In December, party fever rocked Nairobi—a city already in a festive mood, despite efforts by squabbling politicians to dampen the spirit. From nightclubs to beach parties, the revellers were loaded and speaking with a twang acquired in London or New York. In Nairobi, people call them ‘summer bunnies’, referring to Kenyans living abroad back on holiday in the motherland, flaunting the trappings of success in the West: dollars, the twang and a superiority complex.
And if recent statistics from the Central Bank of Kenya are anything to go by, the economic muscle of the Kenyan diaspora is also growing, with more and more money being sent home by them. In 2011, remittances increased by 39% to $891.1 million. In 2010, they were $642 million, which is the equivalent of 2% of Kenya’s
$31.6 billion GDP. They are the fourth-largest source of foreign currency after tea, horticulture and tourism.
Diaspora Remittances, a new report by Stanbic Investments, a subsidiary of CFC Stanbic Bank, estimated that 14% of Kenya’s 18 million adult population receives money from abroad.
With this flow of money comes opportunity. Firstly, Kenyans are paying a fortune to send home a fortune. The report by Stanbic says the cost of sending money home is 10% of the remittance. At 12.4%, the average cost among banks is higher than the average 8.8% for money transfer operators.
This cost stems the flow of money, a fact that even world leaders acknowledge but look powerless to act. At the L’Aquila 2009 G8 Summit, leaders pledged to halve the cost of remittances by 2014. But according to an analysis by Thorsten Beck, a professor of economics and chairman of the European Banking Center at Tilburg University, and Maria Soledad Martinez Peria, a senior economist in the finance and private sector development team of the Development Economics Research Group at the World Bank, governments have little say on such costs.
Instead, the duo in the analysis titled What Explains the Cost of Remittances recommend that policymakers seeking to reduce remittance costs should focus on improving competition: a private sector-led investment in cheaper ways of remitting money. Some companies are taking up the opportunity. In addition to the traditional money transfer companies like Western Union and Moneygram that dominate the market, Nation Media Group, East Africa’s largest media house, is joining the fray. It is scheduled to launch Nationhela, a visa card that will allow those living abroad to send money directly to relatives in Kenya who will need to acquire the same card.
“More competition will lower the cost of sending money and thus increase remittances,” said the Central Bank of Kenya when releasing its recent report.
Investors need to set up a vehicle that the Kenyan diaspora can use to invest in their homeland. During a Kenya Diaspora Conference in the US, held in October last year in Washington DC, they demanded such avenues. And the government took up the challenge and was rewarded. Infrastructure and savings bonds sold to the diaspora last year raised $383 million.
Investment vehicles would attract even more remittances. The data in the Stanbic report is an indicator that many would want to invest, if only there were good channels to do so. Around 52% of total remittances are used as living wages by recipients, while 44% is invested. Approximately 36% is invested in small businesses, while 8% goes to Kenya’s previously booming, but now faltering, real estate sector, and only 4% to savings. Mama Mikes, a website that allows Kenyans abroad to buy various things for their relatives in Kenya, has recorded phenomenal growth.
Kenya’s dependence on remittances is expected to grow, thus providing more numbers, a fact that drafters of the country’s Vision 2030 economic master plan acknowledged. The plan, which is expected to catapult the country into a middle income nation by 2030, is targeting the diaspora to raise remittances from the current 2% to 5% of GDP by 2030.
The diaspora’s muscle is growing, not just in Kenya but also the continent. More than 3% of Africa’s population has migrated to other countries, including within the continent. Remittances to Africa reached $40 billion in 2010 and are the continent’s second-largest source of money inflows after foreign direct investment. Their impact on the population is also staggering. More than 120 million people receive money from 30 million migrants, with Nigeria, Egypt and Morocco being the top three remittance-receiving countries on the continent.
Summer bunnies are not only changing their voices when they leave their country, but our economies too.