Trump the Winner

I’m not really sure if the the Trump family had the “trump card” phrase when they were coming up with the name. But “The Donald” or as he’s officially known, Donald J. Trump, seems to really love his name a little too much. He feels  like his name is the “best” brand there is and has no problem putting it on everything he builds.

Trump is perhaps the biggest self promoter around – which is also his biggest strength. He has managed to paint the picture of success so much that the people who matter have had no choice but to believe it. This kind of trust coming from billionaire investors is priceless to a real estate developer. This explains why his Trump Organization is one of the world’s largest real estate companies.

Trump does really love success just as he is very successful at what he does. He talks success and distances himself from failure as much as possible. He is also not very good at keeping secrets such as his apparent no-so-much respect for Senator McCain as a US war veteran and as a presidential candidate. Trump likes “the number one show”, “the best building in Manhattan” and generally, “success”. This list doesn’t look like “the war hero who got captured” or even worse the “the loser of presidential elections”. It will be interesting to see whether some of the interesting things he has been very bold enough to say will come back at him.

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The Opportunity Curse in Community Organizing

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A typical community organization in developing countries is stuck in infancy and on the brink of collapse. The group probably struggles with the same small time fights and personal conflicts for as long as it may have been in existence. The problem of the organization is mostly the leadership system and the lack of shared values among the membership. To understand this, let’s look at how most of them are formed.

One person decides that an organization needs to be formed for some reason – great or not (In these days of biting poverty and unemployment, reasons can be plenty including saving oneself from being broke). Irrespective of the reason for formation, the one person would mobilize a few more people around the idea but would insist on being the leader. Eventually, they rarely fail to get quite a number of people to sign up as the members of the new group. They sit down and have an official meeting and walk over to the state department of social services armed with some documents and get officially registered.

The able leader would then set out to get the group members busy. This would sometimes involve very heavy personal sacrifices including mobilizing the now very hesitant members. Common group activities include waste collection, table banking, conservation activities, small time farming, and tree planting among many others. These activities require a lot commitment, trust and everything from members which they give with a lot of laxity. The able leader would be very lucky to have all these.

The group remains largely vulnerable to disturbances to this peace and leadership system if any. For instance, members would not read the constitution until some donor shows up with freebies that are up for grabs. Members will start wondering if they are getting everything they can get from the group after all. They open their eyes to the fact that so and so may be getting an unfairly larger share than the rest of the pack. Everyone becomes suddenly very knowledgeable and active – but unmanageable.

All these events can sometimes happen very fast.  The able leader, founder and vision bearer who by now has forgotten that the group is not a private shop, might find himself or herself sidelined overnight. In worse cases, the group just ceases to exist after everyone just wants a share of the money and no more stories. The group becomes wound up.

And so the donor, who acted in utmost good faith, comes to the sad realization that their objectives were not shared at all by the group. Public funds are wasted down the drain in this scenario and everyone becomes the same after a few months pending another cycle of some new group that won’t stand the test of opportunity. Some donor organizations learn and do differently such as investing in some good quality capacity building programs. Unfortunately, others waste time with superficial measures such as contracts and modifying constitutions.

Pay me Train Me

The prospect of an income is a very important motivator to many people the world over. It is even more so when you’re living from hand to mouth and every day absolutely counts. Every morning is a vicious struggle to make ends meet or at least avoid this or that tragedy.  Such is the life of most poor people in the sub Saharan Africa.

One such typical area full of the poor is coastal Kenya. The coastal region of Kenya has a range of socio-political and economic problems that have undermined development for a very long time. They include widespread poverty, combined with a very high degree of inequity; Extensive alienation of land that makes it difficult or even impossible for considerable parts of the local population to gain access to land; and a persistent feeling of being politically marginalized in post-independence Kenya.

Development actors have been excited by the many development issues and mostly, the incessant demands for such by the people.  As a result, many have initiated a variety of interventions over time all geared towards alleviation of poverty, boosting security, removing hunger from this and that place, education promotion and the list goes on.

