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Kenya under the microscope

MIT economist Tavneet Suri explores finance, agriculture and even politics in her homeland of Kenya — and elsewhere in Africa.
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 Tavneet Suri
Tavneet Suri
Photo: Bryce Vickmark

Occasionally, parents really do know best: When Tavneet Suri first started taking economics as a middle-school student in Nairobi, Kenya, she disliked it. But her father would not let her drop the course.

“I don’t care if you get a C,” she recalls him saying. “It’s good for you to try new things.” 

How right he was: Suri took the course, did well, and by high school, “Economics was my favorite subject.” Today, she is an accomplished development economist at the MIT Sloan School of Management whose intensive, on-the-ground studies have produced significant findings about Kenya’s economy and politics.

Suri, who was granted tenure earlier this year, conducts three main strands of research. The best-known concerns the use of M-PESA, a text-based “mobile money” system that lets Kenyans borrow and share risk with others more easily, smoothing out income fluctuations in a heavily agricultural society.

Suri has also conducted extensive studies of economic development in African countries including Ghana, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone, often focusing on the adoption of agricultural technologies. And as part of her rapidly expanding research portfolio, Suri is now delving into political issues, including research on ethnic favoritism in politics and an ambitious, large-scale study of voter participation in Kenya’s new electoral system.

That current work may be a departure from her previous studies in applied economics, but also serves as a reminder that, indeed, it’s good to try new things.

‘Destiny’ was MIT

Kenya, like some other East African countries, has had a South Asian community since the time of British colonial rule. Suri is a fourth-generation Kenyan: Her great-great-uncle emigrated from what was then India (now part of Pakistan) for work building roads and railways in British-controlled Kenya. Eventually his nephew — Suri’s grandfather — followed.

Suri’s father was born in Kenya and obtained an extensive education, receiving an engineering degree in Britain, then returning to Kenya. Her mother, a native of India who moved to Kenya after marrying, is a doctor.

Suri was a good student and, having overcome her initial trepidation about economics, found the subject more and more to her liking. “I had an amazing economics teacher in high school,” Suri says. She was accepted to study economics at Cambridge University, where Suri says she got an excellent technical education. But upon graduating, she adds, “I wanted to know more about developing countries.”

Tavneet Suri
Tavneet Suri
Photo: Bryce Vickmark
Tavneet Suri photographed at the MIT Sloan School of Management
Tavneet Suri photographed at the MIT Sloan School of Management
Photo: Bryce Vickmark

To remedy that, Suri decided to pursue a master’s degree in international and development economics at Yale University, thinking she would go into policy work of some kind. Instead, she wound up staying for a PhD, spurred on by mentors including her main thesis adviser, Michael Boozer. She emerged with a thesis consisting of three papers in the microeconomics of developing countries, and got a job offer after a visit to MIT Sloan that she remembers being full of engaging conversations with her future colleagues.

“I remember having a very heated discussion with Roberto [Rigobon, an MIT Sloan professor] about one of the technical aspects of my paper, which was fun,” Suri says. “You get this gut feeling, which is hard to explain, and I just felt this would be the right place for me.”

In truth, it was not Suri’s first opportunity to join the Institute; she had been accepted to MIT for undergraduate study. But the second time was the right one.

“My mother said it was destiny, and that I had to accept the job offer,” Suri jokes.

How voters vote

Suri’s PhD work pointed the way to some of her most successful research at MIT. For instance, one of her papers explored informal risk-sharing arrangements in Kenya, establishing that while such practices have long existed, they have not always been fully efficient.

M-PESA had not been invented at that time, but when it was introduced in 2007, “the mobile-money research was a natural fit,” Suri says. Her work, often done in collaboration with economist William Jack of Georgetown University, has found that about half of the Kenyan households surveyed report income shocks within the past six months, and that households without access to M-PESA must cut their spending by about 7 percent more when faced with shocks.

Suri’s current research is delving into Kenyan politics in multiple ways. In one recent working paper, with two co-authors — Thomas Stoker of MIT Sloan and Benjamin Marx, a PhD candidate in the Department of Economics — Suri reported that ethnic alliances influence whether local politicians favor landlords or tenants. More recently, she has been working on a research project, together with Marx and Vincent Pons, also a PhD candidate in economics at MIT, that is studying voter participation in Kenya’s general elections of this past March. Kenya has had past elections tainted by corruption problems and marred by violence, such as in 2007; this March, the country attempted to hold cleaner elections with more local and regional offices on the slate. Suri and her co-researchers designed a field experiment in which about 1 million citizens were texted, as a prompt for voting; the team is still analyzing the data.

“We’re trying to look at what the [country] can do to make sure it has better elections,” Suri says. So while she only sometimes goes back to Kenya, she is still trying to give back.

Press Mentions


Prof. Tavneet Suri writes for The Huffington Post that text messages can improve civic engagement in developing countries, if the electoral system is perceived as fair. “While it’s clear that get-out-the-vote text messages have enormous potential to increase civic engagement and participation, it’s also clear that these messages carry an implicit promise of transparency and openness,” writes Suri. 

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