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Kenya Diaspora Conference 2011

By Matunda Nyanchama

October 15, 2011

The recently concluded Kenya Diaspora Conference held in Washington, DC was a watershed moment for the Government of Kenya (GoK) and Kenyan Diaspora. For many of us that have been in this game for a while, this was a pleasant surprise: GoK embracing the Kenyan Diaspora. This is not surprising though, this realization considering the economic potential of the Diaspora (remittances, skills, networks and the like) and the fact that other nations (India, Pakistan, Italy, China and many others) have benefited substantially from the Diaspora. Kenya is following suit.

Chairing the ICT Session

This took me back to old days and brought new memories.

Back in 1999 as president of the then newly formed Kenyan Community Abroad (KCA) we convened a similar conference at the University of Maryland, College Park, just outside Washington DC. Among our keynote speakers were professors Ali Mazrui and Anyang’ Nyong’o alongside then Kenyan ambassador to the USA, Samson Chemai and one Kintu originally from Uganda.

More than 120 of us gathered and called for change in Kenya and sought full embrace of we Kenyans that lived outside the country. We sought, among others, dual-citizenship, talent recognition, facilities to vote and many more. We also called for constitutional changes and asked the Moi regime to accord Kenyans their basic rights.

Some leaders termed us dissidents and argued that we were oppositionists; indeed, some Kenyans even resisted attending the said conference and subsequent conferences we held for fear of retribution.

We soldiered on; and year after year we invited key personalities (both in government and opposition) to come to our conferences. Invariably opposition leaders came; invariably GoK officers shunned us, except for deploying their intelligence gathering apparatuses.

Fast forward to 2011 and we are at the Marriot in Washington DC and present were some of the key players of 1999: Prof Ali Mazrui, a little older but going strong; Mugo Kibati who spoke in 1999 about the telecommunication market in Kenya and today director of Vision 2030 secretariat; the Kenyan Embassy in Washington, DC, now organizing the event and many public faces at Kenyan Diaspora events.

It was full house in DC 2011 with more than 500 participants and close to 200 turned away because of lack of space or failure to register in time. And the GoK was there in full force with more than six permanent secretaries, an assistant minister, several department heads and (what some term) an over-representation from the Prime Minister’s Office. We had participants from the commissions on national integration and constitutional implementation.

It was a crowded affair as participants listened to developments in Kenya and a number of opportunities on the table for them to engage in. We heard reports of projects as Konza City (largely an ICT affair, termed the Silicon Savannah), the Northern Corridor infrastructure project (with a road network and port that integrates northern Kenya and opens up the area for development), the Urban Commuter Rail project in Greater Nairobi (complete with beautiful pictures of designs that rival modern cities like Tokyo and New York), and more. There were updates on the reform process, dual citizenship, national integration, and more. Discussions also centred on collaboration (business, academia, etc.) between the Diaspora and going beyond remittances (estimated to be $1.7 billion 2010) and some companies (ranging from ICT to financing and more) offering products targeted at the Diaspora market.

The packed nature of the event appeared unfair to many people. Just imagine traveling more than 10,000 kms to give a five-minute presentation and little time to respond to questions; and at tax payer or shareholder expense!  I am sure that the organizers (the Kenyan Embassy in Washington DC) will better structure such events in the future. This conference was, realistically, a 4~5 day affair.

That said, the event was a success as a networking affair and demonstrated a re-awakening of the Kenyan spirit and a revival of hopes for a better Kenya for us all in the future. The energy in the place was palpable! The attendance was higher than we have come to expect of Kenyan conferences and expectations were even higher.  And contrary to media reports, President Obama wasn’t in the invited list; the embassy had requested presence of the First Lady but her calendar was fully booked, a matter she communicated in time.

Sessions (plenary and breakout) were packed as attendees sought information, ideas, issues, and more on how to get engaged in the country’s affairs. And the speakers did superbly. Vision 2030 was at the centre of the presentations and director, Mugo Kibati gave a good update on where the process is at the moment. We heard of success cases spearheaded by the Diaspora, e.g. the gentleman that influenced GE to locate its headquarters in Nairobi.

At Lunch with Nyariki

I chaired the ICT panel where, among others Eunice Kariuki represented the ICT Board. Despite time constraints she gave a superb report on what is happening in this sphere and especially the exciting Konza City! (Konza Technology City – ICT Board Presentation 2011 10). Of interest from the same panel is a presentation Kenya’s Rural Access to Communications) by Akumu of Intelsat on use of vsat technology to penetrate rural Kenya. Others in the team talked about financing aspects, especially responsive financing that addresses the segment between the top borrowers and micro-borrowers; how,for instance, do you secure quick financing to pay down payment on that property you have secured, knowing that the bank would take weeks to make a decision?

In my opening remarks I talked about the $196 billion “unclaimed” Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) market, really a tip of the iceberg of the size of that market, approximated at $500 billion. And that is just BPO! With respect to ICT, the Kenyan market alone represents approximately $700 million annually! And my challenge was to the Diaspora to help ensure this duly benefits the nation. And they can contribute as investors, managers (given all the skills they have acquired), researchers and more.

I also cited challenges with our Kenyan market:  corruption (the cost of doing business?), infrastructure (remember those traffic jams), unreliable power (what with blackouts), corporate taxes (33%), and business registration that takes longer than in many countries, compliance and reporting procedures (too many!); and lengthy dispute resolution processes. All these act as disincentives to investment and need keen attention and action from authorities.

We had a chance to honour the late Wangari Maathai (RIP); the tributes were moving and if only dead people could speak, she would choose to stay alive and enjoy the glory and honour accorded her.

Finally, my reading is that the Kenyan Renaissance is underway; we position ourselves well and we will take off; we fail to do so and we may not recover. The analogy is that of torrential rains which if harnessed can generate power, irrigate farms, provide clean drinking water, etc.; and if not harnessed can cause floods and associated havoc.

Comments

Comment from Patricia
Time: October 18, 2011, 12:26 pm

Great update & pointers’ I personally felt the time allocation for certain areas was minimal like ICT & Financial which are most definately no brainer like Real Estate! The diasporans had questions that I felt were not addressed or due to time they did not address their questions due to time constraints. The GE Africa CFO Mr. Konditi definately earns credit for winning the GE to venture into the African Market-WELL DONE’ We need more businesses that would create jobs for the Kenyans’ Very Positive. Can you address the double taxes that was mentioned at the Conference…I was totally lost & still I am. This is a great overview: This article should have replaced the ‘SNUB’ Daily Nation article.

Comment from cyrillus
Time: October 18, 2011, 7:16 pm

Am very greatiful for what u guys are doing and lets all build our Kenya for the next generations to come. Hongera wote and be blessed.Need to know more about dual citizenship though.

Comment from kefa otiso
Time: October 19, 2011, 6:11 am

Good summary. Your first mention of Mugo Kibaki (paragraph 7) should probably read Mugo Kibaki.

Comment from Benard Manyibe
Time: October 19, 2011, 9:07 am

Insightful and timely report

Comment from ondieki gekara
Time: October 20, 2011, 2:29 pm

Good summary of a very important meeting. Our investments back home, either singly or with partners, will surely accelarate the realization of the much publicized Vision 2030. Look forward to a rural countryside where an ambulance, fire truck or police car (equipped with necessary resources) can access interior homes within minutes of summon…

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