«Kenya: A Country of Contrasts By Johan Woxenius September 2011 Kenya is defined by its immense contrasts. The country’s natural habitat ranges from ...»
Kenya: A Country of Contrasts
By Johan Woxenius
Kenya is defined by its immense contrasts. The country’s natural habitat ranges from sandy beaches
and rain forests to savannahs crowded with exotic animals and mountains with glaciers to semi-arid
bush land and arid deserts. People are divided into very different tribes, and income levels vary beyond comprehension. Telecommunications are highly developed, whereas Kenya does not boast about
its manufacturing sector. Agriculture and tourism generate the currency needed for importing fuel, machinery and consumption goods. Freight transport ranges from air transport of cut flowers to Europe and modern Volvos and Scanias moving containers from Mombasa to donkey rides and manually pulled trolleys, which can also be seen in downtown Nairobi. Spending more than half of this year in Kenya is a truly exciting and rewarding experience, both on a professional and personal level. While Sweden and Kenya are extremely different countries, I have observed that the academic life is actually very similar. Telecommunication and global supply chains provide access to people and goods just like they do at home.
During my 20 years of research at Chalmers and the University of Gothenburg (UGOT), I have travelled to many international conferences; I have guest lectured at foreign universities and participated in many EU research projects. I was also a part-time guest professor at Blekinge Institute of Technology for two years. I grew up in Blekinge, and during the weeks at BIT, I slept in my old boys’ room, so while it was a very good learning experience, it was not exactly an adventure. As I received increasingly more academic responsibilities, I realised that I could do the job better with experience gained from a longer period in an unfamiliar academic and social environment. The reviewers of the large research programmes in which I was involved also repeatedly found us collectively falling short in international experience.
The opportunity to acquire this lacking international experience opened up when my family and I decided to stay in Kenya for personal reasons for seven to nine months this year. I chose between taking time off, continuing normal academic work from a distance or taking the opportunity to study the work life and develop academic links between Kenya and Sweden. The choice was easy, and, consequently, I embarked on a great adventure in mid-May with my destination to Nairobi. Halfway through the expat period, I have some observations that I would like to share.
The plan for my work was to piggyback on UGOT’s Department of Economics’ presence with a centre for Environment for Development (EfD) and Chalmers’ and UGOT’s initiatives in Kisumu through Mistra Urban Futures. I was also commissioned by the maritime competence centre Lighthouse to investigate the climate for maritime research and education in Kenya. My own research on hinterland transport and gaining teaching experience was to be developed on site.
The first phase was to learn more about the country in which I was living and working. Logistics and transport is truly interwoven in the society and social science research results are most often only valid in a specific context. The organised part of the work resulted in a literature list and a good collection of publications entered into EndNote.
The personal incomes and wealth is extremely unevenly distributed in Kenya, even in a sub-Saharan comparison. Private cars, which cost the equivalent of the yearly GDP of a hundred Kenyans, are often seen in the streets of Nairobi, but the slums are equally visible. You get used to the inequalities after a while, but it was truly awkward to tee off at the old (1906) and very well kept Royal Nairobi Golf Club looking over the wall into the surrounding Kibera slum. Kibera is Africa’s largest slum with 170 000 inhabitants living in a space that is not much larger than the golf course. The population density does not come from high-rise buildings… The people of Nairobi are still well off as compared to some arid areas where people actually starve to death during the present drought, and life in the slums is reported not to be awfully miserable after all.
It is truly amazing to see the crowds of clean and well-dressed workers walking out of Kibera each morning! Housing programmes that have replaced sheds with apartment compounds have often failed, since the people neither want nor can afford to move, and their source of income is often related to small shops in their sheds.
Many programmes funded or imposed by international organisations like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, UN and national aid organisations have also failed when attempting to apply a onesize fits all attitude. A logistically relevant example is that foreign aid has helped Kenya to build many good roads, but years of tough wear, political negligence and lack of maintenance funds have filled them with potholes. Overloaded trucks are generally neither seen as traffic hazards nor road destroyers, but as revenue sources for local police.
The road to the wonderful national park Masai Mara, with its famous wildebeest migration, for instance, is actually physically painful to ride on even with a jeep. While the initial investment provided a good road, assigning more people to collect road tolls than to maintain the road has not proven to be a successful strategy. Still, the road and the national park are owned by the same municipality so a good road would be economically sound when competing with other parks for tourist dollars. Rumours say that it is influential owners of airlines flying tourists into the park and car repair shops that block any road improvements. With Kenya’s notorious corruption you never know the real reasons behind things that appear to violate economic laws.
The end of the cold war has made sub-Saharan Africa less important to the Western world and now China develops its ties. Kenya lacks raw materials, so the Chinese transport infrastructure investments aim at creating consumer markets. One example of this is that the Chinese have constructed a ten-lane highway between Nairobi and the city of Thika. It is now partly open for traffic, but I hope they will remove the speed bumps and zebra crossings when it is fully in use.
A trolley on Ngong road – a main road in Nairobi.
The quality of infrastructure obviously affects logistics, and transport is a part of the urbanisation history. Mombasa is a very old port city used by Portuguese and Arabs, whereas Nairobi and Kisumu at Lake Victoria were actually created just a hundred years ago by the British and Indians as hubs on the Mombasa-Uganda railway. The Port of Mombasa is similar to the Port of Gothenburg in size and both are becoming landlord ports to handle the need for investments. The pirates based in lawless Somalia hamper shipping, but the port congestion is equally disturbing to trade to Kenya and to the neighbouring land-locked countries. A second port is accordingly planned in Lamu close to Somalia, and the project includes an oil refinery, three airports, railways, pipelines and highways to the interior at a total cost of almost 150 billion SEK.