One important aspect of conducting a development project in coast is that it sometimes does not make sense. You have to pay people to attend your training sessions for instance. You both pay them and reimburse their fare or they won’t show up next time. That speaks a lot about how much the people value your training. It is also a wonder whether the same people asked for the training.

Yet it is true, they ask for the training and even evidently need it. But they can’t afford to attend if you don’t give them something small at the end of the talk. You just have to pray that that is not all that brought them.

What if your project is meant to better your would-be beneficiaries’ own businesses? In this case, perhaps they can just count the two or three hours as their own working hours. They can evaluate them based on whether their Return on Investment (RoI) is good enough. I believe such a project would do well to crunch numbers for the would-be beneficiaries like an investment advisor would. This should clearly explain why investing three hours to attend training is a sound and economically viable decision.

If this is accorded as much seriousness and emphasis as it should be, most development actions, especially those “whole value chain model” types, will go a long way in actually transforming the lives of the poor and having a lasting impact.

The Highs and the Lows of the Seas

Most natives of a place where there are waters with fish at different concentrations must have engaged in fishing at some point in their lives. I wouldn’t quote a paper for that as is the habit for most natural resource management professionals and scientists. This is not only because I don’t know of any, but also for the basic reason that I don’t think I will need anybody’s authority to say that. It is common sense that people tend to exploit resources near them – and if fish happens to be available for free, many will jump in the waters for some.

This rings true for coastal Kenya. A significant number of people have foregone the many other economic options they could take to pursue fishing seriously, or specifically, on a fulltime basis. This is despite the many challenges that have faced the profession especially for the small time fishers trying to squeeze a living from the Indian Ocean. Notably, the International Labour Organization (ILO) lists fishing as the most dangerous profession in the world.

For the small scale fishers, it is a lot more dangerous than most people can possibly imagine. Sailing on to the oceans with a crude vessel is risky business. This is more so when dangerous winds and unforgiving tides rule the oceans. These tides would threaten to capsize canoes and even the few motorised boats every second of their life afloat the seas. It takes a brave soul (and sometimes a desperate one) to set out in the murky waters in the all-important quest for fish.

The conditions of the ocean determine the type and time of fishing. During the months of April, May, June, July, August, September the ocean is too dangerous and the small scale people can hardly access areas beyond the reefs, let alone the high seas. Fish in most coastal villages and homes tends to decline in what is commonly referred to as the low season.  This is because most of our small scale fishers can only venture into the creeks, where catches are small and limited to a few bony species.

During the rest of the year, fish is in plenty and our small scale people are happy. The ocean is calm and they can at least go beyond the creeks to more distant places. There are also migratory fishermen (mostly wapemba) who jam the landing sites with fish. The year-round canoe people only contribute a small percentage of the increased supply of fish compared to the migratory fishermen in most of the landing sites in Kilifi, Mombasa, Malindi and the south coast.

The increase in fish during the high season increases activities around fishing sector especially the fish trade. It is however disadvantageous to some small scale actors who depend on the scarcity of fish to make more money. These are mostly Mama Karanga.

Mama Karanga- the Life of a Kenyan Small Scale Fish Processor and Seller

A typical small scale fish processor is a person who lives a difficult and eventful life. The term fish processor is a little grandiloquent if not ambiguous given the simple and common fish processing methods these women employ. Most of them are simply referred to as mama karanga which comes from their characteristic fried fish that is common on the streets of coastal towns especially in the evening hours.

Before the fish reaches the markets in the afternoons or evenings, an arduous journey begins with a trip to the nearby fish landing sites – this can at times be as early as 4.00 am. The trip has one objective – to buy as much fish as they can possibly fry and sell. On reaching the landing sites, the wait for the fish can get very long – sometimes over six hours! The wait offers no guarantee since it depends on how the small scale fishermen will fare. On the bad days of the year, especially during the months of May, June, July, August and September, they oftentimes have to walk away with empty basins. On such a bad day, the women have to go to the butchery for fish – their second best option. Here the fish is sold a little too expensively which narrows their profit margins.

