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Nairobi to Lusaka, Part II

Dar es Salaam is a pleasant town in late June. I had only been there once before, back in 2011 when I stayed for a day and a half to catch the Tazara. I didn’t like it then because of the heat and humidity (humidity is up there with cats – I am allergic – on the list of things I cannot stand). But this time round it was nice, I managed to walk around town marveling at the pillars of concrete and glass that are rising up in every corner of the city. The construction boom puts even Nairobi to shame, enough to make me think that the suggestions that Tanzania may soon eclipse Kenya as the place where all the action is in East Africa are not that far fetched after all (see image and this piece).  Image

My only complaint was that a prime section of the beach front still remains under-utilized, although this might be because of the presidential palace nearby. I hear you can’t drive there at certain times of the day (Stop channeling Mugabe, Bwana Kikwete. Also, let Chadema be). Oh, and I did manage to drive on the Kibaki road. I thought it was a new road, but it is not. Sections of it are actually pretty bad. Apparently, the Tanzanian government is planning an upgrade soon. I also drove past Mwalimu Nyerere’s home. It made me respect the man even more.

I arrived in Dar late on Tuesday night after many hours of travel by bus. On Thursday morning I was scheduled to continue with the second leg of the journey to Lusaka. I was at the bus stop by 5:45 AM, still sleepy. I had stayed up late the previous night, watching the Confederation Cup matches of the day, reading and writing my Saturday column. I fell asleep as soon as I got to my seat.

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Dar’s public housing units. For a moment I thought that the choice of color was meant to discourage applicants. Until I saw the pink public housing headquarters. Some of the units are in really nice parts of town.

The bus left the station promptly at 6:15 AM. Tanzania is huge. From Dar es Salaam to the Tunduma border is about 931 kilometres. The drive to the Zambian border took a total of 16 hours.

As I said in the previous post on this trip, I regretted taking the bus. If you want to travel overland between Dar and Lusaka, take the train. It is a million times more pleasant. There is a restaurant and a bar (that serves Tusker) on the train. There are bathrooms. And you have a bed. Plus the train is just slow enough that you can read and truly appreciate the empty Tanzanian countryside.

But the trip wasn’t all gloomy. The scenery was still enjoyable. Sections of Tanzania are quite hilly, with amazing views of cliffs and rivers and rock formations. At some point past Iringa I saw what seemed to be the biggest tree plantation in the world. For miles and miles all I could see were rows and rows of trees. And when there were no trees there were rows and rows of sisal. Someone is making bank off the land in that part of the country.

Also, western Tanzania is a lesson on how hard it is to achieve economic development in the context of a sparsely populated country. Such situations make it impossible to reach everyone with the grid and water pipes. Either the government has to wait for demographics to work its magic (again, see figure above – and be sure to check out this story on the Africa-driven demographic future of the world) or provide smart incentives to accelerate the process of urbanization.

For those who went to high school in Kenya, journeying by land through Tanzania reminded me of Ken Walibora’s Siku Njema. I felt like I was retracing the steps of Kongowea Mswahili. Some day I would like to go back and spend some time in Morogoro and Iringa. By the way, Siku Njema is by far the best Swahili novel I have ever read (which reminds me that it has been eight years since I read a Swahili novel. Suggestions are welcome, preferably by Tanzanian authors). It is about time someone translated it into English for a wider audience.

We reached Tunduma some minutes past 10 PM. The border crossing to Nakonde on the Zambian side was closed. Some passengers on the bus left to rent out rooms for the night. I decided to tough it out on the bus with the crew and a few other guys. Desperate for something warm to eat, I had chicken soup and plain rice for dinner. The “restaurant” reminded me of the place in Tamale, Ghana where Vanessa and I got food poisoning two months earlier. But I was desperate. I quickly ate my hot soup and rice and hoped for the best.

ImageI crossed the border early in the morning on foot. The bus had to wait in line for inspection and to pay duty for its cargo (It is at this point that I learned that the bus was actually going all the way to Harare in Zimbabwe). I am usually very careful with money changers, but perhaps because of my tiredness and lack of sleep the chaps in Nakonde got me.

