Cheaper Power Will Be A Game-Changer
One of the guaranteed consequences of writing regular opinion columns is that you will sooner or later develop a deep and unhesitating contempt for anyone referred to as a “confidante” or an “key adviser” of the sitting president or prime minister. For such people, no matter what they may have been in previous years, will generally be found to be dedicated to using their friend’s term in office to the amassing of personal wealth. It is fair to say, as a generalization that with the kind of friends or key advisers that a Kenyan president usually has, he does not need any enemies.
Fortunately, there are some exceptions. One such exception is Mr George Muhoho served as the CEO of the Kenya Airports Authority during the first term of the Kibaki presidency. I was a frequent user of Kenyan airports during that period. And was pleasantly surprised to find that – far from being the lazy timeserver you would expect from a man more famous as the president’s friend than as the CEO of a public corporation – Mr Muhoho was actually steering the airports authority towards a massive expansion, and a huge improvement in services.
It’s true that even now, our key airport, the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) is of the approximate size as a small provincial airport in any European of North American nation; indeed even in South Africa, it would be only a medium-sized airport. But it is some consolation that the expansion of this airport has been well and truly launched, and no doubt in a few years when the ongoing expansion is complete, it will be able to stand comparison with the best that Egypt or South Africa has to offer.
I mention those two nations because in all aspects of our national economy – whether you talk of agriculture; or tourism; or industry; or the exploiting of mineral wealth – they are the benchmarks by which we should rightly judge ourselves. For in almost all the key indicators of material progress, both South Africa and Egypt are far more successful than Kenya.
Now we cannot hope to obtain the benefits that South Africa receives from its vast mineral wealth; nor can Kenya realistically hope to one day have 12 million tourists every year, as we simply do not have the unique historical wonders (i.e. the pyramids and associated structures and treasures) which pull all these millions of people to Egypt every year.
But there are other ways in which we can try and catch up. One of these, is in the matter of remittances from the Kenyans in diaspora. We are not doing too badly in this, but still have a long way to go. You only have to bear it in mind that Egyptians working outside their country send home about $9.0 billion annually – compared to Kenya’s annual $891 million – to appreciate that Kenya has barely scratched the surface of the possibilities available in this valuable source of foreign exchange. The second thing, in which we could do some effective catching up, is in industrialization. In this we would be taking advantage of our relatively cheap labour and thus offering economic opportunity to our millions of unemployed youths.
However one thing has effectively made it impossible for Kenyans to pursue the dream of industrialization up to now: our electricity currently costs roughly 500% of what electricity costs in Egypt or South Africa. This is a legacy of the Moi era, when government-controlled monopolies like the Kenya Power and Lighting Company were looted mercilessly by their managements.
But now all that is sent to change, with the launch of the Olkaria geothermal project, which was presided over by the president on Monday. It is the one giant step Kenya has been waiting for, which will allow it – through the provision of cheaper electricity – to compete with South African and Egyptian manufacturing concerns, on a level playing field. KenGen, which is the corporation behind this project, is also led by a man more famous as a crony of the presidents, than as the CEO of a major corporation, and Chairman of the Nairobi Stock Exchange: Mr Eddy Njoroge.
And it is a pleasant change to see that a friend of the president's can lead the country forward in a matter of such profound national significance. For in many cases, when any friend of a sitting Kenyan president features in media headlines, it is because some economic crime has been exposed.