Exploring the Platform Political Economy of Self-Help in Africa

Informal savings group in Tarime district, Tanzania. Photo: Daivi Rodima-Taylor

Self-help groups can be found in many areas of Africa—including the chama groups of Kenya, isusu of Nigeria, and stokvels of South Africa (Ardener and Burman 1995). Their customary rotating credit arrangement is also popular among African diaspora communities (Hossein 2018; Ardener 2010). A significant rise has occurred in these groups at the wake of the neoliberal restructuring reforms of the 1980s-90s, with a decline in formal sector employment and state-funded producer cooperatives. At present, these mutual support groups are targeted by FinTech platforms as well as conventional banks with various financial products and software apps. My recent research explores of the contentious interplay between the formal and informal finance in these emerging digital interfaces in Africa. It studies the intersection of FinTech with the social economies of African mutual help groups in Kenya and South Africa, situating this dynamic in longer-term colonial legacies and present-day policies of extractive financialization (Rodima-Taylor 2022).

Informal mutual support groups with their saving-credit patterns have long served as an inspiration for the development industry. The initially successful Grameen micro-finance model drew on pre-existing reciprocities and mutually negotiated liability in largely informal contexts. However, as the microfinance formula shifted from socially situated lending towards ‘fast-scaling’ and universalizing group lending in an expanding range of localities, the industry was faced with repayment crisis (see Haldar and Stiglitz 2016). The recent conceptual shift from microfinance to digital financial inclusion foregrounds mobile payments and fee-based service delivery, with payment industry also experimenting with new sources of value such as customer data (Maurer 2015). Microloans have remained an important part of the digital financial inclusion enterprise, with poorly regulated lending apps fueling over-indebtedness. As informal savings groups and mutual support associations have become central in the livelihoods in many low-income communities, I suggest that more attention is needed to the intersection between the self-help groups and FinTech initiatives in the global South.

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Remembering Ian Taylor

Last year in February, Professor Ian Taylor of the University of St Andrews passed away after a short struggle with cancer. Ian was a world-renowned scholar in the fields of African Studies, International Relations and Global Political Economy. Besides his remarkable academic achievements, Ian was an extremely passionate educator as well as a kind, humorous and supportive colleague and friend to many of us. This is a modest attempt to pay tribute to an inspiring intellectual and true friend of Africa.

Together with his twin brother Eric, Ian grew up on the Isle of Man, before the family relocated to West London where he spent his teens and would become a die-hard Brentford FC supporter – in his words a ‘100% local club’. Whilst there were few points of contact to Africa on the small Crown dependency in the Irish Sea, Ian, early on, developed an interest in Africa, as he heard stories from his grandmother whose parents had lived in South Africa, and where a large network of relatives still live.

After reading History and Politics at what was then the Leicester Polytechnic, Ian used a gap year in 1991-92 for his first travel to southern Africa – obviously at quite a formative time for the region. This trip clearly left a firm impression on him, as he would return to the region throughout his life. However, first he joined Jo, the love of his life whom he met in South Africa, when she took up Ph.D studies at the University of Hong Kong in 1994. Ian enrolled himself for a Master’s there. His 368-pages M.Phil thesis on China’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Africa laid the cornerstone for one of his research specialisations and arguably also for a new sub-discipline, China-Africa studies. One of his first academic articles, an output from his M.Phil research, was published in the Journal of Modern African Studies and has since been cited 357 times (Taylor 1998). Exactly 18 years later, Ian became co-editor-in-chief of this prestigious journal, together with Ebenezer Obadare.

