Ideas & Debate

Going digital key arrow in Uhuru’s legacy quiver

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President Uhuru Kenyatta. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • At the beginning of 2019, my thinking was that, in addition to the “Big 4” —food, health, housing, manufacturing — President Kenyatta would do well to focus on three areas; an integrated national digital information infrastructure.
  • We need to pay more attention to structural reform.
  • It took this pandemic for the SME credit guarantee scheme to get moving.
  • It took this pandemic to highlight the fragility of our formal private sector, and the precarious nature of the informal one.

This is always an interesting time of the year. In my final column of 2017, following a noisy and fractious presidential election, I quietly suggested that 2018 was the year for inclusive political dialogue, a theme I repeated that January. I was still as surprised as anyone when the “Handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leader Raila Odinga happened that March.

At the beginning of 2019, my thinking was that, in addition to the “Big 4” —food, health, housing, manufacturing — President Kenyatta would do well to focus on three areas; an integrated national digital information infrastructure (people, establishments, land and assets), small and medium enterprise (SME) development and more “joined-up” government across and between the national and county levels. Purely by coincidence, Huduma Namba, the people part of the information infrastructure, was announced within days, and an SME credit guarantee scheme mooted later in the year. Established multi-agency efforts continued to operate, but comprehensive “joining up” didn’t happen enough.

Which brings us to 2020. Within the first week it was clear that BBI (and debate around an expanded executive) and “Big 4” were the main agenda items in a challenging economic and fiscal environment. Hence my “…2020’s real storylines. Do we have the fiscal space to do a stimulus, as the private sector demands? Will austerity on the cost side, including debt restructuring, happen? With a 2022 legacy in mind, will mega-project investments, and “Big Four” persist? Are we headed for an IMF program? Will the anti-graft war bear fruit? Or is this a 2016 moment, when our fiscus last went haywire?”

Then the coronavirus pandemic happened. And it became new storyline. Granted, the keywords panned out. Stimulus. Austerity. Restructuring. IMF. Graft. But now we had a new context for 2020.

Enough has been said about the effects of the pandemic on lives (the health crisis), livelihoods (the economic crisis) and living (the social crisis). Kenya, and Africa at large (outside of maybe South Africa), has suffered less illness and death than other parts of the world, but initial movement restrictions caused much economic damage. The social effects, including mental health impacts, are still emerging.

Let’s not forget the locusts and floods that also ravaged Kenya during the year. In all of this, of course, there was lots of BBI activity at the beginning of the year, then a six month “half-time break” (during the period of movement restrictions) and lots of BBI activity at the end of the year.

The pandemic itself has offered a few lessons for Kenya. We need to seriously upgrade our education and health service delivery “packages’ (both the hardware of infrastructure, tools and equipment, and the software of people as a comprehensive human resource management package). We also need to deepen social safety nets and wider protection (including social security) and consider the feasibility of business, jobs and income support in tough economic times, especially in context of the future of work.

We need to pay more attention to structural reform. It took this pandemic for the SME credit guarantee scheme to get moving. It took this pandemic to highlight the fragility of our formal private sector, and the precarious nature of the informal one. The data for 2020 thus far tells us that we ignore agriculture at our peril; this year it has been Kenya’s base of resilience when industry and services closed down; notwithstanding the innovative manufacturing efforts that have emerged in response to the crisis.

Vaccines will not be the only story for Kenya and the world in 2021, the pandemic remains and disease variants are fast emerging. For Kenya, social and economic recovery should be the priority agenda. However, now that we are walking a fiscal tightrope, we should also expect the scaling down of “Big 4”, and expensive infrastructure spending. We should take seriously predictions of La Nina in the early part of the year, and how it might hurt agriculture. Restarting education after a year out will also be key.

2021 will also be Kenya’s pre-election year. With BBI a political priority, any referendum will divert time and attention, as will any by-elections. Mostly, 2021 will also be the year when prospective candidates for different positions in 2022 start jockeying for position. Expect much endless political cacophony.

I am not in the betting business, but digital offers one ray of hope in 2021. Much business and personal adjustment in 2020 was supported by technology; this will continue. Beyond digitisation to digitalisation. Digital also looks like the final arrow in the Jubilee legacy quiver. There are all manner of paper strategies lying around. Implement them. Real digital progress is possible in 2021, before 2022.