Creative Commons

Monday, August 28, 2017

Efficient management, re-use, recycle of plastic bags is more sensible than a total ban

Kenya has banned the manufacture and use of plastic carrier bags and flat bags used for commercial and household packaging. However, the ban does not apply to plastic bags used in primary industrial packaging.

The ban took effect August 28, 2017. This landmark law has been widely acclaimed, especially by environment and conservation aficionados. The Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program, Erik Solheim, tweeted, “Fantastic news! Kenya bans plastic bags. Congratulations!”

The shining role model for Kenya is Rwanda, which banned the use of plastic bags in 2008. The streets and residential neighborhoods of Kigali are nearly spotless clean. This is in sharp contrast to Kenya, where public and private spaces are choked in garbage, with plastics being the most visible trash.

The negative impacts of plastic bags are indefensible. Here in Nairobi, plastic bags are chocking storm drains and strangulating our rivers. They litter our streets and precious open public spaces. Plastic bags are an eyesore when they dangle from our trees. In the ocean plastics kill fish, seabirds and other forms of marine life.

Reliable evidence suggests single use plastics valued at $80-120 billion is lost to the global economy annually. About 32 per cent of plastic packaging is improperly disposed generating unknown but staggering costs by fouling water systems and damaging urban infrastructure. The production of plastics is also associated with emission of greenhouse gases.

We have demonized plastic bags. Hence, on the face of it the ban in Kenya is the right thing to do. But the real demon dwells in the revolting levels of corruption and dysfunction in urban governance. Waste management is private and unregulated. Waste is not sorted and disposal is run by greedy cartels that have politicians in their pockets.

Such chaos hampers the development effective after-use systems and effective environments for innovation. Hence, there is another side to the plastic bags saga. An opportunity beckons; through efficient management of plastics we can achieve better outcomes, for the economy and the environment while continuing to enjoy the benefits of plastic packaging. 

The opportunity is the ‘circular economy’, a term not well known a few years ago but has stirred imagination globally, as a practical option to the current linear take-make-dispose economic model. At the heart of the circular economy idea is the fact that circularity must be a concrete driver of production innovation and value creation in the 21st century.

The material savings potential of the circular economy is estimated at about a trillion dollars annually. Studies have shown the in Europe 53 per cent of plastic packaging can be recycles in an ecologically efficient way. The job creation potential across the circular economy value chain exceeds a million in the European Union.

The tradeoff is loss of the opportunity to create a new industrial system that is restorative and regenerative. Thousands of new products and millions of quality, durable jobs could be created. And yes, re-use plastics could reduce demand on finite raw materials and save the planet.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Build Kenya nation on wisdom and reason

If nothing else, the just concluded elections have revealed who are. We revel in the fact-free, anything goes precinct. We abhor thoughtful introspection. Narrow self or ethnic interests tightly frame our prejudiced opinions. And yes, politics and public discourse is a zero sum game.

There are two other ways to characterize our society. We can be dreadfully and ominously silent. We can also be annoyingly loud, bellicose and irreverent. Kenyans are capable of deafening silence and hollow loudness especially when careful introspection is demanded. Is it the case that the path of logical and reasoned conversation is narrow path and not many of us find it?

Who is at the public square? Both TV and radio talk shows have dredged this land for the least edified, most unsophisticated talking heads. The universe of Twitter and Facebook is virulent detachment of narrow tribal zealots and bigoted lynch mobs. Many of the so-called columnists in mainstream print media are revolting pseudo-intellectual legionnaires.

I am persuaded that we are on the cliff’s edge here. We are just about to keel over. As I have said before, the Dark Age of unreason is upon us. We are about to descend into an era of a dominant national culture, which abhors rationality and scorns civility in human interaction.  This inexorable decline manifests as eerie silence and or thoughtless loudness on critical issues, especially the unresolved question about who we are.

I know this is rather mean to say. For reasons economic, most academics spend precious time doing consultancy work, most of which is not deeply intellectual. Hence, there is a catastrophic dearth of public intellectual activity and academic scholarship. If there is any it is happening in infinitesimal quantities and in absolute obscurity. It’s private, rather than public. This is unnerving.

In the early 1970s through to the late 1990s, critical scholarship and public intellectual activity was nearly treasonable. The detention of scholars like Ngugi wa Thiongo, Edward Oyugi and Main wa Kinyatti come to mind. These scholars asked pertinent questions about the state of our society that made the political class uncomfortable.

Piercing public intellectual activity and critical scholarship is not alien to this land. The question is why have we stopped thinking about and debating critical, urgent issues of our time? An ominous halo of incuriosity stalks students across our university campuses.  

In the lecture halls, students are inglorious clerks, taking notes dictated from the professors’ pale yellow notes of yore. For the professoriate, appearances in the lecture halls have become a chore. Is the relationship between the academics and knowledge one of unrequited love? Money is short, bills are stacked high. You got to do what you got to do. 

