Redefining Public Infrastructure

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In early 2008, Kenya had an unprecedented outbreak of violence following a bitterly contested presidential election’s narrow margin of officially declared and promptly disputed victory.

This violence posed both a political as well as an economic test, to Kenya’s reputation as “a beacon of stability in one of the world’s roughest neighbourhoods” as one foreign reporter expressed it.

From a purely economic perspective, Kenya, in my view, passed this acid test with flying colours.

I can best encapsulate my perspective on this by quoting a radio commentary that I recorded for the BBC World Service’s Business Daily, which was broadcast in late January 2008, during those tragic weeks:


Kenya Passes the ‘Supermarket Test’

When a country which once had a reputation for stability shocks the world with a rapid descent into widespread violence, there is one way of finding out if it really had that stability in the first place.

That is by considering how quickly it returns to “business as usual” once the fighting stops. 

Using this test, it would be fair to say that Kenya’s previous reputation for stability was well deserved. 

There remains a terrifying level of violence within the Rift Valley Province, which is causing turmoil for neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda, as shipments from Kenyan ports have to pass through the valley to get there.  

But in large parts of Kenya, things are starting to get back to normal. Perhaps the most visible emblem of this determination to return to normal is Kenyan supermarkets. 

To stock them up requires a steady flow of fresh farm produce from the Kenyan countryside; locally manufactured goods, as well as a wide variety of imported products. 

The bulk of the people who work in such places are low wage earners who rely on public transport, and live in low-income housing projects often located right next to the slums which have been at the centre of the violence in Kenyan towns and cities. 

Empty supermarket shelves – or worse, the closing of these supermarkets altogether – would have been the surest sign that the violence had spiraled out of control. 

Following the initial explosion of violence, after the announcement of the controversial election results on 30 December, there was such a rush to buy as much as possible that the average waiting period at the cash registers was about two hours. 

But by the second week of January, it was “business as usual” in most supermarkets – those very long queues, and overloaded shopping carts, had vanished while the shelves were overflowing. 

Many Kenyans of all backgrounds shop at supermarkets because they generally have lower prices. 

However, really poor people tend more to patronise the small kiosks which are to be found around every corner in the slums. 

These kiosks sell very small quantities of cheap consumer goods –half a cake of soap, a quarter of a loaf of bread, tiny bundles of vegetables, and so on. 

It is these small, informal businesses which – more than any other – were vandalized, looted and burnt down, over the past month of Kenya’s descent into violence. 

And as most slums are still considered to be extremely volatile, many of these small-scale traders cannot risk rebuilding their kiosks. 

But even within these slums you will find traders once again laying out their goods, mostly on the sides of the roads, and usually on top of a sack which they can use to carry their stock and flee when trouble starts. 

Despite the continuing and unpredictable patterns of violence, Kenyan entrepreneurs – at every level – are working to supply the needs of their customers. 


The Roots of Instability

When a political resolution was eventually found, thanks to a concerted international effort led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Kenyan journalists as much as Kenyan scholars went rummaging through the tattered remnants of our national pride and dignity to find out why this had happened.

How it was possible that Kenya – long hailed as a beacon of progress and the geo-strategic fulcrum for the entire Eastern Africa region – could have collapsed into primeval barbarism which saw neighbour rise against neighbour in a brutal cycle of bloody attacks which at one point seemed to be taking the nation in a direction which would lead to a Rwanda-type genocide.

Two things stood out from among the answers which arose from all this soul searching. First was the purely political: that for too long the Kenyan political system had been one of an “imperial presidency” in which all power was concentrated in the hands of the president and his inner circle of courtiers.

Under the circumstances, the question of who would ascend to the presidency in any election was seen as a matter of life and death. This was in recognition that what would follow over the next five years – and any chance of the legitimate aspirations of Kenyans in any region of the country being met by State resources – depended entirely on the outcome of the presidential election. Such a situation made for a political system that was inherently unstable; and indeed it was suddenly obvious that such an explosion of violence was bound to have happened sooner or later, given the nature of Kenyan politics.

The other thing which was suddenly revealed to be obvious – and immediately understood to be an even more potent source of instability – was that even in a country with a rapidly-growing middle class like Kenya, the presence of very large numbers of desperately poor people poses an existential threat.

For it was not middle class Kenyans who had taken up machetes against their neighbours; nor yet was it middle class Kenyans who had burnt churches and homes and business premises to the ground. It was the millions of Kenyans in rural villages and urban slums – poor people who felt they had little to lose – who had so quickly resorted to violence in response to the controversial presidential election.

