Unlock slum-dwellers’ frozen potential, stop social stigma!

Posted: February 10, 2014 in Uncategorized

For many, it easy to blame the slum-dwellers for many things. It is easy to blame them for the filth and dirt around the slums. It is easy to blame them for ‘leaving behind’ large tracts of open, uncultivated land in the village for a squatting opportunity in a filthy and dangerous slum in the city. It is also very easy to blame it on their culture, laziness, political party affiliation and even tribe. It is even easy to talk of the opportunities they ‘sit on’ and those that they have wasted. This is the easy thing to do and that’s why many people do it. Simple, find a scapegoat, make a blame and look away.

Very few make an effort to understand…

That the main factor of production in this part of the world is land, just land. Especially land that is free from shackles of legal bureaucracy and privatization. Other than land, they could rely on their labor, but the labor that most poor people own is usually raw and unskilled. They cannot use it to bargain for any meaningful exchange. In fact they do not even own it. They cannot even put a price tag on it. It is usually the employer who names their price for them. At Inda – the Industrial area section if Nairobi, majority of workers are slum residents whose unskilled or semi-skilled labor is what keeps the machines functioning. In return they receive a meager reward so disproportionate to what they do yet they have to do this every day. I know of a guy who used to earn his November ‘salary’ earlier in August. He was always taking an advance payment because he could not even wait for the month to end. It is very easy also for the employer to fire these workers because there is always a long list of similarly ‘qualified’ people who would take the same position even for lesser rewards.

Capital and entrepreneurship are big terminologies used to explain accumulated assets that can be converted into liquid money for investment into business. It is a noble thought, a good intention that one should always have capital that they have saved. This makes it very easy to reprimand poor people for not ‘saving’ enough to start a business. But saving money is not easy when one is very poor. There are many cracks that one must first fill before he can even arrive at the ground level to even think of growing. Many young people have to even struggle with clearing their parents’ debts and secure their siblings’ better life before they can think of themselves. In many parts of Africa, it is not merely about growth but collective growth. Or at least one minds about immediate members of their family. Sometimes expectations are so high that one completely forgets about oneself. Most people who try to save end up using the savings on some emergency. This is a matter beyond the so called ‘Financial discipline,’ which is easier spoken that done.

One has to make a choice. A choice to embrace this level of financially disciplined and ignore all family responsibility, including avoiding social responsibilities such as emergencies and cases of disease and death of close family at which one will become a social outcast as their money and wealth begins to mean nothing to their family. I have seen individuals who make a lot of saving, compromising social responsibility and family in the process but finally spending all of it to finally treat a close family member’s illness during an emergency. Some people also compromise family and social responsibility but end up spending their saving on fun activities in the city’s night lights. Despite an enhanced urbanization in most parts of Africa, Individualism is not very entrenched. And given the meager incomes that people get and the social responsibilities therein, it is very difficult for someone to make a decent saving to build financial capital.


A man transports meat for sale in Kibera.

The other choice is to decide to fill up all cracks, be socially present and there for family and close friends. Deciding to empower everyone around you until they can be on their own and only then begin to shift focus to yourself. This takes long. But it keeps everyone around you. It is also a traditional African community empowerment methodology where the few who become successful have a natural responsibility to empower those they have left behind. That many poor people are not financially disciplined is not a question of will, but of circumstance. Fortunately, there is a growing culture of pooling together. Many ‘chamas’ (Merry-go-rounds) have become increasingly successful towards promoting a saving culture among poor communities. Entrepreneurial investors and micro finance institutions should continue to embrace the ‘chamas’ and other informal saving groups as they represent a honest attempts by poor community members to start a saving culture and build financial capital.

This trends mean that the poor have capital that exists in defective forms. Unskilled labor, Unregistered land, heavy social responsibilities and other myriad challenges of entrepreneurship. Capital that cannot be activated is dead capital. It is unlocked potential. It makes no economic sense for a rural farmer to have land that he cannot use to access credit facilities and expand his farming simply because he has no title deed for it. Unfortunately, this is squarely the responsibility of the government. One wonders how a government that is dying to advance its country to middle-income economic status does that if it has not done the most basic duty, that of unlocking its citizen’s economic potential by giving everyone a legal right to the most precious asset they have, land. Oh, and if you ask, they will always says it’s an issue of protocol. That it is the President himself who must issue the title deeds if and when he finds time off his busy schedule. It is sad that in the 21st century Kenya, land is still being used as a tool for political patronage. Is it that the government is shooting itself on the foot or is it a deliberate policy to keep people dependent and therefore loyal to certain political big men?

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