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Pressure to Succeed: From Prosperity, Stress (A reflection on aspiration in the new Kenya)

Wherever you go in contemporary Nairobi, you will find yourself confronted with images of economic success. Whether the suited and smiling young professionals on the Safaricom billboards, celebrating the speed of their new data bundles, the fleet of range-rovers that block the streets in the gridlock hours of commuting, or the synthetic marbled fortresses (the office towers, the luxury flats) – Nairobi’s wealth announces itself over and above the streets below: Streets of kiosks selling warm soda, vendors (‘Mama Mbogas’ – the stereotypical figure of market trader women selling vegetables and fruits from the city’s rural hinterlands), construction workers eating chapo (chapatis)on breaks; Streets of boda-boda (motorcycle) drivers talking to each other in the sun, streets of fundis (mechanics) hammering crumpled matatu minivan doors back into shape; Streets where students gather in groups outside the University of Nairobi, where aspiring politicians argue in Jevanjee Gardens. Images of wealth barely conceal inequality, the reality of the informal economy in which the majority of Kenyans work with their ingenuity and hands to accrue cash, the lifeblood of social reproduction.

Drawing on over 21 months of fieldwork conducted on the changing peri-urban peripheries of Nairobi,[1] this blog draws attention not only towards the city’s shifting landscape of urban inequality, but also desire – of aspirations for better lives, membership in a developing Kenya evoked by the visible presence of vast wealth, evident especially in the material lifestyles of the city’s nouveaux riches, whether wealthy business and political elites or the posh ‘mapunk’, a pejorative Sheng term for those youth wealthy enough to have grown outside the ghetto. But for the Kenya’s aspirant youth, the city’s landscape of inequality is experienced not so much as a fixed condition but as a subjective and personal challenge to succeed, to ‘make it’ to a middle-class standard of living possessed by others. The failure to do so produces subjective experiences of stress, failure and disappointment, the product of comparison with the wealth of others. Rather than purely economic pressure, this blog seeks to foreground the mental pressures produced by this landscape of desire, and the pressure to succeed.

As the editors of this blog series write, ‘economic pressure and stress are not confined to the urban poor’. Of Kenya’s ‘hustler masses’, the 80 per cent of the country’s inhabitants who work in the informal economy. The figure of the ‘hustler’ regularly evokes a young man, living in one of Nairobi’s informal settlements, struggling day-to-day for his immediate needs. And yet, as this brief portrait of Nairobi suggests, finer grain distinctions are possible that reveal more complex relationships with ‘economic pressure’ that do not simply amount to the short-term temporalities of day-to-day survival. Whilst short-term needs are hardly absent from Kenyans’ economic subjectivities and their careful modes of economisation, in the long-term Kenyans work hard to accumulate the wealth that affords participation in the New Kenya, and, not incidentally, status and recognition from others. Consider, for instance, the Kenyans pursuing success from such predicaments of economic uncertainty.

Lazima huu mwaka niwashangazi’, sings Jaguar in his 2015 hit Huu Mwaka’(This Year). ‘This year I’ll blow their minds!’. Jaguar’s narrator is an aspirant Kenyan whose motivation is not simply self, but self in relation to others – a rural migrant who desires the status and recognition from his kinsmen and neighbours whence he returns from the city with the wealth he has won. ‘A good job, a good house, a good wife’ (‘Kazi nzuri! Nyumba nzuri! Bibi nzuri!’), he sings, imagining the future that lies ahead. ‘I’ll be a rich man like Sonko’, he tells us, a play on words in reference to Nairobi’s now former Governor Michael Mbuvi Sonko, a man who has quite literally appropriated the term ‘sonko’, meaning ‘rich person’ (or sometimes ‘boss’). Regardless of the true origins of his wealth, his identity is one of a ‘hustler’ who has ‘made it’ in life.

Such optimism recalls the now famous narrative that the African continent is ‘rising’ – that economic growth is catapulting countries towards middle-income status, creating new middle classes able to live lives of conspicuous consumption. Since the end of Daniel arap Moi’s de facto one-party state, and the political and economic liberalisation ushered in under Kenya’s Rainbow Coalition (2002-2005), economic growth has shaped the intensification of desires for middle-class lifestyles and their material trappings.

At the same time, such narratives belie the immense economic pressure faced by Kenyans on their pathways towards prosperity. Indeed, the sheer discrepancy between piecemeal incomes (gleaned through irregular labour in Nairobi) and the pressure to succeed, gives rise to feelings of failure, shame, and distress. Such affective states readily evoke ‘pressure’ rather than aspiration, as the authors of this series call it: ‘a cognitive assessment of a real/imagined disbalance between real/imagined economic demands and the real/imagined ability to fulfil them.’

