Tuesday, November 23, 2010

africa's lion reawakens

Nasdaq | With a new constitution, bold economic targets and an ambitious social development strategy, Kenya is determined to become the new star of Africa. All the signs so far suggest it may yet achieve its goal.

On a recent fact-finding mission to Kuala Lumpur, members of a Kenyan government delegation were surprised when their Malaysian hosts, after greeting them warmly, thanked them for their help in making Malaysia's capital city such a success. "They explained that, several decades earlier, Malaysia sent a similar delegation to Nairobi to find out how to create a modern capital city," says one of the members of Kenyan team. "They told us Kenya's capital was the model for Kuala Lumpur," he adds.

Decades later, and with the tables unequivocally turned, Kenya is taking a very careful look at how Malaysia and the other Asian tigers built their tremendously successful economies from the ground up. With the lessons it is learning, Kenya aims not just to replicate their success but to exceed it.

To anyone who hasn't visited Kenya recently, the country's claims and ambitions may sound like wild hubris. Even the most optimistic reputable estimate of GDP per head puts the figure at only $1,000 a year. Unemployment is rife, particularly in rural areas. The country's economy has a track record that is patchy, to say the least, and it's in a corner of East Africa that's more often associated with famine, war and piracy than with rapid and stable economic growth and social progress. But spend a little time in the bustling, vibrant capital or in the lush landscape of the fabled Rift Valley and suddenly the Kenyan leaders' vision of their country as one of the world's rising economic stars-Africa's lion to Asia's tigers-doesn't seem so far-fetched after all.

Conceived more than a decade ago, that vision is now becoming a reality. In late August, Kenya's president Mwai Kibaki signed the country's new constitution into law. As he did so, creating what many are calling the "second republic," Kibaki said: "This new constitution is an embodiment of our best hopes, aspirations, ideals and values for a peaceful and more prosperous nation." His words capture the spirit of the new Kenya, a country that is driving hard to become the de facto gateway to East Africa, the principal trade hub between Africa and Asia, and the region's economic and political powerhouse.

The country has an ambitious infrastructure construction program, a determination to upgrade its power generation grid and transform the country into a green energy leader, and a new constitutional structure that will help Kenya establish a fairer and more transparent political system and a more balanced economy. Through its "Vision 2030" program, Kenya has committed to promoting economic growth, creating "a middle-income country providing a high quality of life to all its citizens."

As well as promoting domestic growth, Kenya is looking for international partners to help it achieve its ambitious plans to grow its financial services, manufacturing and outsourcing industries. In its effort to modernize and grow its economy Kenya is also blazing a trail that other similar emerging markets will want to follow.

Mugo Kibati, director general of Vision 2030, says the organization's mission boils down to achieving one simple goal: "We want every kid growing up to be assured of a job," he says. "We have an overarching vision to transform Kenya into a globally competitive, prosperous nation with a high quality of life for all by the year 2030." If the goal is clear cut, the process of achieving it is anything but simple and will involve a transformation not just of the constitutional structure of the country but of its culture.