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Time to say goodbye to the ‘Mkokoteni’ economy

When I was a student in London, there was a particular Kenyan T-shirt that I would wear with great pride. It depicted a cartoon of a man pulling a ‘mkokoteni’ cart. This T-shirt reminded me of my roots, and of the idiosyncrasies of the country from which I had emerged. I told my fellow students from across the globe of the rustic charms of Kenya.

Well, we’re all foolish when we’re young. I now place my romancing of the hand-drawn cart amongst all my other lamentable youthful follies (which is a long list). I only loved the mkokoteni because I didn’t have to pull one.

Now, when I see a mkokoteni on Nairobi’s busy streets, I feel only dismay. What was I thinking, when I thought this was a good thing? A human being forced to pull such inhuman weight with his bare hands under a blazing sun? That is not something we should be asking a donkey to do in this day and age, let alone a man. The fact that we have allowed this to continue to happen means that our brains, our imagination and our compassion have failed us.

Our hearts should feel bad for the people doing the pulling, and our minds should be concerned by the inconvenience caused to everyone else. What place does a lumbering hand-drawn cart have on a modern highway? It slows up the traffic to a crawl wherever it goes, yet it is allowed to proceed unchecked. A mkokoteni carries the lowest-value goods, and is pulled by the lowest-paid of workers; yet all traffic is slowed to the pace of this laggard. What sense does that make?

I am amazed when I see multinational firms using mkokoteni carts to deliver their goods to their customers. What thinking informs that idea? If it is a cost-containment initiative, it is unacceptable to treat human beings like beasts of burden. If it is well-intentioned, and aims to create ’employment’ and embrace ‘local technology’, it is equally wrong-headed. There is nothing to embrace in jobs that force people to use the methods of centuries past.

Sinews straining to breaking point; sweat pouring off backs; misery etched deeply on faces. That is the reality of the cart. Let us not ennoble or justify or embellish that reality. It is an awful thing to have to do in life, and it should be behind us.

It’s not as if we don’t have the technology with which to move on, after all. Motorisation of vehicles arrived a century ago! Cost-effective ‘tuk-tuks’ are everywhere these days; petrol-free electrical carts can be found in many countries. Why are we fixated on human muscle?

This same short-sightedness afflicts us in other industries as well. When tea companies tried to introduce mechanical tea-picking machines a couple of years ago, a predictably unintelligent hullabaloo followed. Those poor people will lose their jobs to machines! Cannot be allowed!

So why don’t we add up using pen and paper, instead of spreadsheets? Why don’t we send messages via drumbeat, rather than e-mail?

If you force our companies to operate in a global market with one hand tied behind their backs, those jobs will be lost anyway. They won’t be lost to machines, they will be lost to Vietnam and India and Ethiopia.

Take a look at our best-performing companies: they don’t actually employ that many people. Safaricom and EABL don’t exactly house armies of workers. Yet their contribution to employment is immense: farm workers, scratch-card vendors, retail employees: all are there in their thousands because of those two companies alone. Not to mention shareholders who use their wealth to start their own ventures; and the Exchequer, which receives a fat cheque from each with which to fund productive infrastructure (in theory).

We will not gain a thing by being wedded to the practices of the past, when the world has moved on. Here we are waiting for the fibre-optic link, and we still transport things in decrepit carts?

What would happen to all those cart-pullers, though? Of course they would lose their immediate livelihoods if their carts went. But that is what happens in every economy in the world: development changes the nature of work, and old skills and ways of working become redundant. If a large group of people cannot find anything better to do than pull loads like donkeys, then that is a huge failure in our education system and in our economic management.

It need not be that way. A sensible transition is possible. An intelligent authority would work in tandem with the private sector to offer different options, to retrain and incentivise, to regulate the roads. It would offer free training in new skills that are relevant to a modern economy.

We are poised to join the thriving economies of the world. In that world, there is no place for spear-throwing, for cattle-rustling or for living in huts. We can’t remain the colourful extras in other people’s movies. Where economic growth is the imperative, we must leave the old Africa behind, mkokoteni carts and all.

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  • Elias

    Your article on mkokoteni economy reminded me of my childhood as it reminded you of your youth. When I was a child growing up in Nyalenda slums in Kisumu, my mother used to remind us that we would pull the mkokoteni if we didn’t go to school. For us, it was either you go to school or become a mkoko puller like some of our neighbors who were in the trade. The sight of the mkoko pullers who were mostly old men (the activity made all of them look old to our young eyes as they looked tired and ragged even if the puller was a young man in his 20’s) made us look forward to another day in school as it was the surest way to escape from the back breaking career.

    Today, when I see a mkoko puller, I see someone who didn’t have an opportunity to develop his mental strength instead of the physical strength which is weak with an empty mind. The African can be a beast of burden as was evidenced by their enslavement to work in plantations during the dark history of the slave trade. This enslavement continued during the colonial times where the people were now under direct subjugation in their own lands. All this time the African did not have the opportunity to develop his mental faculty. The muscular strength of the African was more important to the Europeans than their mental ability. The many years under subjugation produced a person who is timid and unmotivated thus our brains, imagination and ambition remained primeval. The independent Africa has not performed as expected in combating ignorance, poverty and disease which are a challenge for humanity. Our failures have been exacerbated by selfishness, greed and lack of vision in our leadership.

