Ideas & Debate

Re-imagining the Kenyan economy in technicolour


Various colours have been used to explain the economy. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Kenya is, like the rest of the world, seeking to “build back better” in uncertain Covid-19 times. Yet, as is our wont, the transitional 2022 presidential election (because the other positions still don’t matter as much despite a new constitution) is now top of mind across business and the economy.

On the one hand, you have putative and pronounced presidential candidates running around the country with financial goodies for the people. Finance — cash — is the operative word; the economy is a generality. The basic idea is that people don’t have cash because the economy is bad, and the economy is bad because people don’t have cash. That would be a great discussion to have with the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA).

On the other hand, President Uhuru Kenyatta is doubling down on delivering his economic legacy. He will be happy that the Big Four Agenda is here to stay. There will be mixed views about his infrastructure efforts, ranging from design to cost to utility, but it is unarguable that stuff is visible to the naked eye.

The fiscus is a different story, as a mountain of debt is handed over to potential successors who are busy offering new promises. Of course, none of these chaps says how they will reorient government, and traditional civil service, towards their agenda; a task in which the President has also struggled.

One area of particular interest is transport and logistics. Kenya Airways and South African Airways as a potential ‘AirPanafrika’? Kenya’s brand new Transport and Logistics Network (rail, ports, pipeline) and South Africa’s long-established Transnet (rail, ports, pipeline) doing business together or is there more?

These are quick thoughts, not wild speculation, after watching clips of the President’s South Africa State visit this week.

Back home, the four-day Seventh Devolution Conference, which focused on climate change, ends today. Following the global COP26 event, Kenya has done lots of “green” talking in the past month.

This week’s conference looked at the role of counties in climate action, and the resolutions should be interesting. It often strikes me that Kenya would be a First World country if we implemented all of the resolutions made in our official workshops, conferences and meetings. But that’s a story for another day.

Today, I want to try a thought experiment, inspired by “green”. Using colours to describe and explain the economy and its different parts is not a new thing, but what about the technicolour economy?

Let’s do some colours first. We have the green economy at the responsive heart of climate change and environmental sustainability which speaks to agriculture, cleantech and manufacturing, renewable energy and the like.

Then there’s the blue economy that was first thought of as what is now the circular economy (as in resource re-use economy) before being simplified to the economy around marine and water resources.

Then there are our older colours. The black economy describes the sum total of illegal black market activity. The grey economy describes the informal sector (which is not necessarily illegal).

The brown economy of environmental harm, like fossil fuels or chopping down trees, which climate change proponents wish to replace with green. There are arguments for a red economy, too; the 20th-century mass production paradigm regardless of resource use or sustainability concerns.

Here are a couple of interesting ones. The yellow economy of economic conscience and justice (against red) was described in the Hong Kong protests last year.

The orange economy is all about the creative sector. The silver economy focuses on the needs of the aged. The white economy around health and personal care services. The purple economy around social capital and community.

To be clear, these are not all hard and fast technical definitions, but illustrations. Yet, this isn’t as wild-eyed as it sounds.

From the perspective of a developing country like Kenya, there is a view that resource-driven economies struggle between green, blue and brown. Why, by example, should we not use brown resources as a production factor, as the developed world once did to get to where they are today? Will going green “grow” or “de-grow” us, as one writer in India has recently asked?

Virtual side

Taking a human-capital driven economic perspective, what about red, black and grey? What is our real political incentive to curtail red or black, or upgrade grey if there is a danger that we might get to yellow?

On the other hand, how do we build orange for the young, silver for the aged, white for all and purple as our core capital base? Easy questions when you think in colours, right?

So, as we think about growing the economy (yeah, yeah, data matters too), let’s throw in some technicolour.

With two further understandings. First, it is not just the economy but individual sectors and clusters that are found in technicolour. Second, before you ask, digital is not a colour. It is the virtual side of the overall economic technicolour. The other layer is, erm, non-digital.

I keep saying Kenya is a movie. Let’s make this movie in technicolour.

The dream begins this weekend.