The fog of war over Kenya’s top export

When I first formed my memories of football in 1994, there was hardly any players of African origins advancing beyond the second round of the World Cup. Today, even though Africa still gets kicked out early, the sons of the soil proceed behind foreign banners. In the just concluded World Cup in Qatar, fourteen teams had at least one player of African origin in their squad.

It underscores both a success of the neoliberal free movement of goods, services and labour across borders and the inbuilt structural problem that does not work in favour of Africa. While African players dominate European leagues and world cup teams, no African team has ever reached the semis.  

It is also so in the economy where the recent surge in diaspora remittances has become the savior of Africa, a continent in short supply of dollars. But it has also skimmed off the continent’s crème in exchange for a dollar bill.

Kenya makes Kes541.2 billion ($4.027 billion) annually selling the labour of its population in foreign countries and this figure is growing faster than any other export from the country. Labour is nearly four times more profitable than tea, the leading export which brought in Kes161.2 billion ($1.2 billion) last year.

It is not that Kenyans can speak good Hungarian or German but that the global west has a decline in population and high demand for low skilled jobs.

While a survey by the Central Bank of Kenya showed that most Kenyans in Europe earned Kes6.7 million ($50,000) per year on average these were older respondents aged between 31 – 45 years old (60 percent). Comparing income levels and age of the respondents, the Survey revealed that the majority of those aged under 30 earned Kes268,800 ($2000) in a year, just one month of German’s monthly minimum wage.

Kenyans in the diaspora living in Asia and Africa typically earn Kes268,800 ($2000) a year.

A youth bulge on the continent whose industrial base has been stifled by neo liberal global trade has meant that there are less jobs for millions. Economies built on mineral resources and export agriculture have not yielded enough returns for the continent leading to cut throat rentier economy where resources accrue to those politically connected.

Read also: Saudi Arabia overtakes UK as Kenya’s second leading dollar source

Due to the third world frustrating process of upward mobility crippled by patronalism, it is Africa’s most intelligent brains that tend to flow to low cadre jobs in the west.

The CBK study showed that more than a third, 34 percent of the diaspora polled had Masters degrees, 26 percent held Bachelor’s degrees and most of the migrants were professionals in Business and Finance, Engineering, Health and ICT.

However most, 12 percent, worked in human health and social work activities. Finance and Insurance stood at 10 percent; Education (8 percent); Professional, Scientific and Technical activities (8 percent); Information and Communication (8 percent); and International Organizations and Bodies (6 percent).

Anything is better than to remain at home and depend on a relative abroad for everything including to buy food and household goods, offsetting medical expenses, meeting education expenses, payment of rent and household utilities, payment for the costs associated with ceremonies; and for clothing needs.

The study showed that 63 percent of those who received funds from relatives abroad were either self-employed, retired, unemployed individuals looking for work and students/interns.

Despite the open racism with the rise of far rights movements, harsh weather, especially the cold of a mechanical people, diaspora community has continued to flourish, and are now more than ever the heroes sustaining fragile African currencies facing an onslaught from American monetary policy.  

Remittances have also been the fuel behind economic resilience on the continent with slightly over a half of the remittance amounts allocated to: investment in real estate (land and building) for recipients, mortgage payment for senders and purchase of food and household goods.

Central Bank data, however, shows that over time, the Kenyans abroad lose touch with home and cut back on support for relatives, perhaps after bad experience from the abuse of the charity or from the high level of dependency.

CBK said remittances generally decline with the number of years spent abroad. About 49 percent of the respondents who remitted cash amounts up to $1,999 had lived outside the country for 10 years or less while those who had lived abroad for more than 30 years accounted for only 5 percent of this category.

But who is to blame them when history is replete with stories of those who return and are ruined in the murk of Kenyan politics.

Despite the mixed feelings with home, today the war drums are ringing in the west. If we know any history we know that the west have dragged themselves into centuries of wars over everything including eloping Greek women, to religion and territory and the right to colonize other peoples territories.

We have lived for long in the lull of a unipolar world where the idea of a full scale country invasion by another except for Americans was a fringe idea. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed that creating a new risk of having to swiftly scramble to evacuate Kenyans in affected countries.

The risk of drawing Africa into this conflict is not lost to the heightened diplomatic posturing that has seen Secretary Blinken, Jill Biden and vice president Kamala Harris transverse the continent. Meanwhile global powers prey on African countries that are unable to pay their debts and willing to wager their minerals to run the war machine. In reality the war may have already dragged Africans abroad into it, some of who have already died fighting in Ukraine.

While we might have been willing to rent out our most intelligent for labour, we should not risk them for soldiers in a war over western territories, just like their grandparents had done in the 1940s as personnel for the British empire.

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