The World Bank has reported that Kenyans earn more than twice the country's output. This is a problem caused by many factors such as foreign exchange misalignment, labor laws, and others.

While it takes economists to explain the problem above and how it can be solved, there is one issue regarding productivity in Kenya that is visible to anyone who cares to look.

It involves the use of manual labor in fields that can easily be mechanized or automated. There are two examples that we can cite that can help clarify the issue. One of them was my work in a Kenyan power utility company, and the second one is the maintenance of a highway just next to our office.

Download the "World Development Report 2020 - Trading for Development in the Age of Global Value Chains" report by the World Bank

A case study of the wrong tools for the job

Kenya Power is a power utility company in Kenya and it is something of a monopoly when it comes to providing electricity all over Kenya. Their services are not reliable, although they are way better than in many other African countries.

Nine years ago, I did an internship with Kenya Power, with the main work being maintenance and installation of power lines.

Every day, we would meet as a team at the regional office at 8 am, pick the required materials and leave for the site where we would spend most of the day. Often, we would leave the office at 10 am.

On a typical day, would be a team of 8 people and a driver in a lorry.

We would head to a site where we would dig a hole, erect a post and run a cable to connect a new client. Such work would take a whole day, after which we would be dropped by the driver to a convenient location where everyone could get home easily. End of the day.

The irony of it is that with a truck that is fitted with the right equipment, the work only needed two people and a quarter of the time. A truck could drill the hole and hoist the pole in a very short time, then cabling would be done by hands.

How a single sweeping truck can improve the maintenance of Thika Road

I have an office very near one of the best-maintained highways in Kenya.

Four people show up once or twice a week to sweep the section that is near my office. They take a whole day in that section.

When the road was new, the Chinese contractor who built the road and was doing the maintenance and had truck mounted road sweeping machine could sweep at a speed of 10 kph. This means that a single person could clean the whole section of the road in one day, a task that possibly takes more than 30 people working every day for 7 days.

Why can’t the Kenyan contractor charged with maintaining the highway get a road sweeping truck?

Creation of jobs

There is still an argument that automation leads to the loss of jobs. However, this has been debunked over and over in the last few decades.

The computer came and created more jobs. The assembly line came and created more jobs while electric motors made it easy for rotary power to be available almost where and when it was needed.

However, in an economy where labor is cheap and readily available, many businesses still avoid automation as they can get someone to physically do the work at an affordable cost. While it makes sense in the short run, it has serious implications in the long run because the rest of the world does not sit by and watch.

The net effect is the net productivity of a nation is reduced as people do labor-intensive tasks that can be automated. This also lowers the motivation to find other productive work and be innovative to stay competitive. It is a form of national mediocrity.

It is the same problem that faces the agricultural sector where the majority of people are small scale farmers. These cannot afford to automate many tasks due to their small farm size. Unfortunately, they are also not able to compete against large scale farmers. The result is that Kenyans pay a high price for food.

What is the solution?

If we are to increase productivity as a nation, we must stop fearing automation as an evil thing that kills jobs, then focus on creating jobs for the excess labor that we have.

If we replace thirty people who sweep with one person who operates the road sweeping truck, we will have the hunger to create more jobs for the other 28 people (one will be a mechanic).

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