It’s no secret that the startup scene in Kenya, like much of Africa, is on an upward trajectory but what many living in the country may not know is who exactly is a beneficiary of the funding that fuels this growth.
A rising middle class and a younger, more educated demographic are some of the reasons why economists and institutions like the World Bank have coined the term “Africa is rising.” But as data indicates, they might have to rethink that phrase entirely or, explain the who they refer in ‘Africa’.
Last year, just 6% of Kenyan startups that received more than $1 million were led by locals, according to an analysis by Kenyan firm Viktoria Ventures.
White people in Kenya are identified under the law as those born in or residents in Kenya who descended from Europeans and/or identify themselves as white. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), in 2019 there were 69,621 Europeans in Kenya, of which 42,868 (0.1%) were Kenyan citizens.
Most whites trace their heritage to the colonial period when British, but also to a lesser extent, Greek and Italian migrants settled in the country. While the British focused their settlements in what the colonial administration referred to as the “White Highlands”, Italians and Greeks limited their presence to the coastal region.
Some academics have pointed out that the distribution of land occupied by white settlers post independence was problematic in solving racial inequalities. A case study is drawn to the Laikipia plateau, estimated to be about 10,000 sq km or roughly 2.5 million acres. It has the biggest number of white landowners concentrated in one place, in Kenya. The plateau stretches from Mt Kenya in the east to the Rift Valley in the west.
The ethnic Maasai community living here numbers less than 50,000. They are squashed on different patches of the land, which totals 281,587 acres. The rest (more than 2 million acres) is owned by white foreigners comprising mostly the British and American “aristocratic” class and a few white natives who arrived during the colonial period.
Merit or privilege?
As white founders wield power in Kenya’s tech scene, the question of whether they gained it through merit is tetchy at best.
One clear example is Kune, a Nairobi-based startup that was founded by a white businessman called Robin Reecht, who drew plenty of backlash online for raising $1 million in pre-seed funding for a business idea that involves delivering of food.
In his pitch, Reecht, a French national, also threw barbs at the country’s local cuisine telling Techcrunch in a June 17 interview that “After three days of coming into Kenya, I asked where I can get great food at a cheap price, and everybody tell me (sic) it’s impossible.
“It’s impossible because either you go to the street and you eat street food, which is really cheap but with not-so-good quality, or you order on Uber Eats, Glovo or Jumia, where you get quality but you have to pay at least $10.”
While Reecht has since then apologized for his comments, he acknowledged that there is a color driven imbalance. “I completely understand where the backlash is coming from,” Reecht told Quartz. “When I look at African startups that get huge amounts of funding, I see more white founders than black founders.”
A German national based in Nairobi recently created a satirical website, Hire a Mzungu (Swahili for white), where he offers his services a Mzungu for hire by local startups who need to attract funding.
Expats vs locals
The issue of white privilege is not just limited to the private sector. It’s also very prevalent in non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that operate in the country.
In 2015, a landmark NGO Sector Report published by the NGOs Co-ordination Board, the state agency that regulates NGOs, revealed that on average, an international staff in Kenya is paid Ksh2.4 million ($24,000) annually or about Ksh202,000 ($2,000) per month, compared to Kenyans who on average earn Ksh627,000 ($6,2000) annually or Ksh52,300 ($520) per month. Most expats in Kenya are of European and American origin.
The report indicated that the highest salary bracket in the NGO sector is heavily dominated by expatriates, some of whom rake in as much as Ksh2 million ($20,000) per month.
The salary disparity could be even wider as expatriate staff often receive more benefits and perks than local staff to cater for such things as education of children, car grants and drivers as well as annual holidays that are fully paid for by NGOs that have employed them.
As the country grapples with record unemployment, the NGOs Co-ordination Board says that 1,592 expatriates were reportedly engaged by NGOs either as volunteers or interns compared to 27,392 (95%) of Kenyans in the same category.