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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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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(De)pressurizing in urban centers beyond the megacity: notes on pressure from Nakuru, Kenya

On the 21st of November 2020, Mumbi Seraki – a YouTuber – uploads a new ‘prophetic update’ titled ‘They’ve CANCELLED CHRISTMAS!’. Her YouTube shows are followed by more than 60 000 followers across Sub Saharan Africa and deal with, what she refers to as, the ills of society, the struggles of African nations and ideas for a better Africa. She opens her ‘prophetic update’ with the following statement:

“I really do pray that you are well in all your ways and that you are moving into living life truly on your own terms and out of the ‘matrix’, so that you can be free and you won’t have to become one of these mask wearing zombies walking around. Really, get out of the big cities, if you can, don’t wait till the last minute.”

Seraki’s statements should be interpreted against the background of the Covid-19 havoc that raises questions about how safe it is to live in major cities such as Nairobi where most Covid-19 cases are being reported. Nonetheless, the image of cities populated by ‘zombies’ affirms questions about the (in)habitability of Kenyan cities increasingly beleaguered by the pressures and absurdities of late capitalism that were already relevant way before the pandemic. Her advice to liberate oneself from the ‘matrix’ of life in the capital by moving upcountry is particularly intriguing and will be further unpacked hereinafter.  

In this blogpost, I shed light on life ‘under pressure’ from the perspective of Nakuru, a vibrant secondary Kenyan city of approximately 500, 000 inhabitants situated 160 km Northwest of Nairobi, where I conducted more than 18 months of ethnographic research. My fieldwork shed light on how people in Nakuru made sense of their urban lifeworlds, yet did so with ‘heat’, a leitmotiv illuminating different ‘confrontations’ about a variety of opposing or cohesive uses, ideas and/or meanings of technologies, symbols, and substances that flow through the highland city.

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‘Life On These Stones Is Very Hard’ – House Helps in Covid-19 Nairobi

Photo: Eric Kioko, August 2020.

By Mario SchmidtChristiane Stephan, Kawikya Judith Musa and Eric M. Kioko 

Panic! Rush! Empty sacks! Women running! Big cars passing by! Boom! All women stare at the same spot on the road: a car passing by. Within seconds, many of them rush towards it. One who was selling roasted maize, water and a few more goods leaves her place of work opposite the road and runs towards the vehicle as well. Panic and competition are in the air. Within a few minutes, the women come back, discouragement and lack of morale palpable in their bodies and faces. “What happened?”, one of those left seated asks. “The driver didn’t think we were this many, so he closed the car´s door and left!”

This scene gives insight into dynamic moments taking place along the roadsides of Nairobi’s affluent suburbs since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. It displays the intensified competition characterizing the job market for informal house helps looking for work and financial or material assistance. Suburbs like Kileleshwa or Kilimani present an unusual picture to those accustomed to see African cities through photographs of slums and shantytowns. Yet, here we have elegant residential areas mushroomed in leafy environments, roads with pedestrian walkways for cycling and jogging, cosmopolitan coffee joints, posh malls, and police patrols.

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“There is a Lot of Pressure on Me. It’s Like the Distance Between Heaven and Earth” – Landscapes of Debt, Poverty-in-People and Social Atomization in Covid-19 Nairobi

Photo: Jack Omondi Misiga

By Mario Schmidt, Eric Kioko, Evelyn Atieno Owino and Christiane Stephan

Everyday economic life in Nairobi has been transformed following the COVID-19 containment measures installed by the Kenyan government. In the immediate aftermath of Kenya’s first case reported on 13th March 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta shut down air travel, introduced a nationwide curfew for the night hours, introduced a mask requirement, reduced passenger numbers in public transport, closed schools and institutions of higher learning and restricted social gathering. These measures set in motion transformations that span across various networks and scales of the urban. In order to analyze the effects of Kenya’s political elite’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic on urban households, we have teamed up with five Kenyan colleagues who conducted over two hundred qualitative interviews in different locales of Nairobi and Nakuru. In Nairobi, our assistants, who made sure that measures of COVID-19 containment and personal safety were respected, worked in the informal settlement Kibera, the low-income tenement settlement Pipeline (Embakasi), and Kileleshwa, home to richer Nairobians and expats. Our research assistants interviewed Nairobians from the age of twenty to over eighty years. Among the respondents were migrants and people born in Nairobi, casual, unemployed and laid-off workers, maids, housewives, Uber drivers, white collar workers, shop owners, club bouncers, artists, daycare owners, tailors who found a new job producing face masks, waiters, chefs as well as people employed by NGOs. 

