Cultural diversity and economic growth

Human migration has characterised our existence on earth for ages. In Africa perhaps two of such migration patterns have had a significant economic impact.

These were the Bantu, a massive migration of people across Africa about 2,000 years ago and the African slave trade. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, more than 15 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic Ocean to be sold as slaves in North and South America.

Studies now show that these migrations brought about a cultural mix that created variety in abilities, experiences, cultures which were productive and in many cases led to innovation and creativity.

Human geographers show that the Bantu migration had an enormous impact on Africa’s economic, cultural, and political practices.

Today it is perhaps the United States of America that is the archetypal example of mixed ethnic relations in what is commonly referred to as a “melting pot”.


Whilst much evidence points toward the problem of racial heterogeneity in US cities, the racially mixed and racially troubled New York City and Los Angeles are constant producers of innovation in the arts and business.

It is in this regard that there is need to review emerging relationships in counties along ethnic composition as it relates to economic growth.

Nairobi and Mombasa put together contribute more than 70 per cent of Kenya’s GDP. This is largely due to a positive cultural diversity of the two largest cities in Kenya.

Nakuru which in the 1970s threatened to be the second largest city fell behind largely due to fractious relationships of its inhabitants. Cultural interactions in any form in some ways do impact the economy especially through enterprise.

Even without the benefit of research, migrant communities in Kenya as elsewhere in the world have tended to do better than their non-migrant brothers.

It is often assumed that Kikuyu for example are more entrepreneurial than the Luo. This is just but a myth. The Luo community that migrated to Mombasa is as entrepreneurial as any Kikuyu anywhere in the country.

More significantly, is the fact that majority of the wealthy Kikuyu are those who either migrated to Nairobi or to other major towns. And if this myth were to be true then second generation Kikuyu entrepreneurs would be extremely successful. Instead, majority of family owned enterprises die when the family patriarch dies.

New and emergent entrepreneurial ethnic groups such as the Kisii and Luhyia in Nairobi and the Rift Valley confirm what we already know that problems do indeed lead to innovation and creativity.

Any human being pushed into a corner will try to salvage themselves by whatever means. Asians in Kenya succeeded as entrepreneurs because they were not allowed to own land.

In essence if there are enough problems, entrepreneurialism is often the exit strategy. In theory, when there is deprivation, there will be a higher need for achievement. This explains why second and third generations of wealthy entrepreneurs fail to sustain their family enterprises not only in Kenya but globally.

Native land owners especially in rural counties lack the motivation and focus to work as hard as migrant communities to propel the local economy to higher grounds.

It is already evident at country level as people say serikali isaidie (government help) and governors seeking for more allocation without specifying that it is for common goods.

For any county to succeed, there must be a concerted effort to encourage entrepreneurs and supporting them. These are the creators of jobs. Diversity will bring competition and greater efficiencies. It is for this reason that counties must woo other ethnic groups to migrate into their counties.

New studies show a positive relationship between the size of migrant populations living in OECD countries and the level of bilateral merchandise between OECD countries and African trading partners.

It is on this basis that the US Congress recently introduced bipartisan legislation entitled, “The Increasing American Jobs through Greater Exports to Africa Act of 2012".

This will promote the increase of US exports to Africa. The aim of the Act is to improve the competitiveness of US business in Africa.

Members of the County Assembly should be making such legislations to promote trade not just within the country but Africa. This will only succeed if we encourage diversity for economic growth.

Dr Ndemo is a senior lecturer, University of Nairobi and a former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.