Historicizing the Hustle: What Kenya’s Colonial Legacy Tells Us About Poverty in African Cities
“Us, we are hustlers,” they tell me in chorus. “We’ve come to Nairobi just to hustle”. Peter, Sam, Nicholas and James moved to Nairobi between 10 and 25 years ago. They report to work at 6am every morning to pull mkokoteni, or handcarts; bringing fruit, vegetables, and jerry cans of water to and from markets. When hired, they share the work; but some days go by without a single job.
According to last year’s Africa’s Cities report by the World Bank, Peter, Sam, Nicholas and James are among the 472 million urban residents of Africa. For many, working hours are grueling and leisure is elusive. Amid rising food prices, economic shocks are difficult to absorb and physical security hard to guarantee. Cornelius, who drives a matatu (the public transport minivans), tells me he has to earn enough to cover potential hijackings, regular police bribes, and occupational injuries. Consoletta, a domestic worker, leaves work by 4pm to make it home before dark and avoid “idle men”.
Jua kali worker in Kenya. Copyright: Flickr User Erik Hersman/CC Attribution
Hazards abound, and yet, the hardship experienced by many urban Africans is no accident. Cities like Nairobi were deliberately designed to support European metropoles. Their blueprints were drawn up by architects who had no interest in establishing productive or fair spaces; poverty was built into floorboards of the cities.
Urbanization without industrialization?
The fact that “cities are home to deep inequality, marginalization, discrimination and despair,” as social inclusivity consultant David Thomas admits, presents a puzzle. Economists expect agglomeration to be a force for integration, matching job seekers and employers. Newcomers to the city share this hope. Cornelius explains: “they think because Nairobi is the capital city, there are many jobs here.” But the jobs aren’t here. I ask Peter, Sam, Nicholas and James what their dream is. The reply: “Employment.”
Conventional explanations of this discrepancy between expectations of opportunity and realities of underemployment tend to see poverty as an unfortunate backdrop to the process of urbanization. O’Connor (1987: 131) writes that poverty is ”general to Africa rather than specific to its cities” while the 2017 World Bank report says that “Africa is urbanizing while poor.”
These accounts are misleading. History matters – and history suggests that urbanization and poverty evolved in mutually constitutive, interlocking ways.
A recent paper in the Journal of Economic Growth unpacks the historical connections between urbanization and poverty.
History matters – and history suggests that urbanization and poverty evolved in mutually constitutive, interlocking ways.
The authors make a distinction between countries that depend on the export of natural resources and those that don’t. In the former, resource exports generate cash, but not meaningful employment. For example, in Angola, oil accounts for over 50% of GDP, but the sector only employs 10,000 workers. These countries “urbanize without industrialization.” Cities crop up, but only because incomes are on the rise. The result is “consumption cities” where employment is mainly in non-tradable services like retail and transportation. On the other hand, non-resource exporters urbanize as labour moves out of agriculture and into industry and tradable services like finance and insurance. This process of “urbanization with industrialization” creates “production cities”.
Toi Market, Nairobi. Copyright: Flickr User Ninara/CC Attribution
Poverty is linked to the history of urbanization because, it is argued, urbanizing with industrialization generates gainful employment and a higher quality of life, while urbanizing without industrialization leads to higher poverty rates and higher shares of slum dwellers.
While the attention to structural drivers of urban poverty is commendable, this argument relies on a misleading dichotomy. Did any country really urbanize “without” industrialization?
The transformation of rural spaces
Imperialism and industrialization were intricately related. As industrialization took hold, the demand for primary commodities increased. European countries outsourced land-intensive production of food and raw materials to their colonies while investing heavily in highly protected industries at home.
In 1972, Samir Amin wrote that Africa could be divided into a few wide macro-regions: the Africa of the colonial trade economy, of the concession company, and of the labour reserves. The distinction was made on the basis of the production system implemented by the colonial government. In labour reserve economies like Kenya, Africans were primarily expected to provide labour for European colonial enterprises.
This required a radical reshaping of urban space, and a process of enclosure similar to the one Polanyi described in reference to sixteenth century England. The commons are privatized, dispossessing rural dwellers and corralling them into designated spaces. In colonial Kenya, enclosure manifested itself in Native Reserves: territories demarcated for African settlement but owned by the British Crown.
British colonial authorities expected settlement in the Reserves to accompany mass, efficient production of agricultural surplus. Excerpts from official documents found in the Kenya National Archives are illustrative. An excerpt from a 1926 administrative memorandum reads: “any surplus production from the Native Reserves is required by the world at large; as large a surplus as possible.”
Nairobi, Kenya. Copyright: Flickr User Ninara/CC Attribution
A government circular on Development in the Native Reserves issued around 1932 clarifies that “the areas in a native occupation are capable of far greater economic output than has hitherto been achieved. This is fully realized by Government and His Excellency has directed that vigorous and coordinated efforts must be made in pursuance of … the realization of the maximum productivity of every Reserve.”
