit in the subsequent election, and there was already talk of a constitutional amendment to remove the term limit as was happening in Zambia and elsewhere at the time. The economy was in free fall. The big imponderable then was whether Moi would go when the time came, and whether the country could survive a conflagration if he sought to cling to power by hook or crook.
The departure point of Scenarios was that Kenya’s business model had reached the end of the road: “Kenya had reached the limits of its chosen political and economic models.” This prognosis was captured by an analogy of an umbrella. We inherited at independence a dualism of the colonial era which created a “modern” enclave sector occupied by Europeans and their Asian and African auxiliaries, and a “native sector” occupied by the excluded African masses. The modern enclave, which I prefer to call the privilege sector, comprised the State, a small corporatized economy with superior social amenities especially education facilities and urban residencies. Colonial Europeans had the exclusive Duke of York, Prince of Wales and other exclusive schools, Asians had their own — the Duke of Gloucester, Allidina Visram, Racecourse Secondary — and the lucky few Africans had Alliance, Maseno, Mang’u and a few others. Even though African schools and urban residencies were below those enjoyed by Europeans they were way above the life of the ordinary native. Once you got into one of these schools, you had made it.
The departure point of Scenarios was that Kenya’s business model had reached the end of the road: “Kenya had reached the limits of its chosen political and economic models.”
Now think of the enclave economy, the privilege sector if you like, as an umbrella. People under the umbrella are protected from the elements, but how well protected you are depends on your position inside the umbrella. People at the centre are completely protected and warm, while those at the periphery are less protected, but they are better than those outside. The trick is to get deeper into the umbrella until you are the guy actually holding it.
Before independence Europeans were at the centre, followed by Asians, and Africans at the periphery. After independence, many Europeans and some Asians left making more room for Africans to move deeper into the umbrella, and a few more to move into the shelter.
A fresh graduate was guaranteed a position previously occupied by a European, and a high school leaver, a position previously occupied by an Asian. Even though there was a whiff of tribalism, with Kikuyus getting the prime jobs, all Africans with university education got on the gravy train. Those with post-graduate degrees went straight to the top of the public service.
We inherited at independence a dualism of the colonial era which created a “modern” enclave sector occupied by Europeans and their Asian and African auxiliaries, and a “native sector” occupied by the excluded African masses.
By the mid-seventies the privilege sector was already feeling the strain of the numbers of people. Up until then anybody with an O-Level Div. 3 was assured a good clerical job in the private sector while A Levels who did not proceed to university or diploma courses joined as management trainees.
By the end of the `80s, the economy was struggling to absorb 2000 university graduates a year.
The problem was about to get a whole lot worse.
In 1990, the labour force was in the order of four million people, of which one million, a quarter that is, were in the “privilege sector” (i.e. public and private sector formal wage jobs). The other three quarters were in the informal non-agricultural and smallholder agriculture. Unemployment was relatively low, since smallholder agriculture and informal sector was absorbing those who did not get into the privilege sector.
Three decades on, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics estimated the economically active population (15-64 year-olds) at 25 million, and the actual labour force (i..e excluding students and others inactive) at 19 million — a five-fold increase. Formal wage employment is estimated at 2.7 million and non-farm informal employment at 14 million, leaving one million unemployed, and implying that there are just about two million smallholder farmers and pastoralists. Out of the increase of 16 million, the privilege sector has absorbed 1.7 million, only 10 percent, and its contribution to employment is down to 8.5 percent from 25 percent three decades ago.
In the meantime, university enrolment has increased to 500,000 which works out to 125,000 graduates a year, or 63 times the rate three decades ago, while the privilege sector is absorbing just over 100,000 a year. Even if they took up all the jobs, the privilege sector simply cannot absorb the annual throughput of university graduates.
In 1990, the labour force was in the order of four million people, of which one million, a quarter that is, were in the “privilege sector”… Three decades on, the economically active population (15-64 year-olds) is at 25 million, and the actual labour forceS at 19 million — a five-fold increase.
This encapsulates what the scenarios team meant by the end of the road: “Radical changes to revive the economy, a comprehensive reorganization of Kenya’s primary institutions, models of governance and relationships between citizenry and the government are all required.” Would it happen?
Two transformational imperatives were self evident, political and economic, making for four possible scenarios. The first is the No Reform scenario, that is, the continuation of the trajectory that the country was on at the time. We called this the El Nino scenario. The second is the economic reform-only scenario. We called this scenario Maendeleo. The third is political reform-only scenario. We called this the Katiba scenario. Initially, these were the only scenarios developed. But when presented to the project trustees, they argued that the presented scenarios were all too pessimistic and insisted that the team develop a fourth scenario with both political and economic reform. The team obliged, even as it felt this was not a viable prospect. We called this the Flying Geese scenario (See ‘Kenya Scenarios Project’ box).
Kenya’s politics for the better part of the last two decades can be characterized as a struggle between the Maendeleo and Katiba scenarios.
University enrolment has increased to 500,000 which works out to 125,000 graduates a year, or 63 times the rate three decades ago.
In 2003, the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) rode to power on a Katiba platform. For a short while, the cross-ethnic unity of purpose displayed by erstwhile bitter political rivals, reminiscent of the Flying Geese scenario, made Kenyans the most optimistic people in the world. It did not last. On assuming office the old order coalesced around Kibaki, sabotaged the constitution-making process, and proclaimed a Maendeleo agenda. Instead of a constitution, we got Vision 2030. Katiba-Maendeleo was not just a battle between politics and economics but it played out in the economic arena, between NARC’s bottom-up-inclusive growth and the trickle-down economics of the privilege economy. A good number of the experts I mobilized to work on NARC’s Economic Recovery Strategy (ERS), Betty Maina, Sam Mwale, Gem Kodhek, Wachira Maina, Richard Ayah, John Kashangaki, Joslyn Ogai among others, were members of the scenarios team, as was Prof. Anyang’ Nyong’o, the minister in charge of the ERS. After the 2005 referendum, the transformative political and economic agenda was abandoned. Instead of a new constitution and the economic empowerment agenda that NARC had promised, we got the trickle-down infrastructure-led Vision 2030.
Kenya’s politics for the better part of the last two decades can be characterized as a struggle between the Maendeleo and Katiba
It took the 2007/8 post-election violence to jolt maendeleoism back to reality, and create the impetus for the 2010 Constitution. It is our great misfortune that we put the constitution in abeyance for two years instead of going to election immediately after promulgation as is the norm. This gave time for the old order to regroup behind the anti-ICC narrative. The rest, as they say, is history.
For the 2017 general election, we once again united the opposition around the Katiba platform. NASA was crafted straight out of the 2003 NARC playbook. Those who paid attention to the manifestos may have noted that the NASA manifesto led with the political reform agenda, followed by social and economic priorities in that order, while the Jubilee one led with an economic agenda; social and political reforms were treated almost as an afterthought.
It is our great misfortune that we put the constitution in abeyance for two years instead of going to election immediately after promulgation as is the norm.
The Jubilee government’s plunder and incompetence has no doubt contributed to the economic implosion that is now unfolding. Perhaps distracted by the melodrama of the plunder and blunders, the clawback of the privilege sector has gone, if not unnoticed, then unremarked. Recently, a Principal Secretary gloated on social media that they have secured US$26 billion in pledges from investors for the housing pillar of the so called Big Four Agenda, whose claim to bigness no one seems to know. Twenty-six billion dollars is a lot of money. It is equivalent to the GDP of Uganda. The idea that a government of a country that cannot feed itself can contemplate investing that kind of money in urban middle class housing, let alone shout about it, is astounding. The question I posed to him: what will the houses produce?
