The Economist Gets It: Modern Slum Nariobi

Early in 2012, I wrote about the "pixelized slums" in Lima Peru, from the inside, and showed the OECD slums (Mexico, Japan) from the satellite beside the non-OECD slums in Delhi (Useless Lists of Jobs Beneath Wealthy People).

In its expose on Nairobi (where Fair Trade Recycling sent 3 representatives to a UNEP conference last March), the Economist gives readers a taste of entrepreneurism, rich and salty, in the free markets of Africa's largest shantytown.  "Upwardly Mobile Africa: Boomtown Slum"has incredible photos by Piers Benatar/Panos, taking us inside "a day in the economic life of Africa's biggest shanty-town."

Piers Bneatar photo of private ambulance entrepreneurs in Nairobi ( Fair Use/ description

It's easy to take a photo in a tough part of town and use it to simplify a continent.  The Economist takes lots of different photos, not seeking to prove an a priori angle, but to bring us closer to understanding the complex.

The Economist shows an exploding fresco of creativity, of nuance, of good-enough affordability, of people living so close side by side one another that they have a communal interest in peace.  And up close, we see the same seeds of economy that hatched in Franklin's Philadelphia, in Gou's Taipei, in Tokyo and Seoul...

Ipods are jail-broken, private "ambulance for hire" cars advertised, Masai warriors escort photographers through rough parts of town for escort tips.  A particular reference to "buy local" in the Kenyan marketplace caught my eye - music shops advertised that they do not illegally copy African music (with rip and burn of USA rappers and celebrities accepted as norm).

It's not perfect.  But it's not blackface, no Holiday Inn singing "Abraham".  The Economist profiles free market survivors feeding millions of children, supporting millions of families, without AID handouts, mining exploitation, sex trade, drugs, or war for employment.  Boycott them or trade with them, preferably fairly... they aren't going away.

In the city-wild-western slums, the crafty thrive in a way they could not in the agriculture, fishing village, or bush.   The crafty in Japan riffed USA victrolas scavenged from RCA owners in the USA, and a Japanese scrap metal company emerged as JVC.  In Taipei, cheap plastic skins were remolded as a better replacement for CRT rebirth than auto paint shops (which I remember were used in Massachusetts to repaint CRT monitors in the early 1990s)... and Simon Lin emerged to create an ODM called Wistron, which spun off Acer.  There are winners and losers, and the smartest float to the top.  The kid in Nairobi or Lagos who asks you to turn your head while he exercises his special trick to make your Euro smartphone adapt on the west African telephone grid, you may see him again in a bidding war for Walmart branded pods, running ubuntu operating systems, in a couple of decades.

The competition from Japan of the 1970s and 1980s has recycled itself into a scary Shenzhen, thirsty for the jobs of those 7% unemployed Americans.  We kid ourselves that our unemployed would lost their jobs picking grapes to Guatemalans, and need Apple to close its ties to Foxconn so that America will be the land of rote assembly.  Zero unemployment and 100% church attendance... we never it enjoyed under Ronald Reagan or Smoot-Hawley.

As the teeming city-slum geeks tinker their way through reverse assembly, knock-offs, and shanzhai, they are growing wings.   Not to fly in and take American working class jobs, however.  The only people at risk are the corporate tycoons who make expensive gadgets out of reach of the "good enough" markets.  They use patent extension, anti-gray market enforcement, and taxpayer subsidized shredding to keep the chips and boards and screens and widgets out of the hands of the savvy fixit do-gooders who are hungy for internet inside the electrified slum.

History will repeat, skip, repeat every scratch on the LP.  Witches brew, ghoulish, fairy tale toxic guilt words will be forgotten, like the fearful finger waggers who tried to stop "scraps to Japs" after World War II.  "The war's over gramps."  But still, articles like the Economist's are rare, and anger and fear paint most of the portraits of the poor enough markets.

Little Big Man
Yesterday's grandfather shook his fist at Datsun.   Today's grandpa is the do-gooder Marxist, the pre-science, protest-flavored Green NGO.  He is going through the same denial.   Our grand-daughter is marrying a brown man in Jakarta, our blue -eyed grandson has a child in Santiago, our divorced daughter has remarried a man from Capetown.  The scraps go to Japs, the screens go to Lima, the cell phone boards to Kinshasa. It's not perfect, the the danger is nothing compared to the mercury we sold from Earth Day collections into the gold panning ops in the Congo, the rain forests you chopped to make affordable burgers in the Amazon, or the gold mined from the mountainside of Borneo, or the coltan mined from Central African Republic.