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Max Ajl in conversation with Habib Ayeb on Food Sovereignty and the Environment

Max Ajl interviews radical geographer and activist Habib Ayeb. Habib Ayeb is a founder member of the NGO Observatory of Food Sovereignty and Environment (OSAE) and Max Ajl is a Postdoc at Wageningen University’s Rural Sociology Group, associate editor at Agrarian South and the author of A People’s Green New Deal.

Max:  Habib, you have made many films and written at length about food sovereignty in Tunisia and in Egypt. Can you start by telling us how you see the conversation around food sovereignty in this part of the world?

Habib: In recent years, the issue of food sovereignty has begun to appear in academic and non-academic debates, and in research as well – although more tentatively – in all the countries of the region. That said, the issue of food and thus agriculture has always been important, both in academic research and public debate, as well as the academy, political institutions, and elsewhere. During the 1970s and 1980s, in Tunisia and throughout what was called the Third World, we spoke mainly of food self-sufficiency. This was, in a way, and at that time, a watchword of the left – a left that was modernist, developmentalist and statist.

If I’m not mistaken, I believe that the concept of food self-sufficiency dates from the late 1940s with the wave of decolonization, which began after the Second World War, and probably also dates to the great famines which claimed millions of lives in India and other areas of the South. Furthermore, many states, particularly those governed by the state-socialist regimes that had acquired political independence during the 1950s and 1960s, had initiated Green Revolution policies.  These had the aim of achieving food self-sufficiency to strengthen political independence, in a Cold War context wherein food was already used as a weapon and a means of pressure in the context of the confrontation between the USSR and the Western bloc. It is in this context that the experiences of agrarian reforms and agricultural co-operatives in Tunisia (from 1962), in Egypt (from 1953) and in many other countries had proliferated. But almost all of these experiments ended in failure or were aborted by liberal counter-reforms, which were adopted everywhere beginning in the 1980s amidst the victory of liberalism, the USSR’s disappearance, and the development of a global food regime, and its corollary: the global market for agricultural products and particularly cereals.

It is at this point that the concept of food security, based on the idea of comparative advantage began to gradually dominate. It would appear for the first time in the official Tunisian texts in the sixth Five Year Plan of the early 1980s, in which the formula of food self-sufficiency would give way to that of food security. From then on, agricultural policies would favour agricultural export products with a high added value, whose revenues would then underwrite the import of basic food products.

Paradoxically, agricultural issues, food issues, and rural issues writ large would gradually disappear from academic agendas. There was a sharp reduction in funding for research on the rural world, and instead it went first, to the urban research profile, but also to examine civil society and political organizations. It was not until 2007/2008 and the great food crisis that agricultural and food issues, and furthermore the peasant question with its sociological dimension, would reappear in public debates focused on these matters. It was during the same period that the concept of food sovereignty, proposed by Via Campesina in 1996, would appear in Arab countries and to a much lesser extent in research. Even today, many use the food sovereignty frame to talk about food security, even while the two concepts are radically opposed, even incompatible.

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The colonial geographies of Kenya’s fintech boom

Digital and mobile finance applications have boomed in Kenya over the last decade. Mobile money, Vodafone’s M-Pesa system in particular, is ubiquitous. Kenyan banks and smaller start-ups have led the adoption of a wider range of mobile and digital financial applications.

For promoters of fintech as a tool for development, Kenya is a paradigm case. Estimates from Tavneet Suri and William Jack – suggesting that the advent of M-Pesa had directly moved 194 000 households, equivalent to 2 percent of the country, out of extreme poverty – have been triumphantly cited across a wide range of media reports and policy documents. The rapid adoption of mobile and digital finance, according to advocates, has allowed Kenya to ‘leapfrog’ the developmental constraints of its existing financial system. In the words of one author: ‘new technologies solve problems arising from weak institutional infrastructure and the cost structure of conventional banking’.