According to the National Housing Survey conducted by the KNBS five years ago, 60 percent of Kenyans live in their own houses (88 percent of rural. No surprises there — Kenya is still a predominantly agrarian society — 60 percent of Kenyans are rural and 88 percent live on land they own. Urban home ownership stood at 30 percent but this understates actual home ownership, as many urban residents also own rural homes, and actually see their sojourns into cities and towns as temporary.
Recently, a Principal Secretary gloated on social media that the government has secured US$26 billion in pledges from investors for the housing pillar of the so called Big Four Agenda. Twenty-six billion dollars is the equivalent to the GDP of Uganda. That a government of a country that cannot feed itself can contemplate investing that kind of money in urban middle class housing…is astounding.
More significant perhaps is that over 70 percent paid monthly rents under Sh. 6,000, and 90 percent under Sh.10,000. Realistically, only about 10 percent of urban residents, less than three percent of Kenyans, are in the potential home ownership bracket. It’s hard to see what kind of logic would lead the government to the conclusion that urban middle class home ownership is one of the country’s top four development priorities. But this is the logic of the privilege society.
In the old days, entitlement was rationalized with the graduates being the creme de la creme of society, a merited reward for scaling the heights to reach the pinnacle of academic achievement. Many students did the minimum necessary to graduate. Those who seemed to be “overworking” were often frowned upon. The former were right in a sense. Education replaced Race as a ticket to the top of the social ladder. Not what you do, but who you are, a graduate. Graduates were the new whites. Times and circumstances have changed, but culture dies hard. It is in the rubric of this culture that prioritizing residential housing over enterprises in a country with a monumental unemployment crisis can look perfectly normal.
With Maendeleo imploding, and Katiba proving too potent a threat to privilege, what we see now is a political class in self-preservation mode, laying the groundwork for what I’ve called an eat-and-let-eat grand ethnic coalition—KANU 3.0. In the meantime, the demographic clock ticks, at the rate of 150,000 university graduates a year. Frustrations rise.
Education replaced Race as a ticket to the top of the social ladder…Graduates were the new whites.
Where does the political class think it is going with this? No political reforms, no economic reforms. That would be El Nino:
“The state is captured by a small elite that employs it as an agent of its own private enterprise. On the other hand, the economy is characterized by low productivity which makes it impossible for the population to realize upward economic mobility. Thus, the construction of both the economic and political spaces generates tension and conflict. The result is an implosion.”
The Kenya at the Crossroads Scenarios proved prescient 20 years ago. It may well be yet again.
El Nino: “The state is captured by a small elite that employs it as an agent of its own private enterprise. On the other hand, the economy is characterized by low productivity which makes it impossible for the population to realize upward economic mobility. Thus, the construction of both the economic and political spaces generates tension and conflict. The result is an implosion.”
The Kenya at the Crossroads Scenarios
No Political Reforms, No Economic Reforms: El Nino
In the El Niño scenario, neither the reform of the state nor the restructuring of the economy takes place. It is a story in which the state remains predominantly patron-client based and therefore partisan, subjective and ineffective in the manner in which it performs its functions. The state is captured by a small elite that employs it as an agent of its own private enterprise. On the other hand, the economy is characterized by low productivity which makes it impossible for the population to realize upward economic mobility. Thus, the construction of both the economic and political spaces generates tension and conflict. The result is an implosion.
Economic Reforms with Minimal Political Reforms: Maendeleo
This scenario explores a technocratic attempt to reform the economy with a view to using economic gains as a means of pre-empting or forestalling demands for political reform. The major assumption in this scenarios is that if the economy is growing steadily, there will be little or reduced demand for political reform. Whilst this model is initially successful, as the limits of the system are reached and economic growth slows down, the demands for political reform pick up once again and the system is faced with two basic choices: to be repressive (and perpetuate the economic decline) or negotiate political reforms (and kick-start the economy again). Though this strategy leads to short-term gains, it breeds a lot of inequality. Without addressing the deeper political and structural questions with regard to Kenya’s problems, this success cannot be maintained for a long period. Sooner or later, one has to address these structural questions.
Political Reforms with Minimum Economic Reforms: Katiba
The Katiba scenario presupposes a successful political negotiation that sees the country adopt a new constitution which recognizes the diversity of the peoples of Kenya and puts in place a mechanism of checks and balances which ensure that the centre is not in a position to dominate over any of the regions of the country.nsuccessful, the outcome for the country can only be bleak. The Katiba story is a story of an inclusive long-drawn out but successful political negotiation process which leads to the reform of and creation of key national institutions. This process takes place in an environment in which there is little or no economic growth. It is the story of a stormy, painful, but decidedly successful attempt by Kenyans to resolve the inconsistencies in their political processes and key institutions of public life that have led to domination, marginalization and fostered corruption. The new institutions reflect the diversity of the country, increase the accountability of leadership at all levels and allow a greater role for the citizen in shaping and managing those activities that affect their day-to-day lives.
Simultaneous Economic and Political Reforms: Flying Geese
This is a scenario of inclusive growth and fundamental institutional reorganization. The team is persuaded that with decisive action and a keen interest in redressing the past and capturing the future, sufficient resolve could be brought to bear and this scenario launched. The Flying Geese story explores the renaissance of Kenya through a determined effort to reform the social, cultural, economic and political models in force. This effort is spearheaded by a new leadership which is armed with a vision and the conviction that Kenya deserves better and can be more than it presently is. For simultaneous reforms on both the economic and political fronts to succeed, a huge reservoir of goodwill is required. There is also a need to for there to be a body (or bodies) that can act as guarantors to the process.
The Dam Has Broken. Time to Call Jubilee Plunder What It Is
To budget anything from a quarter to a third of the country’s annual GDP for stealing — to then borrow it, steal it, feign outrage, compromise parliament, and diffuse public anger with ineffectual corruption investigations, again and again and again – defies corruption. It is a crime against humanity.
The debut of this column in the E Review grappled with the Jubilee administration’s profligate spending. As it happens, dams were one of the big red flags that popped up. Records show that during its first term, the Jubilee administration spent upwards of KSh 160 billion on water and irrigation projects. These Arror and Kimwarer dams are costed at KSh 51 billion — let us say KSh 26 billion on average. The KSh 160 billion spent works out to at least six of these dams completed, or alternatively at least double that number under construction. And KSh 26 billion is a huge amount of money for a dam. Thika Dam, commonly known as Ndaka-ini, our biggest reservoir for drinking water to date, cost US$80 million in the early `90s, equivalent of US$140m (i.e. adjusted for dollar inflation) or KSh 14 billion today. These dam budgets are telling us that the cost of building dams has doubled in dollar terms, or that we are building infinitely grander dams. Neither is the case.
We now know for sure that there were no dams built. This mindless plunder is replicated in virtually every sector. The budget records show KSh 280 billion on power transmission lines, enough for 6,000 kilometres of 400 Kv lines (based on the cost of Marsabit-Suswa line), but information posted by KETRACO, the agency responsible for building them, shows only 2800 km of lines under construction, whose total cost is at most KSh 100 billion. We are talking KSh 180 billion missing, an amount, I should add, of the same order of magnitude as the Eurobond money that the Auditor General could not find.
Overall, records show that KSh 2.5 trillion went through the development budget during Jubilee’s first term. The biggest ticket item here is the SGR railway which cost KSh 350 billion. The remaining KSh 2.15 trillion works out to KSh 45 billion worth of development projects per county. The money available to county governments over the same period would have enabled expenditure on average of KSh 6 billion on development projects. In effect, we should be seeing six times more national government development projects in each county as county government ones.