If you ever cross to Nakonde on foot wait until you are on the Zambian side to exchange cash at the several legit forex stores that line the streets.

The bus finally got past customs at noon (on Friday). In Nakonde we waited for another two hours for more passengers and cargo.

I took the time to get some food supplies. Lusaka was another 1019 kilometres away. 

By this time I was dying to have a hot shower and be able to sleep in a warm bed. It was cold. Like serious cold. And Lusaka was still another 14 hours away.

I slept lightly through most of the 14 odd hours. In between I chatted with two Kenyan guys that were apparently immigrating to South Africa, with little more than their two bags. They said that this was their second attempt. The previous time they found work in Lusaka and decided to stay for a bit before going back to Nairobi. They were part of the bulk of passengers from Nakonde who were going all the way to Harare. Apparently, this is the route of choice for those who immigrate from eastern and central Africa into South Africa in search of greener pastures.

Before it got dark we saw several overturned trucks on the road. I slept very lightly, always waking up in a panic every time the driver braked or swerved while overtaking a truck just in time to avoid oncoming traffic. My only source of comfort was the fact that the driver was a middle aged man, most likely with a family to take care of and therefore with a modicum of risk aversion.

I arrived in Lusaka at around 4 AM, more than three days and 2871 kilometres since leaving Nairobi.

I said goodbye to my two Kenyan countrymen and rushed out of the bus as soon as I could. On the way to my hotel I couldn’t stop thinking how much I would like to read an ethnography of the crew of the bus companies (and their passengers and cargo) that do the Dar to Harare route.

At Lusaka Hotel that morning I had the best shower I had had in a very long time. And slept well past check out time. I had two months of fieldwork and travel in Zambia to look forward to.

So Tanzanians drink more than Kenyans?

Kenyans pride themselves in their ability to consume machozi ya simba (lion’s tears) and have a good time, more so than their regional neighbors, especially the polite Tanzanians to the south. But the data, at least between 2003-05, says something different. Kenyans drink the least in the EAC (which is a testament to the strong conservative undercurrents in Kenyan society despite the outward liberalism that we (almost exclusively Nairobians) all like to wear on our sleeves).

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Source: The Economist
It is also in Kenya that there is an anti-drinking law forbidding the sale of alcohol before 5 PM on weekdays and 2 PM on weekends and after 11 PM. Of course the law is almost never enforced and seems to only benefit the police whenever they need extra cash from bar operators. That said, sections of Kenyan society have a serious drinking problem that the government continues to ignore at enormous social and economic cost. Incidentally, like all good Commanders in Chief, ours is no stranger to booze, although he must’ve ditched the habit now that he is lives in the House on the Hill.

Africa’s newfound love with creditors: Bond bubble in the making?

I know it is increasingly becoming not kosher to put a damper on the Africa Rising narrative (these guys missed the memo, H/T Vanessa) but here is a much needed caution from Joe Stiglitz and Hamid Rashid, over at Project Syndicate, on SSA’s emerging appetite for private market debt (Africa needs US $90b for infrastructure; it can only raise $60 through taxes, FDI and concessional loans):

To the extent that this new lending is based on Africa’s strengthening economic fundamentals, the recent spate of sovereign-bond issues is a welcome sign. But here, as elsewhere, the record of private-sector credit assessments should leave one wary. So, are shortsighted financial markets, working with shortsighted governments, laying the groundwork for the world’s next debt crisis?

…….Evidence of either irrational exuberance or market expectations of a bailout is already mounting. How else can one explain Zambia’s ability to lock in a rate that was lower than the yield on a Spanish bond issue, even though Spain’s [which is not Uganda…] credit rating is four grades higher? Indeed, except for Namibia, all of these Sub-Saharan sovereign-bond issuers have “speculative” credit ratings, putting their issues in the “junk bond” category and signaling significant default risk.

The risks are real, especially when you consider the exposure to global commodity prices among the ten African countries that have floated bonds so far – Ghana, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Angola, Nigeria, Namibia, Zambia, and Tanzania.