The pre-science Green NGO finds itself saddled, bridled, and tamed by OEMs seeking to curb the grey market.  They use the same UNICEF childrens photos (which the OEMs would be afraid to use directly) to denigrate the taboo markets of re-manufacturing.  They declare factory takeback to be a solution when it means the OEMs taking back the product for shredding, but a ghoulish poison when the contract manufacture factory that made the items takes them back for repair and rebranding.   The NGO takes a pat on the head, and dog treats from the Big Shred companies who cannot compete against hand labor.  Watchdogs trained to attack Joseph Benson, Hamdy, or Chiu.  A firehose of false statistics blasting those who pursue a freedom to tinker, a freedom to fix, a right to repair, a right to resell.    Just as a barking Birmingham German Shepherd cannot be called a racist for biting the arms of freedom marchers, the Watchdogs of E-waste cannot really be called anything but trained and misdirected.

Boycotts do not bring prosperity to the boycotted.   Economy 101.  

"The Nairobi slum] Kibera may be the most entrepreneurial place on the planet", says the Economist.  They see what I had the grace and fortune to see in my travels abroad.   The hardest working, hardest learning techs defying the racist pronouncements of Troll Steve Jones, who declared (last night), to my September blog on cheap tablets:
LOL! Why don't YOU MOVE TO AFRICA then, since you think Africa is so great. You braindead, liberal cretin...  Your "pals in Africa" indeed... Do you think you get a prize for being friends with 'Africans'? Idiot. Why don't "your pals in Africa" make THEIR OWN TABLETS, if they're so wonderful? Because their average IQ is 70, that's why, and you know it. So 'whitey' has to pay China to produce tablets so that braindead Africans can have them. Why, exactly? 

Steve Jones may be just another ranting codger protecting his SUV's parking spot at a Bass Pro Shop.  He will protect his double-wide from the onslaught of zombie Africans there to regulate his coke, booze, and coffee.  His right-wing rant starts to resemble BAN's rant:
( representative) Summers then criticized Ingenthron and Cade for promoting the "myth that there are all these wonderful high-tech facilities in China,' adding more harsh comments about Ingenthron's character.  "They will lie right through their teeth," Summers said. "It's amazing — I've seen it. Robin Ingenthron is known as a really crazy guy — sorry, I don't like dissing folks, but he is a huge outlier."  Summers went on to refer to Ingenthron and Cade as "green-washers," which are companies that falsely portray themselves as environmentally friendly. 
The closer you look at the issue, the separatists on either side - right wing racists or left-wing anti-exploitationists - they are demanding the same thing.   They use different words, but the same fear-mongered ad hominem arguments.   They are doing what literature scholars call "other-ization".  They exaggerate and fear-bait, and cover their tracks in a smoke screen of false pride.  Nationalizm or Stewardship?  The tweedle dum and tweedle dee of globalization history.

Meanwhile, Acer is now making $99 tablets to compete with the $45 tablets found on the streets of Shenzhen.  In a decade, an African city will be assembling good enough product for wealthy enough people.  There will always be someone richer, and always someone with expensive enough habits accepted as norms ready to lose the job most Americans don't want.  Whether that's to happen in Cairo, Accra, Capetown, Nairobi, Kinshasa, Addisabba, Yaounde, Accra, or Lagos is anyone's guess.  But I'm betting there is another Taipei geek out there somewhere, likely as not fixing cell phones with a soldering gun in an electrified slum as we speak.  What they said about selling scraps to Japs is forgotten, and what they say about "dumping e-waste on the poor" to describe fairly traded sales of repairable product will too be wasted words.

The Secretary General of the OECD, Angel GurrĂ­a,  is himself from Mexico.  You can find places without law and order and without electricity there.   You can also find, inside, a Mexico whose economic activity surpassed that of Brazil's in 2012.  Mexico is a vibrant and modern economy whose dichotomies are as colorful as the red and blue, rich and poor, Fox and MSNBC, city and ranch, ghetto and gated community differences we have here, separated by a common language and hyperbolized memes.  Everywhere in the world you look defies labels and brands and simplistic messages.  Bans on trade create more losers.

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