We now know for sure that there were no dams built. This mindless plunder is replicated in virtually every sector. The budget records show KSh 280 billion on power transmission lines, enough for 6,000 kilometres of 400 Kv lines …but information posted by KETRACO, the agency responsible for building them, shows only 2800 km of lines under construction, whose total cost is KSh 100 billion. We are talking KSh 180 billion missing, an amount, of the same order of magnitude as the Eurobond money that the Auditor General could not find.
Makueni county built a 200-bed Mother and Child hospital for a princely sum of Ksh. 135m. Kibra MP Ken Okoth built and equipped a girl’s secondary school that’s been all the rage for Ksh. 48m. A hospital like Makueni’s in every county is KSh 6.4 billion; a girls school like Kibra’s in every constituency, KSh 14 billion. Both combined add up to just over KSh 20 billion — about the money that has already been spent on the ghost dam projects. If national government has spent KSh 45 billion per county on development projects these two projects would not be the talk of the country. There would be the equivalent of 300 Mother and Child hospitals in every county or alternately, 150 Kibra girls schools in every constituency.
Galana-Kulalu Irrigation project is on its death-bed. It is not yet known how much money has gone down that drain. One senior Jubilee official said to me that it is their Goldenberg, to which I quipped that the competition for that dubious appellation would be strong. The last mile connectivity project was one of Jubilees flagship projects: over 800,000 connections are dormant. The connected households have never switched on the power. This should not surprise. Most of these households cannot afford electrical appliances other than a few lightbulbs that they would use only for three or four hours a day. It would have been infinitely more sensible and cost effective to mandate the Rural Electrification Authority to serve these rural hamlets with micro-grids and stand-alone domestic solar installations. The Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC) is now weighed down with the costs of maintaining these loss-making connections. These costs have to be passed on to consumers. And this is over and above the costs of carrying the excess generation capacity courtesy of the equally hare-brained if-we-build-it-they will come 5000 MW drive that has now been abandoned. It has been a long climb for KPLC to recover from the plunder of the Moi regime.
Makueni County built a 200-bed Mother and Child hospital for the princely sum of KSh 135 million. Kibra MP Ken Okoth built and equipped a girl’s secondary school that’s been all the rage for KSh 48 million. A hospital like Makueni’s in every county is KSh 6.4 billion; a girls school like Kibra’s in every constituency, KSh 14 billion. Both combined add up to just over KSh 20 billion — about the money that has already been spent on the ghost dam projects.
This week, we have been entertained by the mysterious disappearance of 51 million litres of aviation fuel worth KSh 5 billion from the tanks of the Kenya Pipeline Company. This follows from a report that KPC lost 23 million litres worth Ksh 2.3 billion in 15 months. Even for the KPC, historically one of the most profitable and cash-rich public enterprises, a KSh 7 billion hole is a crippling loss. When Jubilee took over, the project on the table was to upgrade the 14-inch pipeline with a 16-inch one at a cost of KSh 16 billion. Jubilee scaled this up to a 20-inch one at a cost of KSh 48 billion, three times the mooted cost. The pipeline was to be completed in 18 months — by 2016 that is. Costs have escalated, and it is still not complete. It has been reported that the corruption investigation in KPC covers 27 projects worth KSh 95 billion. Most of this money is expensive foreign commercial loans. It’s hard to see how KPC can remain solvent. We are looking at another black hole here of the same order of magnitude as Kenya Airways, if not bigger.
The mother of all Jubilee financial blackholes is indisputably the SGR. According to Compass International, an engineering and construction consultancy, the benchmark cost for a new single-track high speed rail at between US$997,000 and US$ 1.13m per km, plus cost of signaling infrastructure at between US$154,700 and US$189,000 for a total of US$1.15 million to US$1.3 million The SGR is not an electrified high-speed rail, but we paid $6.7m per km, five times the high end of the benchmarking cost.
Galana-Kulalu Irrigation project is on its death-bed. It is not yet known how much money has gone down that drain. One senior Jubilee official said to me that it is their Goldenberg, to which I quipped that the competition for that dubious appellation would be strong.
After years of denial, a government task force has established that the SGR is not viable. The SGR was sold on bringing down the cost, and improving the efficiency, of freight. According to the said task force, the SGR has increased the cost of transporting a 20-foot container by 118 percent, from $650 (Ksh. 65,000) by road, to US$1,420 (Ksh. 142,000) and by 149 percent for a 40-foot container from $850 (Ksh. 85,000) to US $2,120 (Ksh. 212,000).
There are two components in this cost escalation. First, the SGR tariff is set to try and repay the loans. Even then, the SGR is yet to cover operating costs, let alone generate an operating surplus that can service debt. Secondly, the SGR has introduced additional costs notably “last mile” cost of transporting containers from the railway terminal to the owners premises, as opposed to trucking which is port-to-door, as well as additional container handling logistics. These challenges of integrating rail and seaport are universal, and are part of the reason why the rail share of freight in the EU has declined from over 40 percent in the 70s to less than 20 percent today.
Even for the Kenya Pipeline Company, one of the most profitable and cash-rich public enterprises, a KSh 7 billion hole is a crippling loss. When Jubilee took over, the project…to upgrade the 14-inch pipeline with a 16-inch one at a cost of KSh 16 billion. Jubilee scaled this up to a 20-inch one at a cost of KSh 48 billion, three times the mooted cost. The pipeline was to be completed in 18 months – by 2016 that is. Costs have escalated, and it is still not complete.
The long and short of it is that SGR is increasingly demonstrating what this columnist and others have maintained from the outset— that it is a white elephant. Without being forced, people would not use it. And if it were to charge a competitive tariff, it is doubtful that it would keep the trains running, let alone service its debt. I have opined before that the least costly option may be to mothball it, seeing as the debt will be paid by the taxpayer, we should not be made to pay four times namely, the debt, operational subsidy, higher freight cost and trucking industry jobs and incomes. The next best thing is to take over the debt, cancel the Chinese management contract and leave it to swim or sink in the market place under the management of Kenya Railways. The only beneficiary of this project is China. It is doubtful that the Jubilee administration can muster the resolve to bite the bullet on this one. So we will continue to bleed.
After years of denial, a government task force has established that the SGR is not viable. The SGR was sold on bringing down the cost, and improving the efficiency, of freight. According to the said task force, the SGR has increased the cost of transporting a 20-foot container by 118 percent, from $650 (Ksh. 65,000) by road, to US$1,420 (Ksh. 142,000) and by 149 percent for a 40-foot container from $850 (Ksh. 85,000) to US $2,120 (Ksh. 212,000).
This is Uhuru Kenyatta’s legacy as it now stands. Mindless plunder and worthless vanity projects—a US$ 25 billion (Sh. 2.5 trillion) hole in the economy and counting, and contingent liabilities, financial booby traps if you like, Kenya Airways, Kenya Pipeline, Kenya Power and others we don’t know of yet, that could go off at any minute.
This is Uhuru Kenyatta’s legacy as it now stands. Mindless plunder and worthless vanity projects—a US$ 25 billion (Sh. 2.5 trillion) hole in the economy and counting.
The penny is beginning to drop, and sections of the regime are now beginning to talk about a turn-around strategy that can salvage the President something of an economic legacy. They have their work cut out. Economic crises of this nature are not solved by the same people who created them. Ethiopia’s EPDRF government came to this realisation about a year ago. Ethiopia was headed for a revolution such as unfolding next door in Sudan. Former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has recently intimated that he resigned to make it easier for the regime to reform. So far, the bet on a leadership change is paying off, even though the new Prime Minister’s magic touch is yet to be tested on the inevitable painful economic reforms. The political honeymoon also appears to be ending.
The penny is beginning to drop, and sections of the regime are now beginning to talk about a turn-around strategy that can salvage the President something of an economic legacy. They have their work cut out. Economic crises of this nature are not solved by the same people who created them.
