Accepted Paper:

Selling promises and justifying fraud: Asian MLMs in Nairobi  


Jan Beek (University Mainz)

Paper short abstract:

Based on fieldwork in Nairobi, the paper will explore how members of multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs) dream of becoming global entrepreneurs, try to make a living, but also how they struggle to morally justify their business practices.

Paper long abstract:

While the flows of goods and people between African and Asian cities have been increasing in the last decades, many people in Africa feel excluded from the possibilities that these connections bring about. In Nairobi, however, some new Chinese, Malaysian and Philippine companies offer everyone the chance to partake in new forms of wealth creation, and hundreds of thousands of Kenyans have joined them. While new members enthusiastically believe these promises, other Kenyans see such multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs) as borderline fraudulent.

After retelling the history of American and Asian MLMs in Kenya, the paper focuses on two successful members of a MLM. Due to their lack of education and other opportunities, MLMs offered a viable way to secure a middle-class lifestyle. To achieve this, both embrace the morals of late-capitalism that the MLM teaches; they have become - and fashion themselves as - hard-working entrepreneurs. However, both actors are also very much aware that they make their money by selling empty promises to new members. Their different ways to morally justify this come to the fore in their different understandings of business and religion, as both are also pentecostalist preachers. Additionally, their self-perception as entrepreneurs is threatened by the way they are treated by the Chinese owners of the company. While MLMs are very particular forms of the economic connections between African and Asian cities, they shed a light on the imaginary quality, the ongoing exclusion and the shifting moral landscape that these connections bring about.

Panel P114
CRG Africa in the World: Global Village, African City. How to read Africa's changing global connections in the African cityscape