In order to justify the exposure to the relatively higher risk and lending rates on the bond market (average debt period 11.2 years at 6.2% compared to 28.7 years at 1.6% for concessional loans) African governments must ensure prudent investment in sectors that will yield the biggest bang for the buck. And that also means having elaborate plans for specific projects with adequate consideration of the risks involved.

Here in Zambia (which is heavily dependent on Copper prices), the Finance Minister recently had to come out to defend how the country is using the $750 million it raised last year on the bond market (2013-14 budget here). Apparently there was no comprehensive plan for the cash so some of the money is still in the bank awaiting allocation to projects (It better be earning net positive real interest).

“They are fighting each other. By the time they have projects to finance, they will have earned quite a lot of interest from the Eurobond money they deposited. So, all the money is being used properly,” he [Finance Minister] said.

Following the initial success the country’s public sector plans to absorb another $4.5b in debt that will raise debt/GDP ratio from current ~25% to 30%. One hopes that there will be better (prior) planning this time round.

Indeed, last month FT had a story on growing fears over an Emerging (and Frontier) Markets bond bubble which had the following opening paragraph:

As far as financial follies go, tulip mania takes some beating. But future economic historians may look back at the time when investors financed a convention centre in Rwanda as the moment that the rush into emerging market bonds became frothy.

The piece also highlights the fact that the new rush to lend to African governments is not entirely driven by fundamentals – It is also a result of excess liquidity occasioned by ongoing quantitative easing in the wake of the Great Recession.

I remain optimistic about the incentive system that private borrowing will create for African governments (profit motive of creditors demands for sound macro management) and the potential for this to result in a nice virtuous cycle (if there is one thing I learned in Prof. Shiller’s class, it is the power of positive feedback in the markets).

But I also hope that when the big three “global” central banks start mopping up the cash they have been throwing around we won’t have a repeat of the 1980s, or worse, a cross between the 1980s (largely sovereign defaults) and the 1990s (largely private sector defaults) if the African private sector manages to get in on the action.

African governments, please proceed with caution.

Tanzania elections

There are no surprises expected from the general elections in Tanzania, held on Sunday. The electoral body has not declared the presidential results yet (leading to reported riots) but no one expects Jakaya Kikwete to lose to Chadema’s Willibrod Slaa. Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), the hegemonic party that has ruled Tanzania since unification, is also expected to maintain its majority in parliament.

More on this as soon as the final official figures become available. Mr. Kikwete won 80% of the vote in 2005.

economic matters

The 20th World Economic Forum on Africa has been meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Participants at the forum stressed the need for the Continent to move to the centre of the global economy. The emphasis on agriculture was particularly encouraging. Food, textiles and construction should dominate the Continent’s Planning Ministers’ agenda.

The need for urgency was best illustrated by one participant who described the modern African farmer as still being “the woman with a hoe, firewood on her head and child on her back.” The same participant also made note of the fact that 80% of food production on the Continent is done by such women.

More of this here.

Also, the Atlantic has this nice piece on Sino-African (or is it Afro-Chinese?) relations.

the south africans cometh

They are all over Tanzania. Kenya’s southern neighbor is even a member of the SADC and currently suffers a huge trade deficit with South Africa. Now the sons and daughters of the Continent from south of the Limpopo are eying even greater penetration into the EAC via Uganda. President Zuma just visited Uganda with a delegation of businesspeople. Uganda’s oil sector was on top of the agenda.

I hope Kenyan businesspeople, and the political class, are watching. Competition from the South Africans is, of course, most welcome – companies like the East African Breweries certainly benefited from South African competition. That said, Kenya should not give up its role as the economic locomotive of East Africa. In particular, the government should ensure that Kenyan companies in the light manufacturing, retail and banking sectors remain competitive in the region. Investment in infrastructure – roads, the ports in Lamu and Mombasa, pipelines, power generation – should be prioritized. Nairobi must ensure that the Ugandans, Rwandans, Burundians and Southern Sudanese find it cheapest to export and import through Kenyan ports.