The rapprochement between Kenyatta and Raila Odinga a year ago, popularly known as the “handshake” offered an opportunity to engineer something similar. But as soon as they pledged to build bridges, Kenyatta set off to burn them. A year later, no-one seems to know where it is headed, other than hazy talk of a referendum, and holding the political ground as Kenyatta prosecutes yet another hypocritical and inept anti-corruption war, as opportunistic as it is ineffectual. With toxic succession politics in full throttle, it is difficult to see how resolve and focus on radical economic reform can be mustered.
Amidst the entire dam hullabaloo, there was a small event last week that did not attract much attention. The cornered Treasury CS took time out from his daily commute to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations to launch a private external audit of the Eurobond funds commissioned by the Treasury. No prizes for guessing that the audit sees no evil. External audit is an exclusive constitutional mandate of the Auditor General. We all witnessed the President staring down the Auditor General on his special audit ordered by parliament. It has yet to see the light of day. The national government’s audit for the year remains qualified. There is no country where questions can be raised about two billion dollars of public money, and the president of the country acts about it as nonchalantly as Kenyatta has, unless there is direct complicity with the thieves. Malaysia’s 1MDB and Mozambique’s Tuna sovereign bond frauds have unravelled. This one will too, in the fullness of time. Kenyatta has plenty of reason to want to extend his influence beyond his term of office.
To plunder the way the Jubilee administration has, it has had to raze the public financial management system to the ground. Without public financial accountability, there is no government, no economy, no country. To budget anything from a quarter to a third of the country’s annual GDP for stealing — to then borrow it, steal it, feign outrage, compromise parliament, and diffuse public anger with ineffectual corruption investigations, again and again and again – defies corruption. It is a crime against humanity.
Yes, the economy is crumbling, but its turnaround is not the priority. Getting rid of this monster called Jubilee is.
Brexit, Little Britain and the Empire Politics of the End
Why has the UK establishment so farcically mismanaged Brexit? The answer has eluded her politicians because it lies deep within a political system no longer fit for current purpose.
The decade-long death march of Western capitalism continues to reap yet more victims. The latest is the British political establishment and the remnants of the Empire that created it.
The problem for the key actors, dwarfed as they are by a venerable political system they inherited from the time of their great-great grandparents when it yielded exclusionary benefits, is their inability to grasp that Brexit, the current crisis with which it is grappling, does not signal a change. It is an ending. Misreading the situation, the said actors continue to dream up remedies and strategies based on the vain assumption that the economic crisis will somehow be resolved by political initiatives.
The lone survivor may well end up being Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the official opposition Labour Party, and then only because he never believed in the virtues of western capitalism to begin with. He sees his mission more in terms of how to cater to the needs of all capitalism’s damaged survivors.
The problem for the key actors, dwarfed as they are by a venerable political system they inherited from the time of their great-great grandparents when it yielded exclusionary benefits, is their inability to grasp that Brexit does not signal a change. It is an ending.
The vast majority of British people are not wealthy. They merely live within a rich economy that provides them access to credit. For at least 350 years, the British economy expanded through the ruthless exploitation of resources and people from many parts of the world. The big question then, as now, was: who benefits, and how?
In his 1964 book, The Sins of the Fathers, James Pope-Hennessey explains that:
“Shipbuilding in Liverpool was gloriously stimulated by the slave trade, and so was every other ancillary industry connected with ships…… People used to say that ‘several of the principal streets of Liverpool had been marked out by the chains, and the walls of the houses cemented by the blood of the African slaves.’ The Customs House sported carvings of Negroes’ heads…”
The most contentious question at the core of British politics has always been the question of the domestic distribution of the proceeds of that global trade.
In particular the history of the social democratic movement in the UK, which culminates in the formation in 1900 of the Labour Party, has been the history of developing more efficient ways of systematically redistributing Empire’s wealth as it comes in. These initiatives culminate in the establishment of the provision of mass housing (1935), education (1944) and health (1946) as a clear statutory requirement, after the 1939-1945 war, and the economic crisis that preceded it. These three policies alone immeasurably changed the quality of life for ordinary British people, and are now the site of the ideological battleground between the main parties, regarding how best to “fix” the country’s crisis.
For at least 350 years, the British economy expanded through the ruthless exploitation of resources and people from many parts of the world. The big question then, as now, was: who benefits, and how?
Since the failure to recover from the 2008 economic crash, politics seems to have become an exercise in which everyone questions the legitimacy and role of every other participant. Empire’s redistributive template is being challenged from all angles: ordinary citizens challenge the corporate world regarding the rates of tax it pays to keep public services running; the corporate world in turn challenges the logic of ordinary people continuing to expect that such services should be provided for free and on demand; indigenous people begin to question why immigrants have the right to move in and partake of such services; the provincial regions begin to question why major infrastructural development tends to be focused on the major urban centres, and so on.
The history of the social democratic movement in the UK, which culminates in the formation in 1900 of the Labour Party, has been the history of developing more efficient ways of systematically redistributing Empire’s wealth as it comes in.
The latest development in these establishment contestations is the resignation of seven MPs from the Labour Party, and declaring themselves “independent”. They were soon joined by an eighth Labour MP, and then by four members of the ruling Conservative Party. There is every indication that there will be more resignations from both parties; some of these MPs will likely join the new group. This attempted re-alignment of Britain’s 150-year-old effectively two-party system may amount to little in itself, but will in the long-term, prove to be hugely significant.
Empire’s redistributive template is being challenged from all angles: ordinary citizens challenge the corporate world regarding the rates of tax it pays to keep public services running; the corporate world in turn challenges the logic of ordinary people continuing to expect that such services should be provided for free and on demand; indigenous people begin to question why immigrants have the right to move in and partake of such services…
This is in fact a debate about the future, paralysed by the past.
Britain sidestepped an obligation to undertake a principled and genuine retreat from Empire. Such a retreat would have entailed a costly reckoning with history. Empire’s unravellng came with huge costs: there was the risk of being forced into making material reparations to the colonies and descendants of those enslaved in the Trans-Atlantic trade; downsizing and restructuring her global corporate reach would have meant a significant reduction in income; and weaning her domestic population off the proceeds of Empire’s profits could have led to sharp political disruptions. Instead, Britain embarked on a series of pretend “withdrawals” and resorted to all manner of skullduggery so as to maintain back-channel influence and continue profiteering.
By postponing this decision, Britain now faces a stark question: how does she retain her economic pre-eminence? Is it by cleaving unto an ever-tighter embrace with the European Union, or independently returning to her own stall in the global marketplace, which first gave her pre-eminence?
Britain sidestepped an obligation to undertake a principled and genuine retreat from Empire. Such a retreat would have entailed a costly reckoning with history.
This is the dilemma expressing itself as the Brexit crisis, essentially the failure by the entire political leadership to manage the consequences of the 2016 referendum, in which UK citizens — by a small margin, it should be noted — voted to end their country’s 45-year membership of the European Union.
That referendum itself only came about as a consequence of then UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s bungling attempts to end dissent in his ruling Conservative Party. He sought to outflank growing voices from the Tory right wing insistent that a new type of Conservative Party was necessary to make Britain “great” again, not least by severing its links with the European Union, which they characterized as the source of unwanted immigrants, and a drain on the UK’s “hard-earned” Empire wealth. Cameron, shocked by the unexpected referendum result, resigned immediately, leaving the problem to his successor, current PM Theresa May.
