Why don’t we do it in the road?

Of course you know I’m talking about planting banana trees, right?  Kenyan boda boda drivers, tired of empty promises by politicians to repair a road, have come up with an ingenious way of protesting.  They are planting banana plants in the road, arguing that if the government cannot bother to keep it up, they might as well turn it into farmland.


h/t to @kenyapundit, who tweeted the photo with the question: “Why are we struggling with such basics?”

Ken Opalo (@kopalo) wins the internet this morning with a reply that is both correct and poignant:  “Because we are all about shiny things. Leapfrogging our way back to 1600.”




Irony Fail: Mugabe Edition

Robert Mugabe went on a rant the other day about “thieving Kenyans” which was amazing in almost every way, but especially in its total lack of awareness of (1) his own corruption (perhaps he just doesn’t like competition) and (2) of the rampant corruption in Zimbabwe.  It is ranked 156 out of 175 countries on Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, making it one of the most corrupt countries in the world.  Here’s the report about Mr. Mugabe abominable rant:

“Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has launched a verbal war with Kenyans. While Presiding over a funds drive in a city church on Sunday where he was the chief guest, Mugabe said that Kenyans are the most arrogant thieves in the world because they steal with high degree impunity.

‘Those people of East Africa shock me with their wizardry in stealing. Sometimes I tend to believe that stealing is in every Kenyan’s blood. These people go to their schools and read good courses but they qualify as the best thieves. You can even think that there is a subject in their universities called Bachelor of Stealing. Whenever they get an opportunity as employees, they never disappoint. They steal enough money to buy their freedom because even the judges who listen to their cases are financially powerless. I urge you my people to be on high alert in case you by bad luck, happen to visit that East African nation. They might infect you with that disease and we don’t want it here. Zimbabweans are honest people who love their country and don’t want such stealing tendencies ‘ He shouted with courage as he advised his nation.”

Here are some salient points:

a. Of course Mugabe was the chief guest.  Duh!

b. What in the world precipitated such a torrid of hatred and why did he think a funds drive at a church was an appropriate venue to unleash it?

c. “Zimbabweans are honest people.”  Umm…

d.  This report is from a Kenyan newspaper, so why in the world did they publish that last line about shouting with courage. What does that even mean?  I believe the shouting part but the courage and advising seem pretty dubious.  It sounds like it was written by Mugabe himself.

“He was spotted dressed as a moron in Nairobi”


Thanks to Africa Is a Country for the laugh.  The caption states that “A tourist from Sweden, a Mr. X, has fallen in love with Kenya and the Masai culture. He was spotted dressed like a moran as he went about his business in Nairobi on Wednesday.”

Makes me wonder what that “business” may be…

Update: many angry tweeters have taken me to task for interpreting “moran” to mean “moron.”  Apparently moran means warrior in the Masai language.  Be that as it may, I think my original title still pretty much sums up the situation.

An NGO that “does nothing”

The blog “Africa is a country” has a good interview with Hussein Kurji, the creator of a Kenyan mockumentary of aid NGOs. The show is called Samaritans and it chronicles the daily travails of working at an NGO called Aid for Aid.  Like Seinfeld was a “show about nothing,” this NGO is an organization that “does nothing.”

Here’s Kurji talking about one of the stories of Season 1 that sounds particularly funny: “The major story arc of Season 1 is that Aid for Aid is about to apply for the largest grant that the Nairobi field office has ever applied for. In Episode 2, their first task is to come up with an acronym before figuring out what the grant’s about.”

My favorite part of the interview though was when the blog asked him for the craziest story he’s heard about an NGO.

He replies: “I heard from someone in the US that an organization was having a charity auction to raise money for endangered rhinos and the prize for this charity auction was to go hunt a rhino in Namibia.”

I don’t know how I missed this unbelievable story, but the blog assures readers that this did indeed happen, linking to the Colbert Report and CNN.

Another case of truth being stranger than fiction, or the real world sounding a lot like the Onion.

McSchooling in Kenya

Great story in Wired about The Bridge International and its standardized cheap(ish) private schools in Kenya.

There are now 212 Bridge Academies in Kenya with around 50,000 total students.

Bridge’s CEO, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Jay Kimmelman, compares his company to Starbucks and McDonald’s — organizations that offer a consistent experience no matter where in the world you encounter them. Beyond its 212 branded academies in Kenya, Bridge has set its sights on Nigeria, Uganda, and India. The founders intend to be serving half a million children in 30 countries by 2015, and 10 million by 2025. “We’ve systematized every aspect of how you run a school,” Kimmelman says. “How you manage it. How you interact with parents. How you teach. How you check on school managers, and how you support them.” 

The “catch” is that this schooling costs $5 per pupil per month.

The article touts the good results these schools achieve, but there is no rigorous evaluation presented.

Why is it so impossible to imagine that cheap standardized private schooling becomes the dominant education model in Kenya, with the Government using vouchers to get to universal enrollment for those who $5 a month is too daunting a sum?

Please do read the whole article. It’s fascinating.

Blood is thicker than tarmac

There’s an interesting NBER working paper this week called “The Value of Democracy: Evidence from Road Building in Kenya.”  The authors find that regions that share the same ethnicity as the president also get favored when it comes to road building.  In the 1963 to 2011 period, these areas get twice as much roadwork funds allocated to them and have four times the amount of paved roads built.

