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Global conferences shouldn’t be a Nairobi affair

I received the following note from a Mr. Wainaina: “I am writing with regards to a trend I have seen in Kenya. Every time Kenya is hosting a global summit or symposium, everyone rejoices that we are on the global map.

However, it seems that the local guy does not fully master the opportunities presented by these forums. Since 2013, we have hosted numerous high-profile conferences locally. Our president has been jetting from capital to capital seeking trade deals, but who benefits? Are we too quick to criticise these efforts out of ignorance?”

Mr Wainaina is not alone in questioning the usefulness of conferences that have been taking place in Kenya. They come as an ambush to Kenyans and this was succinctly clear when Foreign Affairs and International Trade secretary Amina Mohamed appeared on prime time television, ostensibly to explain what the recent Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Nairobi was all about.

Instead, she spent more time defending the many conferences that often disrupt businesses negatively. NTV’ business news anchor Wallace Kantai focused her attention on responding to the real benefit of the conferences since businesses in Nairobi were complaining that too many of these conferences are more of a disturbance. The morning FM radio stations also had similar concerns.

Ms. Mohamed lost an opportune moment to give the history of TICAD, what they have achieved and what they intended to achieve out of the Nairobi conference.

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Like in other conferences such as the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), it was assumed that Kenyans would automatically understand what these conferences meant to their lives.

Unknown to organisers was the fact that majority of Kenyans were below 30, many of who had no idea what acronyms like WTO or TICAD meant.
There was no intentional messaging to bring this majority up to speed. Nobody simplified the economics or clearly showed how the decisions arrived at the meetings would impact their lives.

For example, the decision by the European Union to do away with agricultural subsidies directly translates to Kenyan goods becoming competitive in the EU.

There was need to explain that Kenya is one of the leading exporters of horticultural goods into the EU and the decision is what Africa needed. Up to date, farmers were unaware of what may turn out to be an opportunity that they could exploit.

Much of Ms. Mohamed’s response was that these conferences were injecting lots of money into the economy and that they may prop up our failing tourism.

At one point, she inferred that these conferences were a necessary evil to which every citizen must sacrifice. This did not, however, convince audiences across the country.

While it is true that these conferences might prop up tourism in the country, using 1970s infrastructure like the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) sends a wrong message of Kenya to foreign countries.

Convention centres

The place needs a makeover to match competing facilities in other parts of the world. There is need to encourage the building of new convention centres under public private partnerships and new hotels away from the centre of cities to avert current misunderstandings.

Naivasha, for example, is ripe for a convention centre that can accommodate upwards of 10,000 delegates. The same is also true for Mombasa, both in the north and south.

Other cities that have significant bed capacity include Kisumu, Nakuru, Nyeri and Malindi. It is far easier to provide security in cities outside Nairobi and create a greater propensity of visitors to spend on tourism products around these cities.

Holding these conferences in Nairobi simply adds injury to an already wounded population. Its traffic jams send a wrong message to visitors.

It is by far cheaper and secure to build a presidential retreat somewhere in the Rift Valley or in the North to welcome special guests who require greater security than locking Nairobi residents out of streets. There is even a State Lodge in Rumuruti that is rarely used.

Indeed such projects would not only go a long way in expanding, not just the economy, but in aiding the redistribution of economic benefits to other parts of the country outside the capital city.

Resort cities were envisaged in the Vision 2030, but nobody talks about them any more. Kenya’s bed capacity is still dismal compared to other tourist destinations.

Any talk about tourism or conferencing must start with building of supportive infrastructure and mechanisms of promoting local goods in well-organised expos.

Coming back to Mr Wainaina’s concerns, yes we need conferences not just as a tool for promoting tourism but also as a means of advancing the livelihood of Kenyans.

Each conference must have good communication, education and information befitting the demographic structure of the country.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business

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