Securing The Sh51bn Diaspora Inflows
James Mweri* lived and worked illegally in the United States for four years. He was supporting a wife and child back home. He was also saving to build a home.
Afraid of losing his money in case of an abrupt deportation, he sent almost every penny he earned to his wife in Kenya.
When he was finally deported, he arrived in Nairobi to find that he was the victim of a scam of gargantuan proportions.
“My wife had left my daughter with my grandmother and disappeared. She continued to receive the money I sent her but no one knew where she was,” he said.
He now has little to show for the 16-hour shifts he used to pull at a nursing home for the elderly.
“I lived with no luxuries, sending back everything I made and now my daughter and I are suffering,” he said.
Kenyans in the diaspora send back billions of shillings, most of which go to support their families.
According to a report released by Stanbic Investments, poor government policies and high transaction costs are to blame for the lack of higher remittance flows. However, Kenyans living abroad place the blame much closer to home.
Mr Leonard Mwamba, the Secretary of the Kenyan Community Abroad (KCA) German Chapter, said emigrants investing in Kenya have to content with the constant fear that their own families will swindle them.
“I have heard this story thousands of times. There are so many people who have been hurt, families that have been torn apart,” he told Money on the phone.
The situation is so bad that the Kenyan embassy in Washington DC has set up a database for people to report situations where they have been conned in botched long-distance ventures.
According to KCA, investments in Kenya may provide returns that are sometimes 15 per cent higher than those in the adopted countries. Yet, some people are shying away from these opportunities.
Land deals are the most susceptible to scams. False photographic evidence of “purchased” land is easy to procure and so are fake title deeds.
Mr Mwamba, even with the resources at his disposal, has fallen victim to a land swindle.
“I purchased land for Sh1.2 million only to discover that another person already had an original deed for the plot. Everything had cleared at the Ministry of Lands. I do not understand.”
The broker who had facilitated the deal quickly hightailed, telling both parties to “sort themselves out”. The case is still pending in a Kenyan court.
Mr Denish Ope of the Mentor Group advises people seeking investment opportunities in the country to always use independent accredited agents in their dealings.
Although the need to deal with people who are not relatives cannot be over-stressed, investors still need to know the people they deal with. A compromise can be found by having both a family member and an independent agent handle investment deals.
“All financial transactions should require the authorisation of both the relative and the agent. It will make things more secure and the family won’t feel neglected,” Mr Ope said.
Mr John Maina, the diaspora adviser in the Prime Minister’s office, suggests that investors should consult support groups before making important financial decisions. The government has set up a diaspora organisation while several other groups like the Kenya Diaspora Link, with networks across the world, can come in useful.
The Diaspora Advisory Office at the Prime Minister’s office, launched in March this year, is currently consulting with stakeholders to create a system to protect and secure investments.
“We are liaising with other government dockets to streamline the investment process and ensure accountability. We also act as an advisory centre to people abroad who might want to invest back home,” said Mr Maina.
There has also been talk of creating investment vehicles geared specifically to people in the diaspora. One of these is the Diaspora Bond, which, according to Mr Mwamba, will “mobilise money for long-term investment in infrastructure and social amenities.”
Investment experts caution against pouring money in ventures that require day-to-day management.
A bar or a matatu business might quickly fall by the wayside if you are not available to monitor it daily.
In the light of the ongoing integrity crisis in the lands sector in Kenya, investors who are not in the country might be wiser looking at other sectors.
“We advise the cautious members of our organisation to look at Treasury bills and stocks; there is more credibility and transparency,” said Mr Mwamba.
Some relatives use the perception of wealth and prosperity around emigrants as an excuse to steal from them.
According to Mr Richard Kinai, who lives in the United States, family members seem to think that the cash flow will always be there, no matter how much of it they waste.
The situation, he points out, is quite different. “There are people here who hardly ever sleep and they make a pittance,” he said.
People who have been stolen from by their own families find themselves with little recourse. While it is easy to sue a stranger for services not rendered, taking a family member to court would be heavily frowned upon.
“You can’t take your own brother or mother to court. In some cultures, that’s like asking to be cursed,” said Mr Mwamba.
Families do not always lose the money send by their relatives abroad out of greed; some are simply inept at managing large amounts of money.
Mr Paul Mwaura trusted his sister’s ability to manage the finances when he send school fees for his younger siblings. However, she was often unable to plan properly for the funds and would end up spending a year’s stipend in three months.
“I now send only about Sh50,000 at the beginning of each term. They know that even if they use all the money, they’ll have to wait until next term,” he told Money.
While emigrants recognise the damning role their families play in mismanaging their funds, they also believe that the government should take some of the blame.
By Mr Maina’s admission, Kenya does not have structures to ensure secure investment of remittances. But things may soon change with the new constitutional dispensation that has increased the political clout of emigrants.
The government is consulting experts on the modalities of setting up a framework to offer advice on investment opportunities.
*James Mweri’s name has been changed to protect his identity.
Source: Daily Nation