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My 500th Sunday Nation column: Kenya has everything to play for

This is my 500th column on this page.

To commemorate the occasion, let me take you on a little journey. Let us go back to the Kenya of a decade ago, when I first started writing in the Sunday Nation.

In 2002, this country was broken. It had been plundered dry. It was in the hands of foreign governments, donor agencies and multinational corporations. Its institutions were a running joke. To prosper here, you had to be connected to the networks of patronage and the powers that were.

Fast forward to 2012, and you might wonder whether anything has really changed. A quick trip down any Nairobi road today will reveal a complete breakdown in rules and regulations. A look at the headlines of the day will demonstrate that we have done nothing about grand larceny masquerading as leadership. Up to now, we are dogged by daily power and water outages. Crime waves return again and again, leading to tragedy and trauma. And a glance at the personalities driving politics will raise the uneasy feeling that we have never rid ourselves of the faces that were so prominent in our woeful past.

Yet I urge you to look deeper. On the surface, it is more of the same for Kenya. Examine the sub-strata, though, and you will see more things to be cheerful about.

For one thing, business is booming everywhere. More and more of our people are entering the consuming class, and therefore most firms face a robust demand curve. Business practice is vastly improved. Homegrown businesses are setting the pace, while multinationals are stuck in the slow lane in many industries. Most interestingly, a new breed of young Kenyans, free of the baggage of older mindsets, is coming to the fore.

Another dramatic force: our enthusiastic procreation of decades past is bearing fruit. If we are lucky, the fruits of that procreation may be more sweet than they are bitter. We have one of the world’s youngest populations, coming of age now. If we manage it well, a demographic dividend – a productive, consuming workforce, and a low dependency ratio – is ours for the taking.

Thirdly, and for the first time in world history, we have a young population that is simultaneously connected. We have affordable smartphones with mobile data connectivity, and soon they will be in most pockets. This will do two things: it will fast-track the youngsters’ ability to get exposure to the world at large and build knowledge; and it will allow them to shake off the shackles of parochial, tribal thinking.

There are still many things that ail us. Our politicians remain unable to become leaders and statespersons; and they have encouraged a culture of self-gain to flower widely. Yet, I remain hopeful. These problems are ticks on our backs, not cancers in our innards. They can be removed, and remove them we must.

Kenya is vibrant, and it will shed its disease. We are getting better. The pace is slow, but many, many good things are happening. Better roads are connecting more of us. Our privileged position as a hub for Africa is slowly being realized. We are setting the pace for the world, in mobile payments and mass banking. Our youngsters are taking avidly to the new digital, mobile, social world, racing ahead of larger African countries in using the new technologies.

This remains a breathtakingly beautiful country, full of promise and potential. Those that have held us back will still try to continue their nefarious schemes. But they will fail. Kenya will rise to African ascendancy. To get there, we must look our demon in the eye. We must not pretend that we are cured before we actually are. Then, and only then, can we take our rightful place in the world.

When that happens, I hope to be right here on this page to celebrate it.

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