The referendum itself only came about as a consequence of then UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s bungling attempts to end dissent in his ruling Conservative Party. He sought to outflank growing voices from the Tory right wing insistent that a new type of Conservative Party was necessary to make Britain “great” again…
The referendum result has had an equally damaging impact on the opposition Labour Party, already adrift from its ideological moorings, following its many years in opposition after its 1979 defeat by the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher. Originally, Labour was committed to the goals of a form of socialism: nationalisation of key sectors of the economy; widespread provision of social services and amenities as well as a safety net; and protection of workers’ rights to organize, assemble and agitate. Following a second defeat to Thatcher in 1983, a number of reformist party leaders like Neil Kinnock, began to reshape the party’s orientation while still in opposition. “Socialist” policies were progressively abandoned over the following decade and a half, as they became increasingly unsellable to the electorate, not least because of the pernicious influence of a corporate media hostile both to the Party and its policies, and the victory of Thatcherite neoliberalism as the dominant policy mantra across the political establishment. This paved the way for Tony Blair to emerge as a new type of Labour leader, and lead the reformed party — now freed of its previous ideological commitments and Trade Union obligations — back into power in 1997.
The referendum result has had an equally damaging impact on the opposition Labour Party, already adrift from its ideological moorings, following its many years in opposition after its 1979 defeat by the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher.
Despite this, the ideological debate within Labour never completely ended. Many radicals blamed the party’s inability to recover quickly from the loss of the 1979 election on the narrow defeat of the radical Tony Wedgewood Benn in the deputy party leadership vote, in 1981. With the collapse of neoliberal economics after 2008, some of the old “socialist” ideas have experienced a resurgence. It is this that has brought current leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran of the futile 1980s battles to keep the party “socialist”, to the leadership. In fact, a number of the key actors in Corbyn’s camp — including Corbyn himself — were active pro-Tony Benn youth wingers back then.
Despite all those struggles, such “progressive” politics, directed from this “distributionist” framework never quite explained where the wealth to be distributed would come from, especially if Empire’s global resources were no longer available.
With the collapse of neoliberal economics after 2008, some of the old “socialist” ideas have experienced a popular resurgence. It is this revival that brought Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran of the futile 1980s battles to keep the party “socialist”, to Party leadership.
In a UK Guardian article of September 22, 2011, British Admiral Lord Alan West was quoted criticising proposed cuts to the UK defence budget:
“We are probably, depending on what figures you use, the fifth or sixth wealthiest nation in the world. We have the largest percentage of our GDP on exports … we run world shipping from the UK, we are the largest European investor in south Asia, south-east Asia [and] the Pacific Rim, so our money and our wealth depends on this global scene.”
This is why retaining a presence in the European Union is important to the UK establishment, which believes it would offset any contraction of the Empire economy as it tries to deliver on its redistributive “socialist” ideals. Even this may not work, as it is a strategy still premised, however indirectly, on the wealth generated by Empire.
Progressive politics, which operate from within this “distributionist” framework never quite explained where the wealth to be distributed would come from, especially if Empire’s global resources were no longer available.
Leaving or remaining in the European Union is therefore an argument represented by factions within each of the dominant political parties, not just the Conservatives. Whichever party finds itself in power in this period will simply implode, as is happening to the Conservative Party at the moment.
The central question, that is, the question concerning a long-term post-Empire economic strategy, goes back over 30 years, and has never been settled. It was only temporarily resolved by the rule of Margaret Thatcher. Faced with an EU demand then for greater economic integration against a growing domestic chorus to double-down and go it completely alone, the British, being British, attempted to do both. This left the UK with a somewhat hybridized EU membership. Unlike the rest of the Union for example, Britain kept her own currency.
Leaving or remaining in the European Union is therefore an argument represented by factions within each of the dominant political parties, not just the Conservatives. Whichever party finds itself in power in this period will simply implode.
Now the matter has returned to centre stage, not least due to the economic hardships bedevilling the EU’s 500 million citizens. The crisis has arrived at a time when politics in Britain is being managed by a generation of people dwarfed by their own legacy. Since at least the time of Gladstone in the 1860s, the British political system has been premised on managing the proceeds of an empire-based economy. The crisis therefore, goes to the heart of how British economics, and therefore politics, is constituted.
The end of Empire has been a prolonged period of discomfort, and left a wrong political fit. Those days, and the formations they spawned, are now over. The whole construct and edifice — the buildings, institutions, traditions, imperatives — are not fit for current purpose. So, the government system, which includes the official Opposition, is obsolete. Those were Empire-level political initiatives to keep the masses happy with their share of the spoils.
The current leaders on all sides seem incapable of understanding the full meaning of the weight of all that history, and so what is happening in the UK parliament is a splintering of the old order, but one which carries the misconceptions of that old order into the new.
In particular, Empire’s racial politics that played out in the colonies and was previously viewed with a certain metropolitan hauteur from London, became increasingly domesticated after decolonisation. At home, racial politics spawned a new lexicon, and new hitherto unfamiliar actors, both of which ended up in Empire’s parliament pursuing identity politics as a new dimension to the aforementioned politics of redistribution.
But real change will not come through thinking and speaking from the platform of Empire’s institutions. It cannot be re-ordered, or have its wrongs put right, from those pedestals.
The truth is that the 2016 referendum was not a decisive outcome. For a matter of that magnitude, a nearly 50/50 result cannot be said to be a clear “rejection” of anything. By the same token, neither can it be said to be an acceptance of the status quo.
The logical thing on paper would be to hold another referendum. However, given the polarized nature of the debate, as well as the real economic pain ordinary British people are experiencing, this would likely split both main parties internally. There is a strong suspicion that step three for the recently resigned MPs will be an attempt to create a new party, that would move to displace the current official opposition, in anticipation of the looming internal splits.
The truth is that the 2016 referendum was not a decisive outcome. For a matter of that magnitude, a nearly 50/50 result cannot be said to be a clear “rejection” of anything.
This, however, is to still miss the point.
What was important was the spread of the result. England, by far the most populous of the three national regions, voted most clearly to leave the EU. But again, this was outside the main urban concentrations (where a lot of non-indigenous minorities are to be found). While Wales voted alongside England, Scotland voted solidly to remain.
Instead of dealing with the implications of the result, all the other political factions appear strangely to have perceived their immediate task as being to prevent a Corbyn-led Labour Party from taking power. Corbyn espouses a fundamentally different agenda than the conventional mainstream: he wants a redistribution of the wealth of the country among a much wider demographic, through nationalization, and the massive expansion of social services. For Corbyn therefore, the issue of Brexit is secondary. He intends to pursue his programme regardless of whether Britain remains in the EU or not. But such economic plans are inimical to the now 40-year orthodoxy established by Margaret Thatcher, and injected into the Labour party by Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair.
Instead of dealing with the implications of the result, all the other political factions appear strangely to have perceived their immediate task as being to prevent a Corbyn-led Labour Party from taking power.
The fault line in this political quagmire is both factions of the Conservative Party, plus the Tony Blair remnants (and they are many) in the Labour party being on one ideological side, against Jeremy Corbyn’s faction of the party.
This will be a battle huge and distracting in equal measure.
First, it will keep British politics bogged down in a debate about the best distribution of Admiral West’s Empire proceeds, a lot of which is backstopped through the European Union’s “Economic Partnership Agreements” signed with much of the so-called “developing” world – that is, the old colonial world of Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific and Asia. The EPAs are basically the modern form of the unfair trade treaties of the last five centuries. Their most disruptive feature was ‘conditionality’: the overweening donor influence on where and how ‘aid’ is spent, and a heavy focus on private sector participation in ‘development’.
On the domestic political front, the threat of Corbyn implementing his redistribution agenda after the UK exits the EU,, would profoundly disrupt established corporate interests.
