As I left Kenya at the weekend to come to Australia, debate was still raging on the Uganda sugar deal in which President Uhuru Kenyatta was alleged to have “allowed” the substantial export of Ugandan sugar into Kenya in return for Kenyan exports of milk and beef to Uganda.
Now the great 20th century liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin liked to say progress in life was not only brought about by seeking the right answers, but even more by asking the right questions.
So turning to the reigning controversy over Ugandan sugar exports into Kenya – and specifically because I am writing this from Perth, Australia – it seems to me that the central questions raised by all this political upheaval has not really been explored.
Some have argued that Uganda actually does not produce enough sugar even for its own needs. And that it therefore cannot have any “surplus” to export. Yet others have pointed out that under existing trade protocols Kenya is under an obligation to accept any sugar that Uganda may seek to export to us, without inquiring into its origins
Politically speaking, these are irrelevant considerations. For what is clear is that to the entire population of Western Kenya, this development is seen as a slap in the face. And in many cases, it is believed with religious fervor that it is, fundamentally, a sinister scheme for the perpetuation of the already widespread poverty in the region.
In general, you cannot expect rational debate over farm produce in Kenya, once there is an impression created that poor farmers who have seen their earnings steadily decline due to events beyond their control, are about to get even poorer.
And this matter of the Ugandan sugar deal has long reached a tipping point, and may be said to have already cast in stone who the voters of that region will support and who they will rigidly oppose come the 2017 elections.
However, if you take the long-term view on the Kenyan economy – and set aside the purely political dimension of it – then what this crisis really reveals is the failure of Kenyan leaders and policy makers to successfully diversify the economy. And this is really the question we should be asking: why is it that our small-scale farmers continue to have such passionate attachment to cash crops that actually do not yield them any cash at all?
Long before I ever set foot here, I was already aware that Australia has two major economic success stories that warrant close observation by anyone who would like to see Kenya prosper. The best known is the Australian mining sector. In Kenya we tend to think of Australian mining in terms of the Base Titanium mining project in Kwale county. But that is barely even the tip of the iceberg as concerns Australian mining and what Kenya can learn and gain from it. More on that will follow in weeks to come.
The other great success is the education sector. At any one time, Australia will have roughly 500,000 international students enrolled in its universities, many of which are world-renowned centres of learning and research. And there is a reason for this:
We live in a globalised world, which has English as the official language of both research and commerce. And Australia has used its historical advantage of having the largest population of native English speakers in the Asia-Pacific region, to become the great education centre of Asia.
This brings me back to Uganda. There is barely a middle class Kenyan who does not have friend or family who has studied in Uganda. Indeed, if the controversy between Kenya and Uganda right now was about Kenyan students not bring allowed to study in Uganda, it would have been a far more substantial crisis than the current one over sugar.
The roughly 30,000 young Kenyans enrolled in Ugandan high schools and colleges represent a rare case of Uganda doing something so much better than Kenya, and remind us that education is an economic service sector just like tourism.
And that of course is the real point here. About 50 years ago, Australia also had its many sugarcane workers and sheep farmers who formed a significant part of its largely agrarian workforce. But now it is the Australian mining, tourism and education sectors, which lead its economic growth.