My work in Kenya So what do I do here? The least thrilling part is the regular academic work connected to my activities at the University of Gothenburg and as part of the international scientific community. Putting all continuous work to a halt for the better part of a year implies difficulties due to the long life-span of programmes and projects, publishing and, of course, supervising PhD students. In practice, a total disconnection thus means much more than the actual time spend abroad. Just a few years back, it would have been difficult to work from such a distance, but with electronic administrative systems and dependable telecommunications, I think I have been able to run most things quite efficiently. Skype works sufficiently well for taking part in board meetings; e-mail is not distance dependent; and articles are remotely reviewed anyway.
A more interesting part of my life relates to my work with Kenyans. The EfD centre is currently hosted by the policy institute KIPPRA, where I have a desk. They work with infrastructure and traffic, but I can add competence in the areas of freight transport, logistics and supply chain management. I have also assisted in promoting a national energy conference, and I now expect several Swedish speakers. I co-author a paper on energy for transport in Kenya with two KIPPRA colleagues and at the conference I will sit in a panel discussing the energy sector’s links to other sectors. The ICT, industry and housing sectors are represented by permanent secretaries from the ministries.
My desk at KIPPRA.
University of Nairobi The EfD centre will soon move to the University of Nairobi (UoNbi), partly to increase capacity building through teaching. It will be at the School of Economics, which unfortunately lacks transport economists and the relevant courses are thus dormant. I agreed with the dean that my work would be more useful at the School of Business (SoB), which offers programmes and courses on logistics and supply chain management.
Cooperation kick-started when the School of Business organised the African International Business and Management Conference (AIBUMA) at the end of August. The keynote speakers were very prominent representatives from Kenyan industry and the public sector, and the organisers answer to how they could attract them was, “They ask if they can speak and we select”. To me it was a proof of the school’s prestige in Kenya and most speakers were SoB alumni.
I was consequently both honoured and challenged when they asked me to deliver an international keynote speech at the conference. Addressing the conference theme "Building Synergies for Better Performance", I spoke about how we cooperate with industry and the public sector in Sweden, the programmes and projects we run, what we do in Kenya and, most importantly, what we plan and want to do in the future. The theme is related to Kenya’s national motto “Harambee“ in Swahili or "Let us all pull together" in English.
Speakers at AIBUMA, Kenyatta International Conference Centre, Nairobi, 25-26 August. From left to right:
Charles Kariuki, Associate Dean, School of Business, University of Nairobi, John Gallaugher, Boston College, Onsario Nyamwange, Conference Chair, University of Nairobi, Stephen Nzuve, Dean School of Business, University of Nairobi and Johan Woxenius, Northern Lead.
The conference itself was a nice experience, and it was organised like any large international conference: the same black conference bag, the same CD with papers, the same buffet lunch and an equal mix of good and bad presentations. A different feature, however, was the morning prayers for successful presentations—Kenyans are very religious.
The staff at SoB has been truly helpful, and my teaching will soon start. I also plan to conduct seminars with the staff and I hope to formalise our cooperation with research and student exchange. The staff is very busy teaching, but they also do research. I found one article presented at last year’s AIBUMA very similar in scope to the latest article I co-authored on information support to hinterland rail transport. My UoNbi colleagues used Port of Mombasa as an empirical base, whereas we focused on Port of Gothenburg and the port shuttles. We now plan for a joint article.
International organisations in Kenya The classification of being a developing country does not imply that there is a lack of research. Many international organisations are active here, and I found a wide variety of studies during my literature review. It particularly relates to the performance of the transport corridors connecting the ports in Mombasa and Dar es Salaam with land-locked countries like Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. A colleague from Edinburgh Napier University was assigned to conduct a study on the corridors for UNCTAD this summer, and he was somewhat frustrated given that so many studies have already been done!
Since we have done much hinterland transport research in Gothenburg, I was asked by the World Bank to assist in a project on continuous monitoring of the performance of the corridors in contrast to the dominating snapshot investigations. I had to decline the offer for a four-month study since I had already made previous commitments, but I plan to travel with the World Bank staff and we still plan to write something together. I have also developed contacts with OECD, which runs a programme on port cities, and we also intend to write a joint working paper.
Humanitarian logistics East Africa is truly poor and subject to nature’s forces. Kenya hosts the Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. Logistics is obviously of great concern, and although humanitarian logistics is more or less the only thing Northern Lead has decided not to engage in, I have promised to assist colleagues from Hanken in Helsinki. They have a project including Kenyan field studies next year, and I will help them to prepare it by meeting with the Red Cross in Nairobi.
Some observations All in all, academic life here is quite similar to that in Gothenburg but people dress much smarter in the offices here, while the building is far less luxurious than UGOT’s and Chalmers’. I assess the working discipline as higher here with people bending over computer screens during long office days.
The educational programmes are similarly themed and organised, particularly when we have adopted the Anglo-Saxon bachelor-master structure. Teachers are equally overloaded with lectures and supervising term papers, while simultaneously struggling to find time for research.
Living abroad for a long time allows room for observations also of the everyday life. A day with concurrent electricity, gas, water and Internet is a good day. If it’s not there, you know it will come back sooner or later. You just have to accept that those things that you take for granted at home keep you busy here. After all you are lucky—only 15% of Kenyans have electricity, and there are 50 Kenyans per water pipe connection and less than half of the population has access to purified water. About 80% of the food is prepared over open fire. So why complain when you need to call someone to change the gas tube when most Kenyans must walk long distances to collect fire wood?