    Mkokoteni pullers will continue being with us, as long we don’t take science and technology as an important ingredient for our leap from an ancient way of life to a modern economy in a globalized world. Most African societies are led by elders as they are viewed as the epitome of wisdom in the community. This has led to a conservative way of doing things as new ideas are received with suspicion. Science is about discovery and experimentation with new things and ideas. A society that doesn’t embrace science as a driver of its lifestyle is bound to be frozen in time as in most African countries. Maybe it’s because of their loss of faith in anything foreign after the experience of slavery and colonialism. However, we have a generation that did not undergo the colonial misery and ignorance that accompanied it. The education that we have received is often cited as being one of the causes of lack of drive in young people to be entrepreneurial or find jobs in the market. As an individual who has gone through the public schools from nursery to university, I find this argument superfluous. Education is meant to open up our eyes on what happens in the environment around us on a day to day basis. It depends on what the individual does with the knowledge acquired through education. One can either go to a madrassa or a Montessori, but the major concern should be if the product of the educational system is able to use these skills for the betterment of the societies that they live in.

    From the education that I have received, today I can explain in simple terms how a fibre optic cable or a mobile phone works than how to pull the mkokoteni efficiently. This is because I have been able to pursue education as an alternative rather than the use of my muscular prowess to deliver myself from poverty. I believe many of the mkokoteni pullers could have become better citizens if they had the opportunity to get an education. The idea of learned people pulling the mkokoteni is mainly due to inaction by the individual rather than the education system. There is need for children to be taught the value of education in our society as a tool to combat ignorance, disease and poverty in our midst.

    The sight of mud huts and other backward systems in our society is what drives me to believe that as Africans we can do better. Our major problem is that we don’t believe in ourselves and that we are meant to be poor always and there is nothing we can change about it. But with self belief, we can do it. Religion is a matter of personal choice and plays a major role in how we perceive what we see or hear. From my short time in this life, I have come to imagine that our problems as Africans are exacerbated by our beliefs. On a personal level, I don’t believe that there is a heaven up in the sky. It is down here with us. Traveling around Kenya has opened my eyes to another possibility. We can create our heaven right here on earth. From Sunday school, we were taught that when we die, we will go to another place full is milk and honey. But all these things are already here with us; it’s only that only a few have been able to partake of the riches. The poor people continue hoping that they will inherit the riches once they reach heaven after they die. This is what is dragging us Africans down. Instead of creating a society where life is worth living, we are busy readying ourselves to take over a place we didn’t contribute in building. We are dying in droves to inherit the kingdom of heaven, yet leaving behind gold, diamonds, oil, great lakes and rivers and fecund soils which we can use for the betterment of our lives when we are alive. It is said that Akili ni Mali. If only we could use our brains to unlock the great potential that Africa has, we could be talking of a different story.

  • Elias:

    Some extremely thoughtful points here about the role of science, the role of ‘elders’, and the need to awaken as individuals and as a collective. A great contribution.

  • Adrian Oyugi

    Sunny you do say that ” I am amazed when I see multinational firms using mkokoteni carts to deliver their goods to their customers. What thinking informs that idea? If it is a cost-containment initiative, it is unacceptable to treat human beings like beasts of burden. If it is well-intentioned, and aims to create ‘employment’ and embrace ‘local technology’, it is equally wrong-headed. There is nothing to embrace in jobs that force people to use the methods of centuries past.’
    This paragraph sums up the role of technology in Africa. In Africa we have the benift of not having to re-invent technology as we usually do implement tried and tested systems from elsewhere.
    My problem is that Africa does implement technology wrongly every time. We make technology fail every time it is in our hands.
    The government buys drugs for its people but the drugs cannot get to people because of logistical problems.
    The government buys the latest AIDS medicines for its people but the people are too poor to afford a full meal that would cushion them from the effects of the new drugs that they are taking.
    I have come across local companies that runs the most sophisticated information systems but still justify the use of manual tasks that can be automated to justify the keeping of certain unskilled personnel on the payroll. Invariably our local companies do not end up stacking well against the best. Productivity and profitability per worker in our organisations is lower compared to the best in the industry.
    Manual tasks bring bottle necks that makes the famous chai system thrive in Africa. If our court system was efficient, we would gladly trot to court and pay for the driving offences that we commit. But the government and court process is so long and bureaucratic and we opt to pay the policemen the fine instead of paying the fine to the state. In this example the government has failed to set-up systems that would help it maximise the collection of revenue. Efficient Systems for collecting fines exist and are in use all over the world but not in Africa?

  • Most big “businesses” in Kenya exist for the sole purpose of extracting money from the treasury. When your aim is not to create goods and services where you have to compete with others; if makes senses to use a “mkokoteni” or drum instead of a car or email.

  • Dear Observer, your poignant comment pierces deeply. What you chastise, is a general weaving failure in the Kenyan collective fabric: the rent-seeker mentality.

    It pervades business life and – especially – political life with equal strength, and deeply entwines even with individual day-to-day decisions.

    There is little entrepreneurial spirit; but I appreciate how indefatigably to try to nurture and kindle it. In this context, one fitting pun for your use (from the German language): “Es heißt Unternehmer, nicht Unterlasser!”


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