Monday, April 13, 2015

Universities can help build innovative, thriving cities

That our kind has entered the Urban Age is unequivocal. In 2008 we become, Homo urbanus. About 54 percent of our kind – circa 3.95 billion people now lives in cities of various sizes. By 2030, about 5 billion people will live in cities. This is perhaps the most consequential social transformation in the history of our civilization.

The Urban Age presents the most important development challenge in the 21st century. This is especially true in the developing world, where the rate of urbanization is most rapid. In Africa especially, rapid urbanization seems to be inextricably bound with massive expansion of squalor, poverty and isolated pockets of odious wealth.

Today, with very few exceptions, African cities are characterized by poor physical planning, lack of basic services such as water, sanitation, housing, transportation, health and education. Here in East Africa, the major cities of Dar es Salaam, Kampala and Nairobi are bursting at the seams. These cities are sprawling uncontrollably, strangulated by traffic gridlock, choking in poisonous air and plagued by slums. This apparent dystopia is largely due to failure in planning and governance.

Despite crippling governance failure, East Africa’s premier cities are resilient concentrations of ingenuity and innovation. They like hundreds of smaller cities and towns across Africa represent Africa’s potential and promise. For instance, In February Nairobi was crowned the city with the greatest capacity to prosper in the broadband economy hence, the most intelligent city in Africa.  Dar es Salaam, according to a 2013 report by Oxford Economics, will lift more citizens into the middle class (earning $5,000 to $20,000 per annum) than any other African city. Home of East Africa’s oldest university, Kampala has been transformed a looted shell during the long civil war to a thriving modern city.

Cities, more than rural spaces will shape the future of East Africa. Cities present our best chance at building a more energy efficient, prosperous and equitable society.  The future of our cities is especially bright in a knowledge-based economy. The competitive advantage of our cities is contingent on effective utilization of a super high concentration of intangible assets such as knowledge and skills.  

Coincidentally, in this knowledge economy, we are witnessing an unprecedented urbanization of higher education. For example every university in Kenya, and there are more than 50, has a campus in Nairobi. This means that now, more than ever before, universities can make a significant contribution to the unprecedented surge of urbanism. Universities can contribute to the socio-economic advancement of the city, as well help improve the quality of decision-making and governance in our cities.

The bricks of the ivory tower must be brought down to build bridges into the communities of our cities; from the city hall to the slums and to the suburbs, working with residence associations and leaders of business. This new relationship could provide an opportunity for students, faculty, cityzens, city government and local businesses to come together to find appropriate solutions to the pressing challenges of the Urban Age and create new jobs.  

One of the most pressing challenges of Kenya’s Urban Age is traffic gridlock. It is a wicked problem with causal factors including land use planning and urban design, inadequate urban infrastructure capacity, lack of public transit, an exponential rise in the use of private cars, and lack of discipline, vested interest of the police and courtesy among Kenyan drivers. As always wicked problems abhor simplistic solutions and a proclivity top down executive fiat. Wicked problems are susceptible to interdisciplinary and consultative approaches, where plausible solutions are exhaustively interrogated.

Can you imagine a partnership between Nairobi county government and a consortium of city universities to find solutions to Nairobi’s traffic gridlock? The solutions would be holistic and, appropriate, while providing a great opportunity for professors, students, city residents, local entrepreneurs and government functionaries to learn and work together. There would be limited room for a consultant or task force who prescribe nightmares like colored drums and moronic U-turns at the roundabout.

We must begin the process of re-making our cities. Our universities must be in the driving seat, from where they address the urgent challenges of urbanization while creating solutions that catalyze socio-economic transformation at the urban and regional scales.


Leaders of city universities must rethink their institutions’ relationship with the city, being more deliberate in the deployment of their research assets and service learning programs.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Kenya must rethink anti-terror strategy

The dawn of April 2, 2015 will go down in history as one of Kenya’s darkest moments. Garissa University campus was choked with the stench of death and drenched with innocent blood. Hundreds of young men and women were murdered. Scores were injured. A nation is grieving.

Al-Shabaab, a Somali group affiliated to Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the unspeakable horror. This despicable and cowardly attack comes just months after Al-Shabaab killed 36 quarry workers. We still remember Westgate. In a brazen attack on a church an Al-Shabaab militant’s bullet killed a mother and lodged in a baby’s skull. In November Al-Shabaab gunmen attacked a bus and murdered 28 passengers.

The unrelenting, sustained assault by Al-Shabaab militants has left us befuddled. The political grievance behind these attacks is lame. Al-Shabaab has not put forth a coherent or compelling ideological front to justify the scale of violence unleashed upon innocent Kenyans. This is not to discount that fact that Al-Shabaab militants have often claimed that terrorist attacks have been provoked by Kenya’s military presence in Somalia and the crack down on radical Muslim clerics.