The Bible in the book of Proverbs 24:3 is unequivocal: The building of a house is by wisdom, and by reason (understanding) it is made strong (secure). This house called the Kenyan Nation must rise on a terra firma of wisdom and each brick must be laid carefully through reasoned, critical thought. 

The tyranny of Kenya’s elections

A survey conducted by the East African Institute in 2014, revealed that Kenyan youth have positive views about politics and democracy. Moreover, 90 per cent of youth believed it was important to vote. Over 70 per cent believed their vote could make a difference.

These young people and those older than them were among the 79 per cent of Kenyans who turned up to vote last week. In a process that has been lauded by President Kenyatta and observer missions as free and fair, Kenyans made their voices heard.

The election was fought hard and long on many dimensions; personal, ethnic as well as substantive policy and development priorities. More often the peoples’ agenda, the personal struggles of ordinary citizens were swept by the Tsunami of big money and the attendant razzmatazz of the campaigns.

The campaigns are over. The votes have been counted and Mr. Kenyatta was declared the winner and he will serve is second and final term as President of the Republic of Kenya. But his main challenger, Mr. Odinga has refused to concede, describing the elections as sham and promised to present compelling evidence to prove that the electoral commissioned falsified the results.

Elections must not just be about bellicose political competition, often energized by innuendo, falsehoods, personal attacks and, in out context, ethnic jingoism. Elections should be a candid evaluation or interrogation of the scale of our ambition, the power of our collective capacity to re-imagine our future and our place in the commonwealth of sovereign nations.

Since the repeal of Section 2A of Kenya’s independence constitution, the six successive elections held have been an unsmiling, ruthless audit of the integrity of our institutions: the electoral commission, the executive and the all most important office in a democracy, the citizens.

Consistently, every election in which an incumbent is on the ballot bends to near breaking point our crumbly, flimsy sense of nationhood. Ethnic vitriol is flowing fast, furious and without restraint on social media. I have been insulted, called names because of urging civility and for denouncing ethnic bigotry and ill-formed ideological arguments.

Gripped by fear of a post-election conflagration, ordinary Kenyans scrambled for supplies as supermarket shelves emptied. Thousands fled to the safety of their rural homes. Mombasa highway, which is eternally clogged by cargo trucks, has been free and easy.

One of my domestic staff, Kinyua, who runs a small shop in Kitengela has not made any sales in the past week and is worried about how he will pay his rent and pay school fees for his son Peter when schools re-open. It is sorely disheartening.

Why are elections a matter of life or death? Are elections a fierce contest about alternative ideas about education, economic, industrial, agricultural or educational policies?

Is the rancorous, divisive politics about providing training, skills and jobs for the tens of millions of unemployed youth? Is the contest about project Kenya, how we build a just and fair society for all?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Elected leaders are servants, not overlords

About 19.6 million Kenyans will go to the ballot this 8th day of August 2017 to elect representatives. We will delegate power to men and women who must bear true allegiance to the People and the Republic of Kenya as well as uphold and defend our constitution.

But our responsibility does not end at the ballot. And more importantly, our engagement with elected representatives does not cease with their election. Somehow we have come to accept that our representatives metamorphose into honorable members of the houses of legislation, and suddenly become bosses and not servants of the people.

As the bosses, elected representatives have no sense of duty or obligation to the people. They become too important and inaccessible. Most of our leaders forget why they ran for public office. They bear no allegiance to we the people. They chose not to obey or respect our laws. In fact most elected leaders break the law with impunity and use the privilege of their elective office to subvert justice and due process.

Rule violation and impunity often pays high dividends. Elected leaders often use the powers and privileges of their positions for personal financial gains or to secure favors or business contracts for themselves, relatives or political benefactors.

Unfortunately, a large majority of elected leaders are not motivated by a burning desire to make a difference in how our society works. They are motivated not by a commitment to public service but self-aggrandizement. Somehow the path to wealth is through public service – as a civil servant or elected representative. Essentially, the incentives are warped and inherently selfish.

In a sense, once elected public purpose becomes subsidiary, incidental. Instead elected leaders become consumed by power, privilege and their own self-importance. Self-interest becomes the overriding goal of public service.

We the people are accomplices in this metamorphosis. Once elected, we make the peoples’ servants believe that they are omniscient and omnipotent men and women whose favor we must seek. We venerate them in ways that make it unambiguous that we are subservient supplicants sustained by their majestic magnanimity.

Those who will earn the high privilege of representing us should be driven by the highest ideals – a sense of duty, honor and integrity. The trust we bestow upon elected representatives must be bridled by an awesome fidelity to service to others. Leaders must be willing to put their interests last.

Serving the people must not be about having first dibs. It is not about a front row seat of privilege and access to government tenders, land, and scholarships for your children. It is not about jumping the queue. Leadership is about coming last. It is about having the peoples’ back. 

And to my fellow citizens, delegating power to representatives comes with eternal vigilance against abuse of power. We the people must guard against systemic political corruption where politicians and their friends deploy virulent personal interest to influence decisions, appropriate favors and subvert public interest.


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