In an odd twist, it is the political problem faced by Kenya which turned out to be the easier to resolve: Kenya now has a new constitution which effectively dismantles the imperial presidency through a policy of ‘devolution’. From 2013 onwards, presidential power will be effectively checked by an independent judiciary; by a parliament which will vet all top presidential appointees; and by the new offices of senators and governors, created for the first time by this new constitution.


Emblems of Development

The problem which has proved to be somewhat more difficult to resolve, is that of tackling the effects of mass poverty – not necessarily by eliminating it in a few short years, which is generally understood to be impossible, but by finding ways to make the lives of poor Kenyans less desperate and more bearable.

For it soon became clear that for the millions in Kenya living in informal settlements or in rural villages, the existing paradigms on the provision of the basic facilities, services and installations needed for the functioning of communities – especially water, energy, and sanitation – simply do not apply; and that a totally new (and parallel) system has to be created if they are to see the benefits of such modern infrastructure.

The point of reference here was M-PESA, the mobile-phone-based cash transfer which effectively created a parallel system for banking and money transfers outside the existing banking system of the conventional banks. This system is itself, an offshoot of the telecommunications revolution which has seen Kenya move from a country in which there were just 500,000 fixed telephone lines two decades ago, to the current approximately 30 million mobile phones in active use.

M-PESA in turn has been so phenomenally successful that it has gained acceptance even among mainstream banking institutions as well as microcredit lenders, and is now being integrated into the commercial banks. The M-SHWARI loans and savings platform, for example, is a joint project of M-PESA’s parent company, Safaricom, and the Commercial Bank of Africa.

The idea that the kind of transactions which were previously confined to heavily-guarded, marble-paneled, banking halls – opening accounts; sending money; saving money; taking loans – could now be conducted in any roadside kiosk, and with no filling of elaborate application forms in triplicate, showed that the emblems of ‘development’ could be enjoyed even by the poor.

Nor was this a totally new line of reasoning.

For many years now, when we talk of “development” in most of Africa, we are often referring to two parallel lines of economic progress.

At one level – the national level – we are referring to the factors which are recognized all over the world as the prerequisites of economic growth, modern roads, banks, telecommunications, the internet, airports, railways, etc. These do not generate very much debate, as everyone accepts that you cannot build a modern state without them.

But then there are those ‘development projects’ which involve innovations specifically designed to resolve local health challenges or to create material progress at the village level.

These include new designs for cooking-stoves; new methods for purifying drinking water; the use of biogas; small-scale irrigation; solar-powered lanterns; new ideas for boosting agriculture; and – of course – ever newer variations on the basic idea of microcredit.  And these projects always generate fierce debate.


Skeptics and Optimists

In Kenya, there are those who approach any new idea which can be termed as a “development initiative” with extreme skepticism. Some such skeptics say that the failure rate of these initiatives is so high that they can only be taken seriously after they have proved effective for five years or more. They also note that many of these ideas are promoted by foreign-registered NGOs, which have a paternalistic focus on somehow “saving Africa”.

But there are also optimists who point out that even the idea of mobile phone cash transfers was initially met with deep skepticism – purely because nobody had ever tried such a thing before. Yet in a few short years it was so incredibly successful that most Kenyans now cannot imagine life without it.

And it is possible to take this optimism even further and argue that the way these village-level development initiatives go about trying to make a difference is precisely the same way that most innovators in the West get to produce their great inventions – by trial and error. So it does not really matter if many of them fail: what matters is that some should succeed.

Kenya is a major laboratory for such development experiments designed to solve specific African problems. And you will find, in the most unexpected places, an ongoing collaboration between Kenyan community-based organisations and global non-profit organisations or leading American universities, trying out some new idea to see if it will help.

It is at this level that the whole idea of ‘infrastructure’ is being defined: that solutions are being created to the intractable problem of finding ways to make the lives of the poor more bearable; more dignified; less desperate.

And just as most nations in Africa have been progressing towards this same ‘devolved’ political system as an antidote to the traditional imperial presidency – the “Big Man syndrome’ of African politics – so too can other African nations, with their own vast populations of the desperately poor, learn from Kenyan-based innovations how to create a type of public infrastructure which specifically addresses the needs of the poor.

Out of the dozens of innovations I examined – in personal visits to laboratories in leading American universities; in tours of urban slums; and in visits to isolated villages of Kenya’s violence-prone semi-arid rangelands – these five are the ones I found to have the greatest potential for immediate impact on the lives of the poorest Kenyans. And they therefore carry the possibility for replication all over Africa:


Global Energy Challenges: Hydrogen-Powered Cars, Giant Offshore Wind Turbines –and Charcoal Briquettes 

In much of rural Africa, most meals are still cooked using firewood.

