Bad Debt: The Big Ideas Syndrome

By Soko Directory Team / May 3, 2019




A few months ago, the curtains finally fell on a controversial initiative by the current governor of Kiambu County Hon. Ferdinand Waititu dubbed “Kaa Sober” meaning stay sober. This well-meaning project was intended to address the alarmingly high incidence of alcoholism in Kiambu County.

The termination of the rehab programme was not without pomp and color as the Governor spent an extra 100 million shillings as a sendoff package to the more than 5000 rehabilitated alcoholics. This is on top of the 2 million shillings the county had been spending daily for a year on allowances on these same graduates, then as contracted casuals of the government. This translates to nearly a billion shillings a year in a county whose annual budget is less than 15 billion shillings. The programme was strongly criticized by other leaders from the county as poorly conceptualized, badly executed and bordering on public funded largesse.

More recently, we woke up to the news that the national government was resolute on enforcing the highly controversial housing fund remittances. The fund, a pet project of the president, seeks to bridge the chronic gap between supply and demand of affordable housing. Experts and stakeholders are in agreement that this project is overly ambitious and arduous to implement.

It was only the other day that the hemorrhaging Kenya Airways, which is estimated to owe 220 billion shillings, expressed intention of taking over Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. This proposal was met with noisy opposition; eventually, the backers threw in the towel and are now considering other options. It is alleged that the president’s family are major shareholders at the national carrier.

This country has a history of bungling mega projects and grand ideas and this may explain the skeptical regard these projects have attracted. KQ woes are attributed to Project Mawingu (the skies), an ambitious expansionist strategy conceived during Titus Naikunis’s tenure after a profitable run in 2011. The strategy saw the airline acquire up to 9 Dreamliners and four Boeing 777 – 200s, all long haul planes. This audacious plan was based on dodgy projections about expanding traditional markets and the acquisition of new ones.

KQ auditors cautioned them about possible fierce competition but their calls went unheeded. In reality, the doubters were right as a combination of competition, political, economic and security factors saw the national carrier’s market share diminish instead of growing. In my estimation, the cost of all these planes is almost equal to their current debt.

We only discovered recently that the government had altogether abandoned the tablets projects for the more practical computer labs even though it was their political gambit during the 2012 campaigns. Experts had also pointed out that such a project was not well thought out and was clearly unsustainable.

Even more shocking was when Beijing declined to lend us more money to extend the SGR to Kisumu. Their reasons were that we couldn’t raise adequate collateral to cover the loan now that they had already charged our port for the earlier one. The reason they need to secure the lending is that they aren’t so confident of a sustainable return on our infrastructure investment.

Grand ideas are not always government inspired, a previously US-based Kenyan returned home bearing good tidings. His long stay abroad had inspired him to pull his village folks of Butere out of subsistent living. Julius Mwale a Kenyan born American aeronautical engineer had this grand plan, named after himself, of building a mega medical and technology city in his neck of the woods.

The medical and technology city valued at 200 billion shillings would be sitting on 5000 acres complete with, a technology park, an airport, power generating plant, a five thousand bed ultra-modern medical facility and a 36 – hole golf course. The city would house more than 2000 doctors 4,000 nurses and up to 10,000 engineers; it sounded more like a government project than private enterprise. The phase one of the SGR projects cost 327 billion shillings most of it secured lending from China’s Export-Import Bank.

As the expected, the project encountered headwinds soon after inception in the nature of county government approvals. Eventually, even after approvals, the project began experiencing cash flow hiccups as contractors started demanding payments. The altercation between Julius and his suppliers escalated into court a battle after he issued them with dud cheques. Some accused Julius of grand conmanship, but this might not be the case at all. Just like KQ before him, Hon. Waititu after him and GOK in between them, grand ideas are always difficult to grasp and execute.

This is why; they may just be bad ideas waiting to happen and unfortunately, reality only strikes after the fact. It is always therefore advisable to run a pilot or a scaled-down version before going full scale. There is a rider though, an idea might work perfectly as a pilot but blow itself out upon expansion. Secondly, the initiators may lack the capacity to execute such a big idea and may require outside help to manage it.

All ideas start and end with people, the better the people, the better its execution. A good example would be Thika Greens, a futuristic residential concept that has enjoyed relative success. Thirdly, the financial resources required to actualize the idea may be beyond the capacity of the minds behind the idea and perhaps Julius falls into this category.

The Two Rivers project has enjoyed runaway success, partly because of the fundraising capabilities of the promoters. Lastly, the idea may be overly simplistic thus rendering it unviable ab initio. In this category, the winner is the tablets project and our esteemed governor “The God Father”. Evidently, most grand and bad ideas’ resultant chronic ailment is bad debt.

The Author is Zachary Kamau, Corporate Trainer, and MC. Reach him through [email protected]


About Soko Directory Team

Soko Directory is a Financial and Markets digital portal that tracks brands, listed firms on the NSE, SMEs and trend setters in the markets eco-system.Find us on Facebook: facebook.com/SokoDirectory and on Twitter: twitter.com/SokoDirectory

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