In a very real sense, urbanization in Kenya did not occur without industrialization, but alongside it.
With rural areas transformed into maximally productive cogs in the European industrial machine, Nairobi emerged to organize the collection and distribution of rural surplus. In a very real sense, urbanization in Kenya did not occur without industrialization, but alongside it.
Cash and the colony
As the system of production in Kenya was deployed to provide rural surplus to the metropole, rural livelihoods were transformed. Although the use of various currencies far predate European colonialism, the monetization of goods, services and labour was not all-encompassing.
In Kenya, unsurprisingly, individuals were reluctant to participate in the colonial project of maximizing agricultural output for the “world at large”. Administrators struggled to “obtain sufficient labour” so as to increase agricultural output according to a 1926 memorandum from the Medical Department. Agriculture was not exclusively subsistence-based, but it was also not geared toward the production of surplus in order to obtain a reward. Hence, the memorandum continues, “no wage could be sufficient on account of the native being satisfied with even a small return … and wishing nothing more.”
Monetarization became a pillar the colonial mission, not only to increase production but also to ensure sufficient demand for the processed exports of metropolitan economies. In labour reserve economies, economic policy largely focused on instituting “draconian measures to force the indigenous population towards wage employment.” Currency that would be convertible to European coins was introduced through direct coercion and compulsory taxation. Wage labour gained traction as alternative means of survival became increasingly constrained. Tens of thousands of Africans left their natal villages to secure work in emerging cities, where white-owned enterprises would offer wage labour, instigating what one author called a social revolution.
Kibera, Nairobi’s biggest slum. Copyright: Flickr User Ninara/CC Attribution
But on arrival, urban migrants were met with “painfully low” wages. Most economies rely on wages to buoy domestic demand. Geared almost entirely for the metropolitan markets of Europe, colonial economies had no such imperative, which drove down domestic wages. Colonial monetary policy also acted to depress purchasing power. Careful to minimize the impact of issuing colonial currency on the stability of the metropolitan currency at home, colonial practice was to deliberately restrict local access to credit.
Cities were not designed around affordability for the urban migrant, but extraction of labour for the colonizer.
With all this in mind, the World Bank’s statistic that households in Africa face 20-35% higher costs (relative to income) for housing, food and other goods and services than households in other regions should be contextualized. Cities were not designed around affordability for the urban migrant, but extraction of labour for the colonizer.
Is it safe to open the door?
Without this context, the World Bank report draws awkward conclusions.
The report reads, “to grow economically as they are growing in size, Africa’s cities must open their doors to the world.” Is that wise?
It was unfavourable integration into the world economy, not isolation from it, that caused urban poverty in the first place. The colonial imperative of maximizing productive output and overhauling existing systems of production forced hundreds of thousands into cities in search for cash, which proved in deliberate short supply. To disastrous effect. Cornelius reminds me: “it depends on your pocket. Everything in Nairobi is around money. If you don’t have money, you can’t survive well.”
Honest accounts of urban evolution must acknowledge both the present moment and colonial legacy. They must incorporate rural transformations as well as urban developments. The shadow of history is long and nuanced; and solutions to urban poverty cannot ignore it.
Cover photo: Kibera slum, Nairobi, Kenya. Copyright: Flickr User Ninara/CC Attribution
Development in the Native Reserves, 1932. Kenya National Archives.
Freund, B. (2007) The African City. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gollin, D., R. Jedwab, and D. Vollrath (2016) “Urbanization with and without industrialization.” Journal of Economic Growth. 21 (1): 35-70.
Guyer, J.I. (1995) Money Matters: Instability, Values and Social Payments in the Modern History of West African Communities. Pearson Education.
Memorandum on Medical Estimates, 1926. Kenya National Archives.
O’Connor, A. (1983) The African City. London and New York: Routledge.
Polanyi, K. (2001) The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, 2nd ed. Boston: Beacon Press.
Sender, J. and S. Smith (1986) The Development of Capitalism in Africa. London: Methuen Press.
Thomas, D. (2017) Personal interview. Nairobi, Kenya.
Van Zwanenberg, R. (1972) “History and theory of urban poverty in Nairobi: the problem of slum development.” Discussion Paper 139. Institute for Development Studies. University of Nairobi.
Watts, S. (1999) Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism. New Haven: Yale University Press.
World Bank (2017) Africa’s Cities: Opening Doors to the World. Washington, DC: World Bank Group.
Emily Anne Wolff is a recent graduate of the London School of Economics (BSc Environment and Development '16, MSc Global Politics '18). She is interested in political economy, inequality and global exchange. She lived in Nairobi 2016 - 2017, working on strategies for implementing Sustainable Development Goals at UN Environment and in renewable energy. Twitter: @emilyannewolff