Terrorism, especially the kind executed under the pretext of preserving Islam is now the biggest threat to global peace and development. This is the Jihadist ideology, which holds that the rest of the world is comprised of unbelievers whose sole mission is the destruction on Islam. Moreover, Jihadists claim that the only morally correct form of governance is the Caliphate, under the supreme law of Sharia.

Images of burqa-clad women, the plunder of Islamic shrines and beheaded infidels in Islamic State (IS) controlled territories have led many in Christendom to believe, out of ignorance, that Islam is inherently hostile to modernity and human rights. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The attacks in Kenya and the barbarism of IS in Iran, Syria and Yemen are perpetrated by a small but potent minority of evil human beings, heretics, who claim to be custodians of Islam. They must be condemned in the strongest terms. In my view, mainstream Muslim clerics and scholars have been passive and too slow to respond to the orgy of unspeakable decapitations and other despicable horrors promoted by jihadists.

The relationship between peace loving people of Muslim and Christian faiths must not be defined by ignorance and bigotry. Such a clash of ignorance will embolden potent minority groups such as Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab and IS who sow conflict, hatred and death.  It would be unfortunate for religious leader to suggest that the Garissa attack or other previous attacks constitute a systematic persecution of Christians by their Muslim brethren.

Terrorism, as advanced by the Jihadist ideology is a complex existential global problem. It is certainly not a religious war pitting Christians against Muslims. In Kenya, it is not ethnic Somali people against other Kenyan ethnic communities. Elsewhere, Shi’a Muslims have had their Imams murdered and their followers persecuted, accusing them of failing to enforce Islamic law or even the proper veiling of women.

We must halt the march of violent extremism.  We must apply new tools, build new coalitions and advance more peaceful means to resolve conflict and promote pluralism. For over two decades now we have used military methods to prosecute the so-called war against terror. The idea that you can torture and blast terrorist groups out of existence has run its course. Boko Haram is alive and well. IS is on the march. Al-Qaeda affiliated groups are emboldened.

To win the war against Al-Shabaab Kenya must not resort exclusively to the use of military force. Heavy-handed approaches such as raids in Somali neighborhoods and indiscriminate mass arrest of ethnic Somalis fuels resentment and give ideological ammunition to demented Jihadists. Extrajudicial, gangland execution of Muslim clerics plays into the hands of violent extremists and fuels resentment among moderate Muslims.

President Kenyatta acknowledged that the “planners and financiers of the Garissa University College attacks are deeply embedded in our communities”. Moreover, radicalization that breeds terrorism does not happen under the cover of darkness. The point is that Jihadist extremism is not always imported. The deranged murderers are our fellow citizens.


I hope this signals the dawn of a new approach in the fight against terrorism. We need an approach that wages a blistering propaganda war to win the hearts and minds of segments of our society who are susceptible to radicalization.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Creating jobs for youth must be a priority

If the legion of jobless youth does not find work the consequences could be dire – from increased poverty and inequality and economic decline to social and political instability. 

The sponsors of the National Youth Employment Bill understand the fierce urgency of the unemployment crisis, especially among youth. The Bill is intended to enhance access to employment as provided for in article 55(c) of the Constitution. The authors of the Bill regard youth as a marginalized and minority group under article 56 of the Constitution and must be provided special opportunities for access to employment as stipulated in article 56(c).  

The Bill seeks to create the National Youth Employment Authority, which will maintain a database of unemployed youth and facilitate increased employment of youth in the public and private sector. Moreover, the Authority will facilitate counseling of youth to improve absorption in employment as well as providing national and county governments with policy advise on youth employment. The Authority will also facilitate internship placement for college students and graduates.

In my view, maintaining a national database of jobseekers and information on available job vacancies is critical. This would the first time we have reliable information on labor market dynamics­ – who is looking for a job, which sectors are hiring, skills needed in the labor market and skills job seekers posses.

However, I am not sure that we need a law and a publicly funded money guzzling bureaucracy to link youth to internships and jobs and to maintain a labor market database. This is a function, which can be performed by the Huduma Centres. All one needs is a mobile application to submit their resume to a database linked to vacancies and they will receive appropriate notifications.

More importantly, the reason we have an unemployment crisis is not because we do not have a National Unemployment Act or Authority. The reason is there are no jobs, period. The recent impressive GDP growth figures is largely due to expansionary fiscal policies, which do not create jobs for school leavers and college graduates. The reason there are no jobs is because Kenya’s export sector has been sluggish for the past 25 years. Tourism has been buffeted by insecurity and poaching, especially over the last couple of years.

The reason there are no jobs is because we have become a warehouse for cheap imports goods from China. Kenya’s average share of manufacturing value added in GDP is estimated at 10 percent, unchanged from the 1970’s. Our manufacturing sector employs on 280,000 people. The reason there are no jobs is because agriculture is comatose, rural productivity has been in decline for more than four decades. 

The reason there are no jobs is because on average 56 percent of graduates from East African universities lack basic and technical skills needed for the few jobs that exist. Moreover, our schools are not places for forging curiosity, critical thinking, complex reasoning, creativity and innovation.

