Everyday Kenyans Taking Stock In a Growing African Economy

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 26, 2007

NAIROBI -- One ordinary afternoon in a bright, marble-floored lobby downtown here, the following conversation took place between two women, a government worker and a self-employed soapmaker.

"I bought KenGen at 9.90 shillings," said the government worker, Josephine Nduta, referring to her stake in the initial public offering of Kenya's power company last year. "I sold them at 28 -- I made a lot of money!"

"I also made money on that," said Mary Kariuki, the soapmaker, recalling how she used the $1,000 to pay her children's school fees. "I bought 3,300 shares."

The two women carried on about liquidity and profit margins, and recalled with pride attending the first shareholder meeting of KenGen this year, an event so huge that it had to be held in the city's largest soccer stadium. About 200,000 people from all corners of the country came like so many newly minted executives.

"I felt so good," Kariuki recalled. "It was just normal, common people. People dressed well. What impressed me was the number of old women -- they were coming in their traditional clothes. They were telling me, 'Yes, we bought!' "

Stock market fever is sweeping Kenya and other sub-Saharan African countries such as Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria and Zambia, where stock exchanges, along with national economies, have shown steady gains in recent years as people who have traditionally invested in cows or land are learning to trust in the abstraction of corporate shares.

Perhaps nowhere has the idea caught fire more quickly than in Kenya. With investment banks conducting education campaigns in rural areas and daily newspapers thick with personal finance sections, the Nairobi Stock Exchange has transformed in recent years from a rich man's club into a computerized, mass-appeal institution.

Since 2002, the number of investors has risen from 50,000 to more than 750,000, according to stock exchange executives, with much of that growth coming from rural areas. The exchange's total value has jumped from $1 billion to $12 billion, amounts that are predicted to swell again following the biggest initial public offering in Kenyan history.

Cellphone giant Safaricom, expected to go public later this year, has attracted such foreign investment banks as Goldman Sachs to Nairobi for the first time, offering their services, and analysts expect that as many as 3 million individual investors in this country of nearly 36 million will participate.

"People are coming on a daily basis just to see what it's about," said Chris Mwebesa, 36, chief executive of the Nairobi exchange. "We're seeing more rural folks coming to the market, working professionals, retirees, farmers, young people, even students."

The boom has its skeptics, especially in a country with a history of entrenched corruption. And while people such as Nduta have made money on the whole -- she is using some of it to electrify her house -- she is also aware of the risk of losing big. Even so, the boom underscores a feature of life in Africa that often gets lost amid more prevalent images of a continent in perpetual collapse: dogged optimism.

A recent opinion poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that people surveyed in 10 African nations were on the whole optimistic about the future. In Kenya, 78 percent of those surveyed said life was getting better, even though a majority also reported that there were times in the past year they did not have enough money for food.


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