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News : Innovation Last Updated: Oct 31, 2012 - 9:34 AM

Keyna in transition - - Prof Seamus Grimes, NUI Galway
By Seamus Grimes, Emeritus Professor, Whitaker Institute of Innovation and Societal Change, National University of Ireland, Galway, Ireland
Oct 30, 2012 - 8:28 AM

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Seamus Grimes, Emeritus Professor, Whitaker Institute of Innovation and Societal Change, National University of Ireland, Galway, Ireland, goes into the field to do research and we have previously published letters from both Shanghai and Kenya.

It’s good to be back in sunny Kenya where the scope for solar initiatives must be great. Here at Strathmore University, where I am based for a few weeks there are many incubation units seeking to tackle the considerable challenges the country faces. There are obvious signs of progress since my last visit in 2009, with shiny new office blocks appearing downtown, but also in suburban locations. Also, locals are happy about the gradually improving infrastructure, particularly the new Chinese-built and funded expressway, which reduces some trips considerably.

Alongside this progress considerable challenges remain both for the country and this city, which tends to attract high levels of rural in-migration of people who sometimes end up living in slum conditions. The city is obviously a work in progress, with many new roads under construction. Rather than taking a circuitous path around hilly areas, some of these new roads cut right across hills with the result of very steep inclines, which can become somewhat dangerous in cases where they are in an unfinished state. One such road which yet remains to be tarred has been strewn with rocks by local people who walk to and from town each day because of lacking the means to use even the relatively cheap matatus (minibuses). Because of the dusty nature of these new roads or pathways, the local pedestrians are trying to prevent motorised vehicles from covering them with dust. This rock-strewn roadway symbolises the tensions between the growing middle class and the huge numbers of poor people in the city, whose living continue to be far from ideal.

As I was driven from the airport on my arrival, my sense of shock at the difficult circumstances of many local people walking along the ‘highway’ was re-awakened. The huge pedestrian population, who suffer the worst effects of the high levels of pollution coming from many vehicles that are clearly past their best years of service, are among those who often live in the slums, and seek to find some form of employment wherever it might be available. The matatu passengers can be a mixed group of people, but all of them can at least afford this basic, though fairly effective form of transport. Everywhere one runs into major traffic jams, and the locals joke that people tend to either turn up half an hour before a meeting (having factored in traffic problems), or half an hour late because the congestion.

The increased levels of investment and construction of real estate and new infrastructure is quite encouraging. This is likely to taper off to some extent with the approaching election next spring, as potential investors take stock. The key consideration of everybody here is that the next election will be peaceful, and much work is going on to ensure that this will be the outcome. In addition to the growing levels of foreign multinational investment, among the major actors in the investment landscape includes the Chinese, the local Indian population and to some extent Somali investment.

The growing involvement of Chinese investment in Africa is quite evident here in Nairobi in real estate, highway construction and also major companies such as the well-known telecommunications giant, Huawei. Having recently spoken to professionals involved in the Strathmore MBA programme, I was interested to learn how impressed they were with the Chinese model, which is so pragmatic and also based on affordability. The Indian population in Kenya plays a very significant role in the economy, but for the most part have remained somewhat apart from total involvement in the political environment. Somali investment remains the strangest component of all, since it appears to be connected with the piracy activity that has dogged the East African coastline for years. As the authorities come to grips with this serious problem, the flow of funding appears to decline.

So the present picture is one of growing optimism on the one hand and continued enormous challenges to create an economic dynamic which can provide employment opportunities and shift the economy away from a significant informal sector to one where more people are paying taxes to allow for the provision of a greater level of basic services. It can take many years for infrastructural projects to be completed once they are started, with the necessary funding for such projects sometimes disappearing into black holes, or as the locals will have it, ‘being eaten’. The long waiting period of the impoverished for a better life drives some people into a range of criminal activities, which can have considerable negative effects in terms of petty corruption by officials in positions of power, or by others who intimidate car-drivers stuck in traffic. All cars have registration numbers engraved on their windows, in the expectation that they could be stolen at some stage. This overall lack of security gives rise to a very dynamic security sector, with all institutions and even homes having well secured perimeters. This security issue has grown in significance also because of the threat of terrorism in recent years. Kenya, like other parts of Africa, must make progress on these security issues, if sectors like tourism are to thrive. But this challenge is also related to the deep-seated inequality of opportunity that characterises society. One can often wonder about the commitment at the official level to face the underlying drivers of these problems, but I have been constantly meeting people engaged on the ground in promoting a better life for those in impoverished people.

My overall impression on this visit is that there is a growing optimism that youthful Kenya is up to these many challenges.

Letter from Shanghai

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