After finally making a purchase from either the butchers or the landing sites, they move on to the next phase of their hustle. This phase takes place mostly in their homes where they do the fish frying. Fish frying is not for the faint hearted either. It is a lengthy exposure to heat and a juggle with hot cooking oil that will oftentimes find an excuse to spill on the hardworking Kenyan. Sometimes, the woman might realize only too late that the fish she paid for hurriedly is completely spoilt or just not too good for anything at all. In this case she sun dries the fish and sells it as such.  A process they call kufanya ng’onda.

Most of the mama karanga prefer a good mix of species of fish for selling. Their clientele are price -sensitive slum dwellers that are selective and quite unpredictable with the fish type they want to buy every day. The mama karanga would therefore mostly package her fish in pieces of fish – mostly a fish cut into three pieces. Only the very small fishes are sold whole. That way their typical customer can afford them. These products are packaged in wooden boxes lined with newspapers and sold at the roadsides. The mama karanga can do the selling upto as late as 11.00 PM.

On a good day, she will probably make a thousand shillings or less as profits. These good days are ironically during the days she experiences difficulty in buying fish as opposed to the high season when fish is in plenty. The high season reduces her sales drastically because of too much supply of fish.

The intrigues of the business are many and I will be sharing bits of these in the coming days. Not just for the fun of it but to reveal the many programming opportunities that development actors can take on to better this part of the fisheries value chain especially in coastal Kenya.

Few Days in the Capital

Funny city dwellers trying to pay bills
Funny city dwellers trying to pay bills

According to my obviously limited knowledge of cities, Nairobi is by far one of the most talked about in the world. Villages of Kenya are awash with all sorts of tales about funny experiences one is likely to experience in Nairobi. While some are completely rib cracking, others are frightening especially to many a small boy with real prospects of leaving his village to the big city.

To start with, as I authoritatively hear, life can be very expensive for most people. A big percentage of the city residents are confined to living in the crowded slums and eating horrible githeri cooked on the road sides. Their drinking water tests suspiciously too much like raw sewage. As if this is not enough from saitan, they are perpetually in cat and mouse games with landlords and other sorts of creditors. Speaking of credit, it is really expensive to borrow money in the slums. Besides the strict deadlines of about two weeks , you also are charged with a thirty percent interest. Defaulting means forfeiture of stuff you really need such as a phone or TV. Well, in short, an average city dweller is living shitty any way you look at it – fancy clothes or not.

This was my mindset when i shifted base from the much village-like city of Mombasa to the capital. Turns out most of the rumours were actually true. But nothing prepared me for the cold water part. I’m enduring every morning – the difficulty in getting out f a warm bed to a cold morning and cold water cannot be exaggerated. What’s more, my pad can only be accessed by a path that passes too close to a dumpsite with a not so great smell.

But, I must admit, this has been exciting.  The days are much shorter; thanks to the many relatives and friends I have been able to interact with. There are more business opportunities this end of the earth.  The possibilities of success look a lot more real, giving one the strength to overlook the rather uncomfortable living and sometimes, working conditions.

Glory be to God

This man Githu Muigai

AG Githu Muigai is a man who is never short of quotable quotes, many of them quite caustic to the person on the receiving end. Sample some of the quotes from his days as a Law professor at the University of Nairobi:

“Mathew Muli, the then Attorney General -we cannot call him anything else because that was his official title- tried to keep his knowledge of the law concealed. His only acquaintance with the law was incidental or historical”

“I am here to jumpstart your mind from lethargy”

“I believe you are familiar with carnal knowledge? The concept that is, not the practical part. Someone with experience? Legal experience you dirty minded fools!”

“God asked him, ‘Who are you?’ and he replied ‘I’m Jomo Kenyatta, President of Kenya and you’re sitting on my chair!’” (trying a hand at stand up comedy)

“The only difference between you and a cow is what I teach you”

“The law is so generous that it presumes that everyone is sane”

“Most women would prefer the sperm of a law professor to that of a law student”

“We are not authorities in law. By ‘we’ I mean ‘you’. Some of you might be tempted to think that we are in the same category”

“When I ask you a question, give me an answer in the context of the 21st Century because that is where your challenges lie. Don’t give me an answer according to your grandfather because he is either dead or dying”

“Killing is a statement of fact, but murder is a conclusion of the law”

“This gentleman, and I use the word gentleman with the widest elasticity possible, always acted ex cathedra”

“What a pretentious name!” (when some guy called Muthee was asked what his name was)

“You call me Sir and I call you Sir. The only difference is that YOU will mean it!”