Even with high unemployment, Kenya faces a crippling skills shortage. Talk to anybody in construction and they will tell how difficult it is to find a good electrician, plumber or mason. Those of you who bother to maintain your cars understand that it take lots of prayers and luck to find a good technician. It is not surprising that we have Tony Blair leading Mr. Kenyatta’s Presidential Delivery Unit. And look who is building our roads, railway, pipeline and ports.

A revitalized smallholder agriculture and livestock sector can create millions of jobs in production, value addition and marketing. The boom in the construction sector could create hundreds of thousands of high quality jobs for engineers, plumbers and masons and project mangers. The nascent oil, gas and mining sectors will demand thousands of highly skilled workers: welders; electricians; plant operators; technology specialists.

We could learn from India’s network of institutes of technology and Brazil’s focus on vocational training, which saw spending on vocational training soar from $385 million to $3.8 billion in one decade. We need incentives for “Made in Kenya” and “Make in Kenya”. We must provide incentives for private sector to investment in training and hiring.


Most of all, to create jobs and build the requisite human capital, we must align our education and training programs and tax incentives with development policy, the labor market, as well as with the needs of industry, business and the creative sector.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Cancer is an urgent public heath issue

Between 40,000 and 80,000 new cancer cased are diagnosed each year. According to a report published in 2010 and posted on the website of Kenya Network of Cancer Organization, 18,000 cancer deaths were reported in 2005. Cancer kills about 27,000 Kenyans every year, a majority of them in the prime age.

About 80 percent of reported cancer cases are diagnosed when it is too late. In 2006, 65 percent of women who were diagnosed with cervical cancer died. The National Cancer Control Strategy 2011-2016 admits that cancer is the third as a leading cause of death after infectious and cardiovascular diseases.

The proportion of the overall disease burden in sub-Saharan Africa attributable to cancer is rising, and the region is predicted to have a greater than 85 percent increase in cancer burden by 2030. Experts now believe that there is a relationship between the increase in cancer cases and the persistence of infectious diseases associated with the risk of malignancies. It is estimated that infectious viral and bacterial agents cause around 2 million cancer cases each year, most of them in Africa.

The National Cancer Control Strategy is unambiguous about what action is needed; screening, early detection and treatment; efficient referral systems, prevention, control of infectious diseases linked to cancer, enhancing access to cancer treatment services, human capacity development. But what really is going on, beyond having a strategy?

In my view, the dominant perception among health policy officials in this country is that cancer is not a serious public health problem. This perception has a significant influence on public health policy and resource allocation. That is why Kenya has only two cancer machines, both of them located at Kenyatta National Hospital in the capital city of Nairobi.

When the Cabinet Secretary Michael Kamau received the first consignment of 4000 tones of rails for the Standard Gauge Railway in January 2015, he said the government would push China Road and Bridge Cooperation to complete the 609-kilometer line before the next general election in 2017. We have not seen such urgency and zeal in addressing the plight of Kenyans suffering from cancer.

Simeon Munda, the Chief Executive Officer of Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH), revealed that 1,300 cancer patients are on the waiting list, with appointments stretching as far as 2017. Tens of thousands more cancer patients could wait beyond 2017 to receive cancer treatment at KNH.  

Cancer is an urgent public health issue, which demands immediate attention. Given that we have half decent population health records and that cancer is also linked with infectious diseases, my guess is that we are staring at a catastrophic epidemic.

Think about this. Bacteria that cause ulcers can cause stomach cancer. The parasite responsible for bilharzia can lead to bladder cancer. People infected with HIV have a substantially higher risk of some types of cancer. Three of these cancers, AIDS-defining malignancies are Kaposi sarcoma, cervical cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Moreover, people with HIV are five times more likely to be diagnosed with liver cancer.

We need national and county population-based cancer registries. This means that we must step up screening and diagnostic capacity at the county level. The registry system should be used to report on cancer incidence, cancer type, gender, age, socio-economic status, race/ethnicity, year of diagnosis, trends, survival and prevalence. 

The data will be critical to supporting cancer research to understand the specific causes and developmental mechanisms of cancers that are prevalent in our society, and specific to socio-economic, infectious disease and genetic risk factors. The data will also help build public awareness and provide evidence for advocacy for funding as well as put pressure on the government to implement the National Cancer Control Strategy 2011-2016 before it expires.

The conversation about cancer must go beyond the outrage about the breakdown or shortage of radiation therapy devices. It must be about the strategies and action needed to build a health infrastructure, leveraging both public and private investments to cope with the double burden of infectious and non-communicable diseases.

We must address the crippling shortage of healthcare personnel. Over 1,800 doctors and hundreds of nurses have resigned from the public sector since the management of health services was devolved to the counties.


Without enough doctors, nurses and community health workers the gains against infectious diseases will be reversed and we will certainly, not forestall the onslaught of cancer and other non-communicable diseases.

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