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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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