And so, if you get off the main highway and drive off into the interior, a common sight on the sides of the roads is that of African women and children carrying stacks of twigs and branches on their heads as they make their way home.

It is this image that repeatedly came to my mind as I sat through a seminar on global energy challenges, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Much of the talk at this seminar focused on the renewed interest in nuclear energy; the latest models of solar electric panels; and ethanol production and bio-diesel.

The speakers emphasised that in another 50 years the use of petroleum will double, and that of electricity will triple. And that there won’t be enough petroleum or electricity to meet this increasing global demand, unless new ways are found both for generating energy and for conserving it.

It is this which made me remember that some environmentalists estimate that in another 20 years, there won’t be enough trees left in most parts of Africa to satisfy the demand for firewood.

And along with this, I also remembered that within MIT, there is a laboratory dedicated to finding alternatives to firewood for the poorer parts of the world.

This is the Development Laboratory, commonly known as the D-lab, and led by an award-winning engineer, Amy Smith.

The D-Lab has developed a low-cost method for producing charcoal from agricultural waste.

Using a 55-gallon oil drum and a simple mechanical press that costs less that $20, farmers can produce their own charcoal briquettes.

The raw material for making these briquettes can be virtually anything left in the fields after harvest, in small scale farming all over the world: such as wheat and rice stalks; banana leaves; corn cobs; and bagasse (which is the fibrous remnant of the sugar-cane milling process).

This leads to an inexpensive, clean-burning cooking fuel that does not contribute to deforestation.

At present, this technology is mostly being promoted in Haiti. But it has also been successfully tested in rural areas in Pakistan, Ghana, Brazil, India and Kenya.

A technology for making charcoal briquettes may seem out of place when mentioned in the same context as hydrogen-powered cars, and futuristic designs for giant offshore wind turbines.

But in the rural parts of Africa, you will find women who will tell you that just five years ago they would walk for two kilometers to get their firewood, but now find they have to walk for six kilometers before they can find any.

It is for such people that this technology has been designed.


Water is Life: From the Segway to the All-Purpose Water Purifier

On a visit to a small, isolated island in the extreme north of Kenya some years ago, a villager was showing me around the place when we came to a small pond. He told me he was thirsty; threw a stone into the water to make the many frogs which had been staring at us on the surface swim away quickly; and then he parted the greenish scum on surface of the pond with a rapid movement of one hand –and scooped up some water and drank it.

I asked how he could drink from a well with so many frogs in it, and he explained this was freshwater, and drinking from it was just like drinking from a river or a pond, where fish happily swim.

This helped me understand why so many people suffer from waterborne diseases in Africa.

About a decade later – in 2009, to be precise – I was to remember my host on Siyu Island and the pond he had drunk from, when attending a conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, where I met a somewhat famous entrepreneur/inventor called Dean Kamen, who was explaining his latest invention.

Unlike the device he’s most famous for, a quirky motorised scooter called the Segway, his new water purifier is likely to be of very great interest to Africa indeed.  That is why, as I listened to him, the incident of the frog-infested pond came back to my mind.

According to Mr Kamen, his low-energy purifier can pump out pure drinking water if you pass it through muddy river water filled with disease-causing bacteria, sea water, or even pure sewage.

The potential for this is clearly immense: it would signal an end to limitations imposed by centralized water supplies, where water needs to be collected in vast reservoirs and shipped out through pipes over many miles.

And field tests of the equipment are so far very promising. The only real barrier is that the economies of scale required to bring the price down to a projected $2,000 per machine have not yet been achieved.

But I have witnessed the cost of mobile phone handsets fall from $2,000 to $20 in Kenya, in less than a decade. So, whether it is this invention or another similar one yet to be created that makes the breakthrough, I am now certain that affordable, decentralised water purification will soon be within the grasp of many rural communities in Africa.


The Waterbank School – Peace-Building Through a Community Water Resource

The “WaterBank School” is an initiative of a US-based non-profit called PITCH-AFRICA, which has its research studios in Princeton, New Jersey. Its pilot project is to be found in Kenya’s semi-arid northern rangelands, where inter-communal fighting over water rights is tragically common during the long dry season.

The simple idea here is that by changing the design of the school buildings, you can get the classroom roofs to trap a great deal of water during the rainy season, and channel it into huge tanks constructed within the foundations of the school building. Most importantly, this is done for precisely the same cost as that of a conventional school.

This kind of water harvesting can gather enough water for about 1,000 families or students, from just one school.