“Not even the devil knows what a man is thinking, leave alone a woman”

“If I was to be appointed the Chief Justice, which I think would be a terribly good idea, I would listen to everybody, including you, for whatever it is worth…”

“I agree with the Honourable Justice Kwach, that the legal profession is in danger of being infiltrated by peasants”

“The most precious thing in life is life itself. Which is why murder is the gravest offence as it deprives the victim the most precious thing in life”

“For the purposes of my lectures, all time will be in GMT and only my Swiss watch will apply”

“That is a very stupid answer, but it is the right one”

“If your female client is going to be convicted of murder, make sure she’s pregnant. Why are you laughing? Of course, I don’t mean that you should be the one making sure!”

“Bigamy is the only crime where two rites make a wrong”

“Robbery With Violence… now that is a good example of how not to make a law. It is pure nonsense and tautological”

“If you DO NOT know the law of Kenya, you DO NOT impress me at all”

“I radiate knowledge because I am in intellectual puberty and not intellectual menopause.”

“Charles Njonjo, the then Attorney General, was wrong. Do you know why he was wrong? Because I say so”

The Beggar is the Best Customer

The church is a great business idea. The founder is usually a person that requires help from God and perhaps genuinely heeds to “a divine call”. He has to bear with the doubts and difficulties that come with all start ups. For starters, nobody might believe the cock and bull story that the poor guy has to craft. Thankfully, his loyal spouse and submissive children usually don’t have a choice.

Nonetheless, he has to work hard and win the trust of some few other family members and friends to put up a funny structure and buy drums and other equally loud musical instruments. I’m sure you will agree that some of the loudest noises that come from churches are made by congregations that hardly exceed ten individuals that look somewhat inebriated.

But the many doubters (or more fashionably, haters) are soon put to shame as the passionate pastor now buys better suits and mobilizes more flock. The church is now big and within no time a sleek car starts to be a reality for the pastor.

But to sustain the dream, the pastor shifts from focussing on the service of God to what the congregation can give to God – which some “haters” mistake for himself. The preaching Sunday after Sunday is aimed at coercing the congregation to respond to the needs of the church and by extension the “man of God” as a means of meeting their own. Promises of prosperity now form the bulk of summons and the condition is invariably giving to the church’s projects.

This is the trend in most churches where pastors are reduced to poets keeping their congregations hopeful amid deepening misery in their own lives. The pastors nonetheless prosper – making themselves richer and richer. Politicians are not any different but that’s material for another day.

There is one thing a struggling person can learn from this common trend, desperation fosters creativity and is the best opportunity for business and success. Many people are born desperate, in families that kill morale. Your dad probably looks happy herding goats and your mother is contented with selling illicit brews save for the few times the cops have to carry her on their less than elegant pick-ups. Your brother could have died of starvation and your sister couldn’t make more than just a starving prostitute. You see failure and suffering all around you. Everyone is comfortable and resigned to this less-than-perfect conditions – but what makes you feel special is that it bothers you.

If you can relate to this I have some good news.

The obscure truth is that the best business ideas start and thrive on widespread desperation. The best businesses promising jobs to thousands of jobless lads waiting for that elusive splash of opportunity and actually delivering a decent fraction of their song and dance were started by jobless people. The best teachers are failed practitioners trying to run away from their own mediocrity. The sellers of hope were once hopeless and with problems worse than any of the people they have had an opportunity to preach hope to. All the same, they made themselves millionaires by looking around and seeing how they can meet the needs of the majority average. They have looked at their experiences and managed to view the desperation and the failure as their main opportunity – and they are never wrong.

An average pastor has a car, an average officer of the poverty NGO makes more money than a car salesman. The person advertising jobs for the jobless is self employed. And the list is longer than you can imagine.

Please, kindly send me an email so I can forward you the invoice: the guy that is always begging you for coins has enough money to be your customer. All you have to do is find a way to make his existence a blessing.