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September 25, 2018

Opposition’s call for economic boycott ill-advised

Opposition leader Raila Odinga displays his Airtel card following his migration from Safaricom in line with the national resistance, November 6, 2017. /COURTESY
Opposition leader Raila Odinga displays his Airtel card following his migration from Safaricom in line with the national resistance, November 6, 2017. /COURTESY



Due to flagging revenues linked to the extended electioneering period, several businesses around the country have laid off workers in recent months.

Many more businesses will regrettably do the same in the coming weeks and months if political temperatures do not cool down.

According to a recent survey by the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, at least 47 per cent of industrial manufacturers intend to lay off employees in the coming months due to poor performance, occasioned by political risk. The bleak jobs outlook in the manufacturing sector is a representation of the broader situation in other key sectors of the economy.

It is unfortunate and unacceptable that many families are losing breadwinners and slipping into misery at the hands of a political system that promised them a better future. Sadly, opposition leader Raila Odinga isn’t helping the situation, despite his well-earned credentials as one of the foremost proponents of democracy in this country.

Much to the dismay of Kenya’s business community, the former Prime Minister recently directed his supporters to boycott products of corporations considered to be pro-government. This call for economic boycott is ill-advised.

Though this directive has been styled by opposition apologists as pro-mwananchi — as liberating the people from corporations purportedly working hand in glove with government — it is anything but pro-mwananchi. On the contrary, if heeded to, it will seriously harm the same people it promises to help. 

Imagine if Safaricom, which the opposition included in its list of companies to be boycotted, was to discontinue M-Pesa operations in opposition strongholds. Much as Safaricom would be affected, it is undoubtedly the people living and working in these regions who would suffer the most. Think of the grocery traders and jua kali artisans in opposition strongholds who would not be able to save and borrow money on M-Shwari — M-Pesa’s savings and loans feature.

It is important to appreciate the fact that businesses do not exist solely for profit: They also exist to solve problems. Products such as M-Pesa have played a pivotal role in addressing the problem of low financial inclusion.

A successful boycott could reverse these gains in the very regions that have benefited immensely from deeper financial inclusion.

Moreover, businesses with a national footprint typically work directly with local partners and suppliers in different parts of the country. If these businesses are forced to close their stores in opposition strongholds, it is local landlords in those areas who will have to go for months on end without rental income; it is local catering businesses that will lose key corporate clients, and so on. The ripple effect would be disastrous.

We could go on and on about the various ways in which economic boycott negatively impacts the very people it promises to emancipate. These, however, suffice to demonstrate the fact that the call to boycott certain corporations was made without careful prior reflection.

Kenya’s business community has repeatedly urged politicians to be mindful of the economic impact of their politicking. The broader question is: Do politicians listen? Do they realise that hampering the growth of businesses will only exacerbate joblessness in a country already grappling with a 40 per cent rate of unemployment?

History will judge how our leaders performed in this area. However, as businesspersons, we will not tire in our efforts to lobby the political class to critically consider the impact of their rhetoric on businesses and the economy.

Let us not forget that it is profitable businesses that put food on the table of Kenyans by creating employment. It is profitable businesses that attract foreign investors and hence drive skills, knowledge and technological transfer, making the country globally competitive. We cannot speak of any worthwhile future for Kenya without necessarily speaking about the welfare and growth of businesses.

In conclusion, I would like to stress that the Kenya Chamber of Commerce and Industry is non-partisan when it comes to politics. Its primary objectives are protecting the interests of Kenyan businesses and boosting the visibility and competitiveness of our economy on the world stage. This notwithstanding, being non-partisan does not automatically abrogate our responsibility to speak out on political issues when they directly touch on the welfare of Kenyan businesses.  


Kittony is the National Chairman of the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

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