The missing link in the economic figures is culture

Thousands of young Kenyans describe themselves as entertainers – dancers, singers, spoken word artists; poets. What does the future portend for them if these sectors didn’t even ping when the government measured the country’s economic productivity?

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By Dr Tom Odhiambo

The Kenyan economic secret was made public recently. The government statistics say that the country is doing quite well economically. But the real figures on the ground don’t seem to support the mathematics, to a large extent. 

Government’s own numbers show that the economic growth rate is impressive. At 6.3 percent, Kenya is doing very well. Definitely one can see some evidence of the growth – more new and bigger cars on the road; newer and taller buildings; shiny shopping malls; high-end eateries etc. The dream of prosperity doesn’t seem to be that far, at least symbolically, for Kenyans, or so, one imagines.  

However, the growth is only attributed to “increased agricultural production, accelerated manufacturing activities, sustained growth in transportation and vibrant service sector activities.” These are the traditional sectors that one would look at if they were measuring the average economic growth in Kenya. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics highlights them as key to understanding where the ‘money is’, in a manner of speaking, in the country, in the Economic Survey 2019

Yet there is something curious about the Economic Survey 2019. It has 17 key chapters, all looking at the significant sectors and statistics on the Kenyan economy in 2018. But it has none on culture and sports. It seems as if the arts and culture and athletics did not yield measurable material or monetary value to the Kenyan economy in 2018. 

This is quite difficult to comprehend. How is that possible? Nothing at all about music. Nothing to say about art and literature. None about sports. No mention of film. Zero about TV and entertainment. Zilch about fashion. Nil about the whole entertainment sector. Was this an oversight by the number crunchers at Herufi House? Or is it a true reflection of the state of affairs in the arts and culture sector – that despite all the reports about its seeming growth, it really doesn’t add much economic value to the country?  

What does this mean to the Kenyan art, culture and sports sectors? Is it that arts, sports, culture and entertainment added no value worth recording to the country’s economy in 2018? Could it be that despite all the talk about music, film, etc in the country, these sectors didn’t cause a blip at all on the national economic indicators’ scale? It is difficult to believe that this is probably the case. That the art and culture sector is so miniscule that it hardly adds any value to the economy!  

Of course there are many other economic sectors that aren’t included in the Economic Survey 2019. Nevertheless, the missing arts, culture and sports sector should worry millions of young Kenyans. Why? Because these are the sectors where they have the most likely chance of succeeding should they venture into any one of the fields. Indeed, many young Kenyans are trying their hands at music, performed arts and sports. Thousands describe themselves as entertainers – dancers, singers, spoken word artists; poets etc. What does the future portend for them if these sectors didn’t even ping when the government measured the country’s economic productivity? 


The missing arts, culture and sports sector in the Economic Survey 2019 should worry millions of young Kenyans because these are the sectors where they have the most likely chance of succeeding should they venture into any one of the fields.

Young people are the biggest producers and consumers of the arts and culture. For instance, thousands of young people are trying their hands at producing music, dance, film, spoken word poetry etc, which they are posting on YouTube. Some of these postings have thousands, if not millions, of followers, creating a massive community of producers and consumers, translating into millions of dollars in revenue to different actors and different stages in the process. Thus, the arts and culture are a significant growth area, for any economy that wishes to pull the millions of jobless young people into the mainstream economy. Any government that is serious about creating jobs for the youth – and even adults – must consider the arts and culture an important launch pad, especially considering that ICT and the social media have made it quite easy to circulate and retail the ‘products’. Thus, there is a whole world of opportunity out there for the government to consider in including young people in its economic plans.   

What worries one about the absence of the arts and culture from the Economic Survey 2019 is the fact that the government’s mantra for a long time has been that the youth are the leaders of tomorrow. But even those who will lead tomorrow need to eat and live a decent life. They need to be earning an income today. In many parts of the world the arts and culture gainfully employ millions of young and middle-aged citizens. Theater, film, sports, literature, visual arts, performed arts, fashion and design are employing millions of young people in India, America, China, Korea. 

Shouldn’t policy makers and the Government be thinking seriously about investment in culture, especially the creative economy and sports? According to the UNCTAD Creative Economy Outlook and Country Profile (2018), which is based on the period between 2002 and 2015, “creative goods exports from Kenya stood at $40.9 million and imports at $195 million in 2013, the last year for which data was available”. This makes us a net importer of cultural goods, which means we are exporting jobs that our youths could be holding. 

We need a serious rethink of the policy on arts, culture and sports in this country to avoid importing music, film, fashion etc. We have the potential to be a regional powerhouse in recording, producing and distributing music. This is what Kenyan companies were famous for in the 1960s and 70s when tens of regional bands recorded their music and performed in Nairobi regularly. 

Today, the government can have a deliberate policy to help local studios increase their capacity to produce music; help local companies produce music videos; aid local as well as foreign companies to produce film through tax breaks and reduced tax on imported filmmaking equipments; encourage more international sports events here, especially in athletics; support the professionalization of various sports leagues in the country, and enable the growth of local fallowing for football, rugby, basketball, netball and especially volleyball where our girls are a powerhouse on the Continent. 

Consider the worth of athletics for Kenya, especially long races – from trainers, to managers, psychologists, nutritionists, communication specialists and marketers. These are jobs that hundreds of young Kenyans could be assisted to cultivate and make into a lifelong profession. But the government seems to have no real clue about all this when one reads the Economic Survey 2019. What a sad situation! ( 

Writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi

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