In a semi-arid region like Laikipia, where the pilot project is located, with about 600mm of rainfall a year, the school can harvest 350,000 litres annually, and store 180,000 at any given time. This is 950-1000 litres/day year round.

The WaterBank School design and infrastructure also directly supports school-centric learning about water harvesting, filtration, and irrigation.

You generally would not associate a major peace-building initiative involving rival nomadic clans and tribes, who have fought over access to wells and rivers for centuries, with something as simple as using a school building to harvest rainwater. It is one of these things which only become perfectly obvious after someone else has thought of it.

And, given the proven success of the WaterBank School on its current location, after just one rainy season, there is already interest – as much within the donor community as among aspirants for positions of governor and senator in Kenya’s semi-arid zones – in more such schools being built.

In due course, it could well be replicated not only all over Kenya’s semi-arid North but also in other parts of East Africa which face similar conflicts over water.


Grundfos Lifelink – Clean Water in Remote and Semi-Arid Regions

A reliable supply of potable water is perhaps the most desperately needed of all modern infrastructure, bearing in mind the prevalence of waterborne diseases all over Africa, most of which could be eliminated by just providing clean water.

Indeed, it is a life and death issue because a good part of the high mortality rate among African children is due to waterborne diseases like cholera and dysentery.

The difficulty lies in that although there may be sources of underground water which can be pumped to the surface and treated and made available to such villages, two conditions have to be met:

First, there has to be some form of payment for this water if the supply is to be sustained. And this often brings in the logistical problems involved in collecting very small sums from very many people. Then there has to be a power source, and the usual diesel engines used to operate water pumps would require the regular transporting of many drums of highly combustible fuel for long distances over very bad roads.

A solution already implemented in parts of Kenya on an experimental basis makes surprising use of existing technologies to get over these hurdles, and creates decentralized water supply systems at the village level.

First, taking advantage of the scorching sunlight in most arid areas, this system uses solar panels as its power source. These panels, once placed on the right kind of platform, will function for many weeks or even months, without any need for maintenance or refueling, unlike the case with diesel-powered water pumps.

When it comes to collecting money, this experimental water supply system uses the mobile phone cash transfer system to receive payments from those who come to get their water, one jerry can at a time.

Ever since the cost of handsets dropped to about $20 some years back, millions of people in Africa have been able to afford them. And, in most cases, they got to own and use these phones long before they had seen electric power lines in their villages; nor had the benefit of piped water, or even paved roads. And people who had never once been inside a bank before were suddenly able to make electronic funds transfers on a modest scale, as a matter of routine.

So this innovative water supply system – assuming it can be replicated in many other arid zones within Africa – has the potential to improve the living standards of millions of people across the continent.

There is an initial investment, of course: There has to be a pump house with a trained attendant; and a large water tower with tanks with the solar panels rigged above them. And there has to be regular monitoring of the water table as well as the water quality.

But so far the dozen or so pilot projects scattered around Kenya have been able to operate without much trouble.

And people who would otherwise have had to wait for many years before the government finally got round to providing water pipelines running through hundreds of kilometres to reach them, can now have a reliable supply of clean water, at an affordable cost.


Sanergy: Sanitation as a Key Development Indicator

The importance of providing clean water, in disease-endemic poor nations, is something that cannot be exaggerated: indeed it could be argued that the extent to which the poor in any developing country have easy access to clean water, and to sanitation services, is a key development indicator, with vast public health implications.

In Kenya, falling sick often –and being really sick at least two or three times a year –is accepted as a simple fact of life.

Newly arrived expatriates and diplomats in Kenya are often astonished by the frequency with which one or another of their domestic workers will fail to report on duty either because they are sick, or because they have taken a sick child to hospital.

The reason for this is that in any part of Africa, you are never really that far from someone afflicted with some kind of infectious disease, and there is always the chance that this infection will be passed on to you.

These expatriates, for example, usually live in neighborhoods which boast swimming pools and immaculate lawns all around: but the people who come to trim these lawns and clean these pools will be low-income workers who live in the poorer neighborhoods, which frequently, are right next to a slum.

And so for any infectious microbes breeding in some slum in Nairobi, virtually all the homes in the city will be within easy reach.

A useful outcome of this is that public health policy is obliged to consider the needs of the poorest citizens, because any fast-spreading infectious disease that breaks out in populations of the poor, presents a direct threat to the middle-class policy makers as well.

But there are broader questions raised here: First, What is the economic impact of chronic illness on a country?  And, second, can the economic benefits of eliminating disease be quantified?

Well, a 2006 study which retrospectively demonstrates the enormous benefits of polio vaccination in the US sheds much light on these issues.