In some sense this is unfortunate but not all that surprising.  What is surprising and hopeful is that this relationship between ethnicity and roads goes away when Kenya has democratic government.

Here is a photo of a road in what must have been a president’s home region:



and here’s one perhaps from an ethnicity not as lucky:




“The friendliest slum in the world”

What do slum residents think about the increasing popularity of slum tourism?  Jason Patinkin, on Informal City Dialogues, tries to find out first hand in Nairobi.

First he searches for a tour and finds that there are several to choose from.  The advertise with promises such as “The friendliest slum in the world,” “Raw” and “eye-opening,” as well as assurances that the money spent on the tour will help the local community.

After a 4-hour walking tour in Kibera, Jason returns the next day to interview residents about their feelings towards these tours.   While far from scientific or comprehensive, he reports some interesting findings:

1. Most residents don’t like having their pictures taken, even after guides explained that there was no ulterior motive behind it.  The reasons they cited are (a) it was offensive, “equating people to animals;” (b) the photos might be used for profit without the locals receiving a portion; and (c) the photos might be “used to scam would-be donors into giving money to fake aid programs.”  The last one was the most surprising to me.

2. Not surprisingly, the people who directly profited from the arrangement seemed happy with it.  He finds that employees at the curio workshop (one of the stops on the tour) actually pay a percentage to the guides.  Jason finds this to be exploitative, but the members reassure him that they are happy with the system.

3. Even those who did not directly profit had a positive image of the tours.  Jason writes: “To Frederick Otieno, 28, who sells water and washes cars with a youth group, tourists mean potential donors. “When muzungu (white people) go to see animals, it is mostly the government that benefits,” he said. “We’d rather prefer that the muzungu comes to see us because they [might] come and fund a school here.” Otieno’s hope isn’t so far-fetched. In some blocks of this Kibera neighborhood, almost every other storefront is a local or foreign NGO, and volunteers and interns flock to the area every summer.”

Personally I feel way more comfortable on a photo tour of wildlife than I do people.

Private money in Mombasa

Fellow GMU graduate Mwangi Kimenyi has an interesting piece (co-written with David Muthaka) on the creation of the Bangla-pesa, a voucher currency used in a slum called Bangladesh in Mombasa.   The currency is called the Bangla-Pesa (pesa is the word for money in Swahili) and the vouchers are really beautiful.  Here is one example:


For other denominations, click here.

The idea behind the voucher currency is to help residents, who often face a lot of income volatility, essentially smooth consumption. The authors give a description of how it works:

“Businesses that are members of the Bangla Business Network enroll in the program, which distributes an equal number of vouchers to each member. In addition, all the members agree to honor the vouchers as means of exchange. Now when all or some of the traders experience downturns in their business, they can make business transactions among themselves with Bangla-Pesa. Given that the bicycle operator needs to purchase some groceries, he will give the grocer BPs (amount depending on quantity of groceries). The grocer accepts the BP vouchers and gives him the groceries he needs. When the grocer needs to get somewhere via bike, she can go to the bicycle operator (who is also a member of the Bangla Business Network) and take a ride using her BPs. The transactions do not have to take place simultaneously. This is not a barter trade system because the vouchers are used to make transactions for many goods and services among all members of the business network. As a result, the traders in this slum are able to engage in a whole range of transactions using Bangla-Pesa.

Initial results show that Bangla-Pesa is making a real difference in members’ lives.  A survey showed that 83% of the members reported an increase in sales due to the vouchers, while only .05% report lower sales.  The vouchers make up a good amount of the transactions these participants make, about 22% of daily sales.

The authors note that these types of programs can increase community participation and spirit, although they raise some interesting questions to consider before recommending widespread adoption of vouchers: Could such use of a localized currency weaken linkages with other communities and the larger economy? What might be the impact on the economy if many other slums in country or city adopt their own complementary currencies? Is this a program that should be restricted or regulated? Is it a case of “bad money” driving “good money” out? 

Fore more information on Bangla-pesa, click here.

Private education, not just for rich kids anymore

One of the best books on development that I’ve read in the last few years is The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves by James Tooley.  I recommend it all the time to grad students in development.  Surprisingly, there are tens of thousands of private schools that operate on a shoestring and educate poor children in developing countries.  It was a surprise to Tooley as well, and the story of him uncovering this phenomena in country after country is fascinating.  It is especially interesting how education bureaucrats are ignorant of what’s going on and always profess vehemently to him that there is no way this is happening in “their country.”  But yet it is…and providing better education (and sometimes cheaper once you figure in all the hidden fee for public schools).

I think this is an under-researched topic so I am happy to see a new working paper this morning by Bold, T.; Kimenyi, M.; Mwabu, G.; Sandefur, J. on private education in Kenya.  The title of the paper is The high return to low-cost private schooling in a developing country and here’s the abstract:

Can market solutions provide cost-effective alternatives to failing public service delivery systems in developing countries? Existing studies from the U.S., Latin America and Asia provide little evidence that private schools lead to large gains in academic performance relative to public schools. Using data from Kenya – a poor country with weak public institutions – we find a large effect of private schooling on test scores, equivalent to one full standard deviation. This finding is robust to endogenous sorting of more able pupils into private schools. The magnitude of the effect greatly exceeds the most cost-effective interventions to increase public school performance documented in the literature. Combining household survey and administrative data, we estimate median expenditure per pupil is just $41 per annum in the private sector, compared to $84 in government primary schools.