There are good reasons to question this rosy narrative, as recent critics have demonstrated compellingly. Among others, Milford Bateman and colleagues raise a number of important methodological and other objections to Suri and Jack’s claims, and Serena Natile shows how narratives of ‘inclusion’ mask the perpetuation of gendered patterns of exclusion and inequality. Wider applications of fintech in Kenya have come in for critique as well. Kevin Donovan and Emma Park highlight emerging patterns of digitally-enabled over-indebtedness. Laura Mann and Gianluca Iazzolino trace the emergence of monopolistic corporate power enacted through the extension of digital platforms (including for finance) in Kenyan agriculture. Ali Bhagat and Leanne Roderick show the emergence of new forms of racialized dispossession and exploitation through efforts to extend fintech applications to refugees in Kenya.

On a more basic level, ‘leapfrogging’ narratives have to contend with the fact that the geography of Kenyan fintech looks a lot like that of the financial system more generally. The fintech boom is predominantly an urban phenomenon, and especially concentrated in Mombasa and in and around Nairobi. Data from the 2019 national ‘FinAccess’ survey shows that 6.6 percent of respondents currently or had previously used of mobile lending services, and 6.4 percent reported the same of digital lending apps. The corresponding figures among urban residents were 17.2 and 11.4 percent. The proportion of residents in Nairobi Metropolitan Area and Mombasa using mobile money services (25 percent) and digital lending apps (18.2 percent) is more than double the respective use rates of mobile (12.3 percent) and digital borrowing (7.1 percent) among urban residents elsewhere.

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Green financialization and de-risking in Zambia’s renewable energy transition

By Simone Claar and Franziska Müller

Zambia’s has a history full of hopeful prospects and broken dreams. In the 1980s and again in the early 2010s, Zambia experienced an economic upswing. Labelled as an emerging middle-income country and called the new ‘African Tiger’, a mix of copper extractivism, an aspiring tourism sector, as well as political stability led to an impressive rise. However, the phase was short-lived, as Zambia’s political economy remains fragile: dependent on the price of copper and the world market, it is regularly on the verge of state bankruptcy due to a significant foreign debt burden. A history of structural adjustment programs in exchange for IMF loans and dependency on billion-scale Chinese loans means that Zambia became the first African country to declare bankruptcy in the wake of the Covid pandemic, first asking for a moratorium, and later for restructuring its Eurobond loans and Chinese loans. In this context, Zambia’s dependence on development financing is highly evident and deeply anchored in the state structures. Zambia’s political economy of energy and the ongoing energy transition reflect this tedious situation. Rising energy demands and lack of investment mean that widespread load shedding has become a frequent phenomenon. Climate change and recurring droughts negatively affect hydropower performance, which makes up 95 per cent of installed capacity. The current roll-out of renewable energy is a beacon of hope. Nevertheless, its financial structures give rise to the assumption that Zambia may also be the first African state where the miracle of green capitalism and “white magic” (Girvan 1978) is becoming manifest, resulting in both shiny solar panels and a loss of political and economic sovereignty. Analyzing Zambia’s energy transition’s political and financial toolbox, we delineate how green financialization and de-risking are executed based on blended development finance. 

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Inner-city pressure and living somewhere in-between 