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Urban Africa under Stress: Rethinking Economic Pressure in Cities

Stitched Panorama

By Jörg WiegratzCatherine Dolan, Wangui Kimari and Mario Schmidt

Research on economic pressure in Africa has been approached from diverse vantage points.  While economists frame ‘pressure’ as a consequence of market failures, or as a by-product of macro-economic measures such as structural adjustment reforms or technological and political change, anthropologists who zoom in on the economic pressures individuals face in their everyday lives, i.e. the lived experiences of those who are ‘under pressure’ have focused more on topics such as uncertainty and precarity. Alternatively, economic psychologists tend to naturalise pressure as an individual response to an adverse financial situation, eclipsing the varied ways pressure is intertwined with and shaped by broader societal transformations, power structures, social relations and obligations, and webs of exchange. There are currently no studies we are aware of that focus on the multi-faceted societal constitution of economic pressure in capitalist Africa, or that compare how pressure is experienced across gender, generation or socioeconomic groups.Read More »

The Curious Case of M-Pesa’s Miraculous Poverty Reduction Powers

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M-PESA kiosk outside Kibera centre in Nairobi. Picture credit: Fiona Graham / WorldRemit

By Milford Bateman, Maren Duvendack and Nicholas Loubere

Over the past decade the expansion of digital-financial inclusion through innovations in financial technology (fin-tech) has been identified by the World Bank, the G20, USAID, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and other major international institutions, as a key way to promote development and alleviate poverty in the Global South (GPFI, 2016; Häring 2017; World Bank, 2014). Perhaps the most influential and widely reported publication pushing forward this narrative is an article examining M-Pesa written by US-based economists Tavneet Suri and William Jackand published in the prestigious journal Scienceentitled ‘The Long-run Poverty and Gender Impacts of Mobile Money’. M-Pesa is a mobile phone, agent-assisted platform for transferring money from one person to another. It was originally developed with funding from DFID and has quickly become a darling of the digital-financial inclusion movement. In this particular article, the authors make the far-reaching claim that ‘access to the Kenyan mobile money system M-PESA increased per capita consumption levels and lifted 194,000 households, or 2% of Kenyan households, out of poverty’ (Suri and Jack, 2016: 1288).

Suri and Jack’s article in Science has sent ripples through the global development community and has servedas perhaps was intendedto solidify support for upping the promotion of digital-financial inclusion initiatives across the Global South. Importantly, the article’s claims of unprecedented poverty reduction have been uncritically picked up by all of the international development agencies and microcredit advocacy organisations, as well as by many mainstream economists, so-called ‘social entrepreneurs’, tech investors, and media outlets. Much like microcredit in the 1980s, fin-tech and digital-financial inclusion is now very widely seen as a key—if not the keyto reducing global poverty and promoting local development.

In this post we summarise our recent article entitled ‘Is Fin-tech the New Panacea for Poverty Alleviation and Local Development?’ (Bateman, Duvendack, and Loubere, 2019), which challenges Suri and Jack’s findings, and urges the global development community to take a second, more critical look at their study. We argue that the article contains a worrying number of omissions, errors, inconsistencies, and that it also employs flawed methodologies. Unfortunately, their inevitably flawed conclusions have served to legitimise and strengthen a false narrative of the role that fin-tech can play in poverty alleviation and development, with potentially devastating consequences for the global poor.Read More »

Harvesting data: Who benefits from platformization of agricultural finance in Kenya?

Woman_farmer_in_Kenya

By Gianluca Iazzolino and Laura Mann.

Getting access to credit is a critical challenge for small-holder farmers all over Sub-Saharan Africa . A new breed of financial-technology firms (fintech) promises to address this issue, claiming that digital technologies can lower the barriers for borrowers and cut transaction costs for lenders. As part of our ongoing project on digitisation and data in US and Kenyan agriculture, we have been examining these claims, studying how tech companies translate them into business initiatives and exploring the implications for knowledge production, economic growth and value redistribution.

In rural Kenya, fintech innovations are premised on greater efficiency and transparency and inspired by narratives of digital disintermediation. Similarly to what argued for migrant remittances by Vincent Guermond in a previous post of this blog series , digital lenders harness data (extracted through digital infrastructures) and algorithms to make farmers more legible and, therefore, more predictable. In order to expand their pool of data, Kenyan fintechs are increasingly embedding themselves into inter-connected digital infrastructures, or platforms. These platforms provide farmers with end-to-end solutions, and thereby bundle together financial services with the provision of agricultural inputs and information extension services. In so doing, lenders recalibrate and harmonize their risk-assessment procedures, and construct an ideal type of farmer whose financial behaviours and importance in the local value chain can be clearly pinned down.Read More »