Third, given the historical economic pressure created by the emergence of other global economic players, it is inevitable that the UK will see her share of the spoils progressively decline. The reality of this permanent decline will then be used to drag the likes of Corbyn into a jingoistic debate about British “greatness” (which, incidentally, is built on a fallacious premise: what right does the UK have to global pre-eminence, and how is that pre-eminence to be kept in place anyway?).
Many of the current round of EPAs (negotiated for twenty-year periods), are due to expire between 2020 and 2025. Would a Corbyn government design their renegotiation to better reflect the principles of fair trade, a condition of staying in the EU? If so, would the EU want the UK back as a member?
Being in the EU has failed to suppress the UK establishment’s nostalgic fantasies of the return of Empire. Understanding this is to recognise that the nature of Britain’s current politics has no answers for the future. To confront the future would first require a recognition that the global Empire economy, which the EU also feeds off of, must be restructured in favour of a global fair trade regime, whether the UK in all or in part remains inside the EU.
Whether within the EU or out of it, Britain remains the fifth richest country in the world due to a legacy of malfeasance. Britain’s current political order is being dismantled by the force of this legacy; the current leaders know neither how to maintain their global advantage, nor how to make an orderly withdrawal from it.
To confront the future would require a recognition that the global Empire economy, which the EU also feeds off of, must be restructured in favour of a global fair trade regime, whether the UK in all or in part remains inside the EU.
This essentially means that the 2016 referendum produced three or four outcomes, not one.
For the British people then to be able to speak, the creation of an ENGLISH parliament is imperative. This is a call that comes up from time to time, but is then ridiculed and silenced.
However, before England became “the first, and the most deeply penetrated of all the British colonies” to quote Oscar Wilde, England’s Kingdoms did often have their own parliaments, such as the Anglo-Saxon Witangemot that operated between the 7th and 11th centuries.
Only after this democratisation process can Britain have a meaningful referendum in which each region decides for itself and negotiates to stay or go independently of the others.
Whether Britain were to have become a full member of the EU, or to have completely broken away from it, a central truth remains: this is actually the end of an epoch. The unravelling of the UK’s political system is part of it.
Only after Britain democratises her politics can she have a meaningful referendum in which each region decides for itself and negotiates to stay or go independently of the others.
THIS is ending.
The world will go on.
A Place Under the Sun: Solar Energy and the Struggle for a Billion-Dollar Invisible Market
Unserved by policy makers whose grand energy priorities lay elsewhere, 600 million rural Africans for decades lay off-grid. When new technologies and global investment arrived, this emerging market became the site of competition and fantasy between indigenous solar technology traders and a white saviour industry backed by billionaire philanthropy investors.
The truth of the hunt, it is said, will never be fully known until the lion tells its story. This is particularly useful in the context of international development; the stories that get told tend to focus on the deeds of the “hunters” – in this case, the international do-gooders — that led to whatever outcomes they desire to highlight. The saying certainly holds true for the development of solar energy in Africa, because the coverage too often tells of expat social entrepreneur efforts to spread the technology. Intentionally or not, these Western actors ignore the work done by local players — the “lions”, who actually built the sector.
To better understand both sides of the story of solar in Africa, a global perspective of solar and the forces that drive demand is useful. Today, the worldwide solar energy sector is valued at more than $100 billion annually. In 2018, over 100 GW of solar power systems were installed. Yet despite enormous resources on the continent, less than two percent of this solar capacity was installed in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa is, in fact, a backwater for solar investments.
Today, the worldwide solar energy sector is valued at more than $100 billion annually. In 2018, over 100 GW of solar power systems were installed…less than two percent of this solar capacity was installed in sub-Saharan Africa.
Globally, solar electricity’s growth spurt came after 2000 when the German government supported the energiewinde program and Chinese production of solar modules ramped up in response to sharp spikes in demand. Since the late `90s, solar power projects in developed countries have mostly been grid connected and large scale. Early on-grid developments occurred in Germany and California, where today millions of homes have rooftops covered with solar panels. All over the developed world and in China and India, fields of modules produce gigawatts of power on sunny days. However, though production is over 100 GW per year today, it wasn’t until 2003 that global production surpassed 1 GW per year.
While millions of modules were installed in the global North, on-grid solar’s potential was almost entirely ignored by African governments. It was seen to be too expensive, unsuited for grids plagued by instability, a novelty without a real future. Africa’s power sectors were not ready to experiment with solar, so the line went. But after 1995, in order to placate post-Rio environmentalists, a number of World Bank and UN Global Environment Facility solar projects were set up to fund off-grid rural electrification. If the inattention delayed progress in African on-grid solar by decades, these small projects play an important, if largely undocumented, role in the global solar energy story: they stimulated the use of solar by rural people.
It wasn’t until 2003 that global production surpassed 1 GW per year.
Africa’s different solar path: Solar for Access
Well before grid connected programs were launched in the North, African entrepreneurs were selling off-grid and small-scale solar systems targeted at rural projects and consumers. This goes all the way back to the early days of solar, long before the technology was financially viable or available for grid power.
Today, in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, if measurements are made by percentage of households with solar power systems, many rural parts of these countries have a much higher absolute penetration of solar products than Northern countries. Surveys of Kenya and Tanzania populations show that penetration rates surpass 20 percent of all rural households. But the systems in Africa are much smaller and, until recently, of much less interest to the mega green investors that today drive the industry. Depending on who is telling the story, there are different versions of how such high penetration rates among rural populations have been achieved.
Well before grid connected programs were launched in the global North, African entrepreneurs were selling off-grid and small-scale solar systems targeted at rural projects and consumers.
All of the industry actors would agree on a few fundamentals. First, 600 million people lack access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. For the small amounts of energy these populations use — in the form of kerosene, dry cells and cell phone chargers — they thus pay a disproportionately high portion of their incomes.
Secondly, the massive funds to roll out rural grid investments for un-electrified populations are neither available to African governments nor the multilateral groups that support grid electricity development. Conservatively estimating grid connection at $500 per household, it would cost in the order of $50 billion dollars to distribute grid electricity to the continent’s unconnected rural population. And this does not include the generation and transmission infrastructure.
Because of these costs, and the lowered costs and technological improvements made in off-grid solar over the past decade, the World Bank, investors, donor partners and the private sector agree that off-grid solar energy is the best way to quickly cover a large portion of un-connected dispersed African populations. Nevertheless, governments still focus their budgetary outlays on grid-based electrification. Their spending has largely ignored the viability of off-grid solar power for rural electrification.
Conservatively estimating grid connection at $500 per household, it would cost in the order of $50 billion dollars to distribute grid electricity to the continent’s unconnected rural population.
Finally, as more and more investors line up to finance the solar electrification of off-grid Africa, all players agree that it is the private sector that has done and will continue to do the heavy lifting to provide solar electricity to rural consumers.
It is here that the story diverges. Who should be given the credit for the widespread use of rural solar in Africa? And, more importantly, how should future investments be made in the sector? The answer depends on who you ask.
The African Pioneers
Off-grid systems were a critical part of worldwide solar sales early on and many ended up in Sub Saharan Africa.
But these days, this remarkable story of the early players is not often told.
In the 1970s, though still expensive, solar became cost-effective for terrestrial applications (as opposed to NASA satellites). In Africa, national telecoms and international development players began using solar to power off-grid applications such as repeater stations, WHO vaccine refrigerators, communication radios in refugee camps and later, lighting in off-grid projects. Solar panels and batteries replaced generators — and the need to expensively truck fuel to remote sites. Because of this demand, traders in cities such as Nairobi began to stock and sell solar systems for these specialized high-end clients.
In the 1970s… on the back of pioneer demand, a lucrative market opened up when television signals spread across cash-crop growing regions of East Africa.