On a cold winter’s day in 2014, I sat awkwardly in the office of the person managing a high-rise apartment building in Johannesburg’s Central Business District (CBD). The building is a former office block that has been renovated by the city’s largest private affordable housing company and is currently rented as residential accommodation. Affordable housing is commercial rental housing that caters to people who earn too much to qualify for state-subsidised housing, otherwise known as social housing, but too little to purchase their own properties on the regular market. Rents in the building in which this incident took place range from R1325 (£65 or Ksh9695) for a studio room to R3589 (£174 or Ksh26261) for a 2-bedroom apartment. I was in the building to interview the manager about the ins and outs of her job, and to then interview tenants living there. However, our interview was interrupted by a distraught tenant. She was visibly upset, and I soon realised that she had been locked out of her apartment. Unfortunately, this was not an exceptional situation. The housing company, like others working in Johannesburg’s inner-city, use lock-outs, or the threat thereof, to ensure that tenants pay their rent. Doing research into the inner-city rental housing market over a period of two years, I had frequently heard about the threat of lock-outs, but this was my first time witnessing the effects of one actually being enforced. Several building managers had told me that they find ways to avoid having to implement them, negotiating with tenants or giving them advanced warning so that they have time to scrounge money together to make a payment and stave off punishment. In this case, however, all efforts to prevent the lock-out had failed. It was the middle of the month, and rent, usually due on the 1st, still had not been paid. The building manager therefore had no choice but to adhere to the demands of her job, even though this had obviously disturbing and upsetting consequences. However, to mitigate the harm caused to the tenant and her young child, the manager, who also lives in the building, arranged for them to sleep in her own apartment that night, whilst they tried to locate some funds to begin repaying the debt. In this case, the pressures induced by fluctuating fortunes and a ruthless cost-recovery business model, as well as the strain to personal relations and consciences this induces, became stark.  

Although people living in affordable housing generally have stable salaries and employment, as the incident above shows, they too can experience downturns in luck, lose money and jobs and find themselves out on the street. Thus, whilst the plight of chronically un(der)employed people and those living in informal settlements is cause for concern and rightly receives much critical attention, it is important to bear in mind that the middle-classes too are caught between Johannesburg’s extremes. In what follows, I trace the (pre-covid-19) experiences of people living in social and affordable housing in inner-city Johannesburg. As will become clear, their lives are shaped by economic pressure, as they work hard to pay their rent and forgo other forms of social interaction whilst striving to get by. At the same time, they also encounter other forms of pressure, as they contend with difficult and unpleasant environments and navigate spaces marked by fear of crime and concerns about safety.  

Other pieces in this blog series have argued that pressure can be theorised as an imbalance between (real or imagined) economic demands and concomitant abilities to fulfil them. However, imbalances also extend beyond economic concerns and encompass desires about living situations, ease of daily life, and safety and security. In inner-city Johannesburg, pressure emanates from the fact that the prevailing urban reality does not match people’s aspirations for central accommodation that is close to jobs, schools and social services, but also provides comfort, peace of mind and liveable environments. Faced with this mismatch or imbalance between aspirations and reality, people are forced to live in-between, to reside somewhere and make do, whilst aspiring to be elsewhere, but simultaneously knowing that there are few avenues through which this aspiration can be realised. The cumulative effects of this pressure is a form of resignation and detachment, a sense of living in-between and accepting what one can get from a vastly unequal socio-economic landscape.  

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Walter Rodney’s Lost Book: One Hundred Years of Development in Africa

By Leo Zeilig.

One of the most astonishing books that Walter Rodney – the Guyanese revolutionary and historian – ever wrote was published several years after he was assassinated on 13 June 1980. The story of this book and how it came to be published is almost as remarkable as the life of the revolutionary himself. In 1978, Rodney was working as a full-time activist of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. The WPA was a revolutionary organisation seeking to unite the African and Indian working class in the highly divided country, then run by the brutal Forbes Burnham. Rodney was the group’s principal organiser and intellectual, and to support himself and his family, and to fundraise for the WPA, he travelled overseas to teach and work.

One trip to Germany in 1978 shows us how his last book came to be. Rodney travelled from Guyana to Hamburg in April of that year. He was already the celebrated and outspoken author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and his arrival was eagerly anticipated. He had been invited by the radical German scholar, Rainer Tetzlaff, to teach a course on the history of African development at the University of Hamburg.

The lecture course Rodney was employed to teach was titled, ‘African Development, 1878-1978’, and comprised, according to the one-page programme, ‘(i) a brief introduction to development concepts; (ii) a survey of African colonial economies with special reference to East and West Africa; and (iii) an examination of post-colonial developments in Kenya and Tanzania.’ According to the brief programme there were going to be twelve lectures, comprising, ‘The debate on development concepts in Africa’ and ‘Post-colonial development strategies’.1

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