This study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health led by Professor Kimberly Thompson (currently Professor of Preventive Medicine and Global Health at the University of Central Florida) provides evidence that the net economic benefit of the vaccination progamme has been about $180 billion over the past 50 years.

This was not achieved without an initial and substantial investment: it cost over $35 billion over those same 50 years to not only eliminate polio from the US, but to keep the virus out with continued vaccination since polioviruses have not yet been eradicated globally.

Figures such as these illustrate, as Professor Thompson pointed out, that “huge economic savings can come from investments in public health interventions”.

In any event, arising from the influence of such thinking, there has been a great push towards finding ways in which the poorest citizens in the urban centres – those who are likely to continue living in one slum or another, for the foreseeable future – can somehow get potable water and hygienic toilets.


Hollywood Comes Calling

Almost every other month, Kenyan newspapers will publish a photograph of a famous female Hollywood film star, or a top supermodel, moved to tears during a visit to one of Kenya’s slums.

The contrast between the luminous beauty of this famous woman, and the dreadful shacks made of rusted tins, cardboard, and mud which surround her, is one we have seen so often that many readers only pause to note just exactly which organisation sent her as a “goodwill ambassador”.

Within the mainstream media in Kenya, this kind of thing is not taken too seriously, as the reporters who have covered such events tell us that these carefully contrived visits rarely go beyond the outer margins of any slum.

Indeed they barely enter the slum at all.

And for good reason: it would be a mistake to take any such high-profile visitor deep into the alleyways of a slum, not only because of the awful smells which pervade such places, but also because of the health risks that this would involve.

In fact, middle-class Kenyans generally would not dream of stepping into slums like Kibera or Mathare or Korogocho. And American university students volunteering in Kenya are often amazed to learn that not one member of their Kenyan host family has ever been to the slum which is the site for their summer project.

For such places invariably lack any formal sanitation system; and so they are the breeding grounds for all kinds of deadly and highly infectious microbes.

Walk into a Kenyan slum and touch anything – anything at all – and you are almost certain to end up with a debilitating fever or devastating stomach cramps.

Sanitation is not a topic that comes up very often in conversation, and there are few occasions where disposal systems for human waste can be discussed.

In Kenya, the most you will hear about is jokes about the ‘flying toilets’ of the slums: people attend to their business on any piece of paper they can find, and fling it away toward some gutter – or even onto the roof of a neighbouring shanty. They then generally wipe their hands on any nearby wall – which is what makes the walls of any slum dwellings such a potent source of pathogens.

Contagious diseases are a major hazard for children in poor countries – that is, children who live in slums and other informal settlements – and diarrhea is one among the top five global causes of child mortality.

But sanitation seems to be a growth area these days.

From Flying Toilets to the ‘Fresh Life’ Toilets

The most prominent project in Kenya, ‘Sanergy’, is an award-winning social enterprise that offers an innovative approach to providing clean toilet facilities in slums. Their key invention is the commercially-operated “Fresh Life” toilet, which was first designed at MIT, and then field-tested in Kenya.

Sanergy does its work in two ways: on the one hand, it facilitates loans as well as marketing, training, business support and training, for those franchise partners who are willing to invest in their “Fresh Life” toilets. The operators earn, on average, $1000 / year per toilet in profit. And it contracts to take away the waste – both liquid and solid – from the Fresh Life Toilet operators, and to convert it into useful byproducts, such as organic fertilizer. There are also plans to produce biogas for generating electricity.

Within its first year of operation, Sanergy has developed a network of about 150 toilets, which makes hygienic sanitation available for an estimated 7,000 people daily, all living in slums. They have also created 200 jobs in that time in an area plagued by 40% unemployment.


A New Paradigm for Infrastructure

The greater point in all this is that, traditionally, infrastructure needs in Kenya were thought of in terms of projects costing millions of dollars and taking years to implement.

But this new paradigm of focusing on the creation of new and unique technological solutions to the specific problems of the poor has led to much cheaper and much quicker solutions in the provision of key aspects of what can only be defined as public infrastructure.

It focuses on potable water, hygienic toilets, and cheap ways to have light in homes after dark, and efficient ways of cooking meals while avoiding the production of the dense kitchen smoke which is a leading cause of respiratory disease in developing countries.

And there is every reason to hope that innovations such as those outlined here will soon be as widespread in their use as is the mobile phone money transfer system, which has evolved into a key pillar of Kenya’s financial infrastructure: it currently reaches over 15 million Kenyans, and accounts for more “banking activity” than all the regular commercial banks put together.


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