On the back of pioneer demand, a much more lucrative market opened up when television signals spread across cash-crop growing regions of East Africa. Rural people with coffee and tea incomes realized that they could power black-and-white “Great Wall” TVs with lead acid car batteries. Especially in Kenya, traders selling DC TVs quickly realized that car batteries could be charged with solar panels. Since they already had strong rural distribution networks, they added solar to their rural lines and a new industry selling, solar systems, TVs, lights and music systems was born. In the 1990s, East Africa’s off-grid solar market was a small but important slice of global solar demand.
After 1995, when Nairobi traders such as Animatics, NAPS, Telesales, Chloride Solar and Latema Road shops introduced lower cost 10-watt modules and 12-volt lights to the market, demand increased exponentially. Hundreds of technicians were selling systems to rural farmers and teachers. By the turn of the century, this market pioneered by African traders was selling — and even financing — tens of thousands of single panel solar systems per year in off-grid areas of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
These established businesses exploded with the emergence of cell phone markets in the mid-2000s. Suddenly, millions of rural cell phone owners needed a cheap, convenient way to charge their phones. Distribution chains, with over-the-counter sales of solar electric systems already in place, simply added the required kit for charging phones to the wares they offered. Cell phone charging, a business worth tens of millions of dollars per year, tied into the groundwork laid by small retail indigenous companies and businesses. By 2005, enterprises had sprung up in rural areas all over East Africa that were selling these systems — and village SMEs were charging cell phones, video-cinemas and kiosk refrigerators with solar.
Business exploded with the emergence of cell phone markets in the mid-2000s.
Difficulties arose as demand grew. Competition brought poor quality and counterfeit products. Dodgy traders, a lack of skilled technicians and insufficient consumer awareness began to spoil the market. Without standards or regulatory systems in place to police the industry, the reputation of off-grid solar suffered. In those early days, uneducated consumers bought poorly-designed systems and were discouraged. The reputation of solar, especially among policy makers whose energy priorities lay elsewhere, was badly tarnished.
Enter the international development community
Recognizing a market of over 600 million off-grid people, multilateral and national aid agencies (World Bank, DFID, GIZ) realized the potential of solar to support energy access. They saw that rapid changes in technology were making off-grid solar more viable. Prices of solar modules were falling. Super-efficient LED lights were becoming available. Solid state-of-the-art electronic controls, inverters, dc appliances, lithium-ion batteries and well-designed products were coming into the market. These changes, together with rising awareness, did much to improve the choices of consumers.
In 2008, the World Bank and its investment arm, the International Finance Corporation, set up Lighting Africa to support the development of off-grid solar. Lighting Africa raised awareness of solar among African policy makers, developed quality standards and laid the groundwork for corporate investment in solar companies. It stimulated a transition of the sector from NGO/donor domination to foreign investor-based models. By developing a platform that recognized the enormous opportunities for solar businesses, Lighting Africa helped roll out standards for the sector, grew in-country awareness and stimulated investment in a new generation of off-grid solar companies that designed truly innovative products. It also helped set up a trade group — the Amsterdam-based Global Off-Grid Lighting Association, GOGLA — for companies selling approved solar products.
In 2008, the World Bank and the IFC, set up Lighting Africa to support the development of off-grid solar. Lighting Africa raised awareness of solar among African policy makers, developed quality standards and laid the groundwork for corporate investment in solar companies. It stimulated a transition…from NGO/donor to investor-based models…and stimulated investment in a new generation of off-grid solar companies that designed truly innovative products.
Lighting Africa did much to bring on board local policy makers, to help improve equipment quality and to increase market size. With the involvement of the donor partners, investment flooded in and new players, predominantly Western, entered the market. Companies such as D.Light, Greenlight Planet (owner of the Sun King brand), Solar Now, Bright Life, fosera, Mobisol and Solar Kiosk brought innovative high-quality products and services. The new generation of companies revolutionized consumer choice by using professional product designers, manufactured in China and elsewhere in South East Asia, sophisticated business models and Silicon Valley investment to roll out. An industry that had largely been indigenous and self-financed had become an opportunity for big money international investors.
The disruptions accompanying the arrival of Lighting Africa were felt almost immediately. Newly agreed quality standards mostly worked for manufacturing companies with deep pockets. Companies located further down the supply pyramid — the ones near the consumers, and which had built the markets — were by and large shut out as the big money began to flow in. As far as the donors and impact investors were concerned, there were two categories of players; their money would target the first, the international manufacturers. These were the established disruptors, represented by GOGLA members and led by savvy expat social entrepreneurs from Europe and the USA.
The other category, which GOGLA now described as the “grey market”, is composed of “thousands of small businesses and technicians in Africa”: local traders, rural wholesale dukas, small-scale integrators, technicians, import-exporters, ambitious lone wolf entrepreneurs. This group, grappling with the day-to-day of basic survival and incapable of preparing grant proposals for donors or business plans for impact investors, is largely unrepresented in the international conversation. It was this group, rightly or wrongly, that was held responsible for market quality problems that, according to the new narrative, the GOGLA members would solve.
The disruptions accompanying the arrival of Lighting Africa were felt almost immediately. Newly agreed quality standards mostly worked for manufacturing companies with deep pockets. Companies located further down the supply pyramid — the ones near the consumers, and which had built the markets — were shut out as the big money began to flow in.
If the positive product and marketing innovations of Lighting Africa and GOGLA members demonstrably benefitted millions of rural consumers, their market disruption also affected the ‘grey market’ players. In donor-supported conferences, convened mostly in the West, where energy access is discussed, the narrative is that the African solar industry passed from locals to international social entrepreneurs. Even if the international social entrepreneurs had the best intentions of serving African consumers, they were also strategically positioning themselves to win the hundreds of millions of dollars of grant and impact investment finance that was coming to the sector. And everything changed with Pay As You Go.
The Birth of PAYG
Pay As You Go (PAYG) was developed on the back of mobile money. Simply put, PAYG systems are small off-grid solar systems with embedded SIM cards that enable companies to remotely collect incremental payments from consumers. The embedded SIM card can accept payments, monitor the solar system and switch it off if payments are not made. The spending history of each PAYG customer can also be tracked online, much in the same way that credit card customers are tracked.
This group, faced with day-to-day survival and incapable of preparing grant proposals for donors or business plans for impact investors, is largely unrepresented in the international conversation.
When Nick Hughes, one of the developers of M-Pesa for Vodacom, Safaricom’s UK parent company, looked to the future he saw how mobile credit among poor consumers would enable them to access a variety of products. He recognised that solar electricity for phone charging, TV and lighting would be the most sought after rural product. With Jesse Moore, he established M-Kopa Solar. Once they tested their product, M-Kopa launched outlets in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, where solar demand was already well-developed.
The difference between PAYG and over-the-counter sales is that PAYG can reach a lower strata of customers and, importantly, the business can be scaled. PAYG enables companies to collect payments from thousands of Base of the Pyramid (BoP) customers — and it enables consumers in turn to finance systems over much longer time periods.
When Nick Hughes, one of the developers of M-Pesa for Vodacom, Safaricom’s UK parent company, looked to the future he saw how mobile credit among poor consumers would enable them to access a variety of products.
Before PAYG, virtually all transactions in solar were cash over the counter. The PAYG business model had the potential to disrupt the old model in the way that cell phones invalidated landlines. Payments could be tracked on-line in real time. Once PAYG technology was in place and investible models established, hundreds of millions of dollars of investment flowed into off-grid companies.
Donors had funded the pilot experiences and multilaterals had established the financial and policy framework for off-grid energy access. Now international patent capital could be enthusiastically invested in PAYG solar. Indeed, since 2015, on the order of a billion dollars of impact investment has been placed in PAYG companies in Africa. M-Kopa Solar alone has attracted well over $100M in venture capital and grant money. They are not alone. Others include Off-Grid Electric (now Zola, in Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Ivory Coast), Fenix (Uganda, Zambia), Mobisol (Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya), Azuri and others.
