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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Dismantling and transcending colonialism’s legacy

In “decolonial” discourse, the African leadership landscape is flattened to the point of becoming a caricature. In an earlier variation of this caricature, Kwame Nkrumah’s injunction of “seek ye first the political kingdom” was presented by political scientist Ali Mazrui as a deficient obsession with political power to the neglect of the economic. In the current variation, the neglect of epistemic “decoloniality” is characterized as the deficient underbelly of the “nationalist” movement.

Kwame Nkrumah, Sédar Senghor, and Julius Nyerere are not only three of the most cerebral figures of Africa’s “nationalist” movement, but unlike Amilcar Cabral they lived to lead their countries in the aftermath of formal colonial rule.

Contrary declarations notwithstanding, Senghor, Nkrumah, and Nyerere were acutely aware of the colonial epistemological project and the need to transcend it. Indeed, philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s re-reading of Negritude as epistemology argued that its salience lies in the dissolution of the binary opposition of subject and object in the logic of René Descartes. Whatever one’s take on the specificity of Senghor’s claims of Africa’s modes of knowing—by insisting on the interconnectedness of subject and object—he deliberately sought to mark out what is deficient in modern European epistemology and valorize African systems of knowledge. This epistemological project is built on a distinct African ontological premise.

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Food and the struggle for Africa’s sovereignty

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the stark reality of Africa’s extreme dependence on imports to feed our populations. In West Africa, 40% of the rice consumed is imported; African countries do not produce enough processed agricultural products to sustain their populations, with the three highest agricultural imports being wheat, rice, and vegetable oil; and local agriculture across the continent is dependent on imported inputs for production and therefore dependent on foreign exchange.

For Africans to chart a course away from extreme dependence on food imports prevalent now, the policies and thinking of early post-independence Africa—countries like Ghana and Tanzania —and international peasant movements, like La Via Campesina—offer a wealth of lessons.

As key countries adopted restrictive measures in their attempts to manage the spread of COVID-19—including the closure of air, land, and sea borders, and agricultural export restrictions—Africa is seeing a significant disruption of the supply chain due to the resulting decrease in the volume of imports. If exporters of cereals and staple foods, also affected by the pandemic, were to suddenly cease production, the many African countries dependent on these imports would be unable to feed their populations.

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Big business’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic highlights a problem of incentives in South Africa

The COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the global economy, causing havoc and leaving many economies teetering on the brink of economic and social collapse. Moreover, the arrival of a second and now third wave of infections and a further mutation of the virus is driving the economy further into peril and uncertainty. The announcement by Cyril Ramaphosa, back in March 2019, that two of South Africa’s wealthiest families and the pinnacle of big business, the Rupert and Oppenheimer families, would be donating R1 billion each was met with admiration from all corners of the country. These commitments have since been matched by the Motsepe group of companies and Naspers, donating R1.5 billion. To date, the fund has amassed over R3.22 billion in pledges from a wide array of private, public, and political donors.

Responses of this type are understandable when combining the already bleak outlook for the South African economy with a significant and potentially catastrophic supply shock. However, a question that may be playing on many South Africans minds is: why, given the fact that South Africa’s economy has long struggled with growth and several structural issues, is this response from big business only coming now in the face of a global pandemic? An easy answer may be that there has not yet been an event of this magnitude for big business to respond. However, a counter to this argument is that businesses should continuously be re-investing their profits regardless of the economy’s health.

South Africa has a long history of the inefficient use of profits, which favours hording cash and conducting unproductive investments such as mergers and acquisitions. These uses of profits are a direct result of the skewed incentives facing the agents of many large companies. For instance, many CEOs are incentivised through sizeable bonus packages to maximise the shareholders’ value rather than focusing on the long-term health and sustainability of the business. This short-term view causes CEOs to opt to retain earnings rather than embark on risky research, development, and innovation endeavours that often fail but may result in enormous payoffs if they succeed economically and socially. Short-termism is a result of a corruption of the idea of value creation where price is associated too closely with true value, nuturing an entrenched system of extraction that contributrs to worsening economic and social conditions. This is something the professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London, and director of the Institute for Innovation and Public Value, Mariana Mazzucato laments in her book The Value of Everything.

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Theory from the South, or Reading the Global Order from the Antipodes

By John and Jean Comaroff

There appears to be a growing echo, slowly reverberating around the world, that, for good, ill, or both, Africa is the future, a harbinger of Europe’s history-to-come. Experts may debate the reasons for this: among them, a significant population bulge heavily skewed toward youth; an urban “revolution” unique in the current era; burgeoning consumer markets, rising middle classes, and accelerating techno-development; also, a propensity to repurpose material practices both foreign and homegrown, thus to remake modernity for late modern times. Says Keith Hart (2017:2), basing his prediction on the long historical relationship between demography and economy, “Sooner or later, Africa and Europe will change rank order.” The former – Africa, the continent that once signified the West’s prehistoric past and remains a perennial “basket case” in the jaundiced eyes of Euro-America – is now frequently taken to prefigure what lies ahead for humanity at large.

A decade or so ago, our Theory from the South explored this proposition and its implications for the social sciences, one of them being that Africa, as an “ex-centric” location (Bhabha 1994) and ground-zero of the Global South, has become a privileged axis from which to theorize the emerging world order of the twenty-first century. In so doing, it provoked a great deal of argument and, among northern intellectuals unused to the idea that their hemisphere may not be the font of all knowledge and theory-work, frank skepticism.

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