African Tech Voices: Kenya is eating South Africa’s lunch
I had the good fortune of spending my Christmas vacation traveling through Kenya. Like most African countries, Kenya has its fair share of problems. However, I was struck by the many contrasts to South Africa, which were plain to see wherever I went. I came away with a nagging feeling that Kenya is eating South Africa’s lunch.
Growing, growing, gone
My first few days were spent in the capital, Nairobi, which I last visited in 2015. The first thing I noticed were the many skyscrapers that have mushroomed across the city. Kenyans, like South Africans, are moving to urban areas in droves. There was a palpable sense of opportunity in the air, with the World Bank projecting Kenya’s GDP growth to be north of 5% next year. By comparison, South Africa’s economy is unlikely to grow by more than 2% in 2023 (the last time SA grew above 5% was in the mid-2000s).
Anybody who has visited Nairobi will be familiar with the unendurably bad traffic. A new expressway – financed with a hefty loan from the Chinese – now snakes its way above the tangle of cars and boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis) in the narrow streets below. Traffic in the city is still intense, but using the expressway meant I no longer had to set aside four hours for my taxi drive from Jomo Kenyatta International airport, as I had to do on my previous visits. On the expressway, the journey now took me a mere 20 minutes.
Nairobi, a city on the move
While Joburg has a beggar at every traffic light, Nairobi has only a few traffic lights – but also far fewer beggars. There was certainly a lot of squalor and dilapidation still visible throughout the city, but I had the sense that Nairobi was progressing and advancing out of poverty, gradually leaving these remnants behind. Unlike back home, where potholes and blocked drains seem to be multiplying by the day – a sign of entropy and decay.
Lighting the way
Everywhere I went in Kenya there was a glorious abundance of electricity. The luxury apartment block where I stayed in the affluent suburb of Westlands had a large diesel generator on the ground floor. Fortunately, there was only one brief interruption in the power, so it was hardly needed.
Meanwhile, my Eskom se Push app continued to alert me to the constant loadshedding back home. This was a depressing reminder of last year’s rolling blackouts (the worst in 14 years). Eventually I got fed-up and turned off the notifications on my phone. I was shocked but not surprised to learn of André de Ruyter’s resignation as CEO of Eskom. “I don’t blame him,” I thought.
High-rise apartments have sprung up across the city
Whenever I remarked at how fortunate Kenyans were to have such reliable electricity, the person I was speaking to would invariably look at me with a quizzical expression, as if to suggest, “well, of course we do.”
This wasn’t always the case. Access to the grid has more than doubled in just under a decade, from 32% of households in 2013 to 75% in 2022. In urban areas, Kenya has 100% connectivity. However, given Kenya’s small industrial base, total installed capacity is still low, at just under 3000MW.
About 80% of Kenya’s power comes from renewable sources, mostly geothermal and hydro power. Hydro power is cheap and abundant, but only when it rains. A severe and prolonged drought last year impacted generation capacity, and also slowed agricultural output. As a result, food prices have soared, and as a net oil importer, the cost of fuel in Kenya has also skyrocketed. Despite robust growth, Kenyan consumers are feeling the pinch.
From Nairobi I ventured west to Kakamega, an old gold mining town a couple of hours from the Ugandan border, where the climate was more tropical. To get there, I flew to Kisumu, on the shores of the beautiful Lake Victoria.
Again, signs of development were everywhere to be seen, even in some of the remote regions I visited, where my driver calmly dodged cows and pedestrians on a freshly laid asphalt road while speeding along at 100km per hour.
I was told that Kenya’s various provinces are benefiting from an inflow of capital due to political devolution (following the revision of the constitution in 2010). Another lesson here for South Africa, where our government insists on greater centralisation of everything.
Despite the modesty of many homes and shops in the rural areas, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of litter on the streets. This was quite a refreshing change from the average platteland town in South Africa, where there is little visible commerce and rubbish accumulates in great piles on the street.
Not once did I see men urinating on the side of the street (an increasingly common sight back home). In fact, most of the Kenyans I encountered were conservative, modestly dressed, devoutly religious, and polite – but very direct!
Everywhere I went, people were trading with one another, transferring money via M-Pesa on their mobile phones (retailers prefer electronic payments and often won’t give you change if you insist on using cash).
Kenyans are also, overall, an enterprising bunch. Everywhere I went, people were trading with one another, transferring money via M-Pesa on their mobile phones (retailers prefer electronic payments and often won’t give you change if you insist on using cash). The stores were open from early morning until late at night, and every other person I met had a side hustle on the go.
As in South Africa, alcohol and drug abuse is rife. The traditional brewed spirit, Changaa, has proved the undoing of many rural men in Western Province. A few sips of this clear liquid poison confirmed that it was indeed potent stuff. Glue-sniffing teenagers are, sadly, an all-too-common sight.
Kenyans are generally obsessed with politics and follow current affairs as if it were a long-running soap opera. However, unlike in South Africa, nobody I spoke to in Kenya ever assumed that the government was coming to rescue them.
Indeed, most people I spoke to were somewhat skeptical of the recently elected President, William Ruto, given past allegations of corruption against him and his apparent orchestration of the post-election violence of 2007 (the International Criminal Court dropped charges against him in 2016 after the withdrawal – and death – of key witnesses in the case).
Nevertheless, a new portrait of the President adorned the reception area of the old country club hotel where I stayed in Kakamega, reflective of the ‘big man’ politics that still characterises many African countries. While Kenya has a competitive multiparty democracy, public trust in its political institutions is low, and the rule of law is weak.
Last year’s election was officially disputed by the losing opposition leader, Raila Odinga, but his legal challenge was unceremoniously shot down by the Supreme Court. Odinga reluctantly respected the verdict, despite the seemingly partisan nature of the judgement.
Security is still a concern and authorities are always on edge, fearful of another terrorist attack. I had firsthand experience of this back in Nairobi when an angry military officer threatened to arrest me after I innocently took a selfie in front of the State House (where the President lives). I had clearly missed the large ‘STRICTLY NO PHOTOGRAPHY’ sign outside the front gate and had to plead with the guard to have mercy on this naïve mzungu tourist.
Not so special after all
While I love my country and I’m happy to live here, it was clear to me during my travels that South Africa is going backwards, relative not only to itself, but also compared to other African nations. South Africans, especially those in the intellectual and political class, suffer from a severe case of exceptionalism. We think we are special, but we are not.
Over dinner with friends in Nairobi, I spoke to a gentleman who works for a global multinational – and who once lived in Johannesburg. He provided me with an apt description of how Kenyans’ attitude towards South Africa has evolved:
‘South Africa is like that rich uncle who you once admire as a child. He lived in a large mansion filled with the finest furniture and modern appliances, and he drove the latest luxury cars. You looked up to him and said to yourself “one day I could be like him”. But now that you have grown up, you realise that your uncle is not so special after all. He has since fallen on hard times. His house is run down, his furniture has worn out, and his car keeps breaking down. He is just like the rest of us.’
I wish that South Africa was becoming “more like the rest of Africa” because emerging African countries like Kenya are out-competing us. We have some serious catching up to do.