The PAYG business model had the potential to disrupt the old model in the way that cell phones invalidated landlines.
Taken together, these PAYG companies have connected millions of customers and brought much needed resources to the energy access sector. The point of this article is not to belittle their accomplishments. In fact, building PAYG companies can only be done with deep pockets, good planning and strong teams. To succeed, companies must build market share quickly and raise multiple rounds of investment. Though PAYG players start as technology and marketing companies, they quickly become finance providers. Snowballing cash demands force PAYG companies to pass through what some call a financial “Valley of Death”. Before they have enough revenue to support a viable business, they have to spend millions on equipment and sales staff to expand their base. It is a risky, high-roller business.
Competition is stiff. Many consumers are unwilling to pay the extra costs of branded PAYG products and will regularly privilege price over international standards. In fact, most products being bought in Africa are not from GOGLA members. Shops operating in “Buy-em-Sell-em” trading streets stock a large array of equipment, much of it substandard. Moreover, PAYG companies that finance Base of Pyramid customers can lose them at any time. Drought, political disturbance or economic downturn will shut down income streams. When there is no money in the economy, vulnerable populations simply stop paying bills for solar gadgets.
Since 2015, on the order of a billion dollars of impact investment has been placed in PAYG companies in Africa.
A further problem faced by PAYG companies is that their products provide electricity services unsuited to the elastic needs of rural families. A typical PAYG solar kit comes in a neat box with a 20W module, a few lights, a charger and a battery. A consumer might be happy with such basic light and cellphone charging service initially, but consumer needs and aspirations evolve quickly. A consumer that wants a 20W system one month might desire a system twice that size six months later. The boxed set units sold by PAYG companies struggle to grow with the aspirations and needs of much of their customer base.
Today, despite the potential of the PAYG model to scale, many of the first generation of companies are in trouble, languishing in the face of ruthless competition and the challenges described earlier. In 2017, Off Grid Electric, a company that pledged to electrify one million Tanzanians, virtually pulled out of their foundation country and rebranded to attract more rounds of desperately needed finance. In Kenya, M-Kopa had to downsize and restructure its business in late 2017. Smaller companies in less lucrative markets also struggle to scale. Fenix, the largest player in Uganda, was able to avoid financial issues by selling majority shares to the global utility company Engie.
Few if any investors are making financial returns on their investments.
Despite the potential of the PAYG model to scale, many of the first generation of companies are in trouble…
In a way, the PAYG players want to have their cake and eat it too. They claim that they offer quality products and they like to say that their data-based business model is best able to deploy resources to the 600 million ‘base of the pyramid’ consumers unserved by the mainstream energy market. Their complaints, mostly to do with quality, are directed at the ‘grey market’. But they are the first in line for Western grant money and super easy-term financing to grow their companies. At international conferences, almost exclusively convened in the West, it is their polite, white faces that own the conversation.
African Traders in the Over the Counter Market Still Dominate
PAYG entrepreneurs do not acknowledge a self-evident truth: the so-called “grey market” is the market. In Africa, for bicycles, sofas, consumer electronics, dishware and roofing tiles, there has always been a range of products for consumers to choose from. Providing consumers with choice is what drives capitalism — those companies that provide the best choices for consumers at the best prices win out. The market for off-grid products was never being ruined by poor quality products any more than the market for cell phones was. Consumers learn, traders improve their product offering and manufacturers innovate.
PAYG entrepreneurs do not acknowledge a harsh truth: the so-called “grey market” is the market.
Today, the same local traders that built the supply chains in the 1980s and `90s still dominate the consumer off-grid solar market. But they do not feature in the international solar discussion. Their sales are invisible to consultants and undercounted in global reports (The GOGLA annual report, now the sectors’ bible, does not count the “grey market” and off-handedly considers it a threat to the “quality” market).
Rural people buy most of their solar from grey market traders. I’ve followed markets and conducted field research in Africa for 20 years and have the data to back it up. In Tanzania, a 2016 national census indicated that over 25 percent of the rural population own some type of solar device – this is more than a million PV systems installed almost exclusively by “grey market” traders. Recently, when conducting demand surveys in Uganda’s Lake Victoria islands, I found that 80 percent of the island populations had purchased solar systems from over-the-counter traders — virtually none had PAYG systems. In Zambia, I conducted surveys of 20 off-grid villages and found that upwards of 60% of households had grey market solar systems. In Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, the story is the same.
Of course, Chinese solar modules and batteries dominate over-the-counter trade. But local manufacturing also plays a major role. Kenyan battery manufacturer Chloride sells on the order of 100,000 lead acid batteries per year to the off-grid market. Its partner Solinc, which manufactures 6MW of solar modules per year in Naivasha, provides its modules to Kenyan, Ugandan, Tanzanian and Rwandan over-the-counter players in the region. This commerce, of course, is driven by hundreds of traders and solar technicians.
The driving force for the success of local traders is rural consumers. Rather than being “manipulated” by unsavoury traders, consumers have absorbed lessons; they have become more shrewd. Over decades, they have learnt about solar products and, in true do-it-yourself fashion, they have become better able to put solar systems together. They value price and short-term functionality over quality. They understand that when they want larger systems, over-the-counter players are more responsive to their needs than PAYG sellers. OTC traders can provide larger systems for growing households at a lower cost. In short, rural retailers and their largely Chinese suppliers are still more responsive to consumer needs than PAYG companies. And they are lighter on their feet.
In 2019, solar is holding its own against grid-based rural electrification. Off-grid solar is growing because the technology has numerous advantages over grid extension. If governments have been slow to invest in solar for rural households, rural consumers are voting with their pocketbooks. Solar systems work, there is an infrastructure to supply and rural consumers understand the technology.
Expat social entrepreneurs, using impact investment and international aid assistance, advanced the international agenda for off-grid solar, raised financing, developed new technology and innovated new business models. But despite hundreds of millions of dollars of investment and grant aid, PAYG companies are still losing to local players. Why? Rural traders move more product because they inhabit the markets they work in.
In a market of 600 million consumers, there is plenty of room for different business models and players across the supply chain. But the untold story of local solar traders raises a number of questions about how we should build the coming solar industry.
First, is the issue of ownership and funding opportunities. Many here are uncomfortable with the idea of an industry predominantly owned and controlled by foreigners, even if they are well-intentioned social entrepreneurs. For each successful expat social entrepreneur, there are 20 local entrepreneurs equally capable but lacking support to finance even a modest start-up. Much more can be done to level the playing field for local start-ups if these budding players are given the opportunities that have been handed to PAYG pioneers.
Second is business size. Decentralized and off-grid power is exciting because it democratizes opportunity and lowers entry costs for small players. East Africa is a region where small and medium sized entrepreneurs create the biggest opportunities and drive dynamic economies. Investor interest in scalable businesses worth hundreds of millions of dollars is driven by greed, not by common sense. Smaller players would make for a more exciting and lively solar sector. There is no reason why scores of million-dollar companies shouldn’t be supported in a healthy sector, instead of one or two behemoths.
Finally, planners should reconsider the policy focus which has thus far trained the solar market on poverty alleviation and energy access. Base of the Pyramid off-grid electrification is a race to the bottom. Unless the same subsidies that underwrite most grid-based rural electrification is made available, off-grid BoP solar will remain too risky for real finance. In Africa people are moving into cities and looking for urban-based opportunities. Many who are concerned about climate change know that getting solar on-grid and into urban energy planning will do far more to fight climate change than off-grid solar. These small-scale on-grid opportunities are where the real long-term future for solar is in Africa.