Beware white men with briefcases

Years ago I had a conversation with somebody in Cape Town who was helping to develop a tourism marketing plan. She told me that the largest number of tourists to South Africa came from the continent and that they spent the most money. None of this was the result of a plan—at least up to that point.

This made sense to me. I had already met and known many Kenyans—mostly business people, often women—who would come to South Africa to buy stock for their businesses or look for universities for their children. They would spend some days in the warehouses of Jo’burg and Durban, sell some things, buy lots of things—then maybe spend two days at Sun City and depart.

Although thousands of Kenyans do this every year, I have never seen a package advertised.

Kenya is like this too. In many unmeasured ways, Nairobi services the business people, agencies and governments of eight countries: Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, Congo, Somalia and Ethiopia. Right now the only new routes Kenya Airways is opening up are lucrative African routes.

Traders come in from all over, looking for spare parts and socks; for new Mercedes-Benzes and toothpicks; for bales of second-hand clothes and banking services; for cement; for cost-effective private schooling; for seedlings and freelance website designers. The most vibrant parts of the city surround the bus ranks that service this massive market.

Of course, our world being what it is, there is no service to make the lives of these poor travellers easier. Kenyan police love to harass black African foreigners because they are more afraid of authority figures than anybody and they will cough up whatever is asked. There is no office set up by the city council to support trade and traders anywhere near Tom Mboya Street—no place to complain, no forum to discuss how to make this business grow.

Instead, there are askaris with clubs. Those billions of shillings that flow into the city every month need to be managed and the management plan is clubs and tear gas and the efficient collection of fines and fees.

These neighbouring countries may be Kenya’s largest source of income, but then we must consider definitions. Take “investor”. An investor is a white man with a briefcase; a brown man with a briefcase is here to “bribe”; a black man with a briefcase is an “illegal immigrant”.

There are signs, though that the thinking is slowly changing. A Sene­galese company that makes innovative customs software has just won a huge contract for Kenya. The donors were shocked. Who thought technology could be bought and sold within the continent?

Now. The blunt truth of all of this is that there is little meaningful investment that can come from a white man with a briefcase. This is because he lives in a different solar system. What he refers to as a low-cost life for him and his family is beyond the means of Kenya to provide.

There is a lovely story that circulates in Nairobi about the coffee husk project, in which beautiful and environmentally friendly and well-funded coal was produced by men in briefcases for the African market. This was meant to stop people burning charcoal. Problem was, the costs were high: big homes with 24-hour security, broadband internet, private schooling at the international school and so on had to be provided by the funding.

What is not said is that brown men with briefcases are readily available, downloaded from planes from Mumbai with $50 000 and the ability to live on a dollar a day while setting up the Kenya Coffee Husk Charcoal Company, which will undercut the charcoal dealing mafias.

It is for this reason that I am refreshed by the idea that the Chinese government built a mall as part of their trade mission in Nairobi. That they talk about doing business—and mean it. For when you hear our European Union diplomat types talk, you would think all they do is donate and provide “partnership support”—we are not a market, we are a sort of kindergarten that needs a firm hand and bright, bold colors.

A raft of articles has come from concerned people in the West who talk about how China and India are exploiting Africa. But to me it seems that their motives are far more upfront, transparent and sincere than the patronising baby talk that issues from our partners with briefcases who want to start fail-safe businesses by getting pity grants.

I recently met somebody who trains Africans in “income generating activities”. She has never run a successful business. She took a course in development somewhere in Europe. She was flying business class to Amsterdam.

It’s a good gig, if you can get it.

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