Topic: WHAT WOULD YOU DO AS A LEADER TO ADDRESS THE CHALLENGES FACING AFRICAN BUSINESSES?
Winner: Kunle Adebajo
Somewhere in Africa some five million years ago lived the first set of humans on Earth. But that is not the only thing of interest about the land of milk and honey. In this same continent once lived the richest human being in all history estimated to be four times richer than Bill Gates. He went by name Mansa Musa I and he ruled over the Malian Empire in the 14th century. Mansa Musa exemplified the wealth and resourcefulness of Africa, an Africa where everyone was industrious; an Africa which produced masterpieces white hands were tempted to steal; an Africa which stood shoulder high in intercontinental gatherings of substance. But where is that Africa today? – sitting comfortably at the rock bottom of the world ranking according to Gross Domestic Product, extending her arms desperately for aids from total strangers and standing pathetically in the dark corner of global ignominy.
Indeed, the soul of every society is its economy. And the soul of every economy is the businesses, big or small, which constitute its building blocks. Businesses determine the direction and extent of the flow of money in a territory. Not only that, they also go a long way in stamping the footprint of a nation on the world map as brands known to it become operative beyond immediate borders. For the sake of clarity, a business has been referred to as ‘a company or other organisation that buys and sells goods, makes products, or provides services’. If all or any of these activities is in short supply, the welfare of the populace will be adversely affected in equal proportion.
It is axiomatic that governments will always be judged not by how many wars they win, how much time they spend on the stool of power or by how much is amassed in the nation’s coffers. They are judged by the prosperity of the populace, the plummeting of poverty and the general buoyancy of the economy. And so if today I am blessed with a chance to lift Africa to greater heights through the instrumentality of her businesses, I would waste no time to translate this blessing into a tonic of renewal for the continent’s economy.
In the words of Max DePree, ‘the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality’. The search for truth and the definition of problems is definitely crucial for every man, but more so for leaders because their every step is with huge consequence. Thus before diving into the ocean of solutions and wide lea of possibilities available to us, we need to first understand what it is we are grappling with. In this day, the problems facing African businesses include but are not limited to the unavailability of capital, corruption and over-politicisation of the economy, red tape in government circles, poor training and education system, globalisation of markets, and an absence of Afrocentrism in consumer-decisions.
On the subject of the challenges, the very first thing I would address is that of xenophilious trends in the choices of African buyers. It does not take rocket science to appreciate that the best way to kill a business before it starts is by killing the market it intends to go. Sam Wilton once observed that, ‘there is only one boss – the customer – and he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else’. African buyers have fired African businesses by spending their money elsewhere even when wholly unnecessary and economically unwise. It is why substandard Chinese phones have flooded our markets. It is why second-hand European clothes are like diamonds in our sight. It is why foreign reserves in Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana and many other African countries continue to travel on a downward spiral. It is said that this economic model, aptly described as chronic dependency, is an inheritance from our European imperialists. Alas, several decades after independence, peoples of Africa are yet to be manumitted from its yoke.
A popular legal maxim states that nemo dat quod non habet (no one can give that which he does not have). But Africa remains a stubborn exception to this rule. Our wizardry is so remarkable that we are capable of giving what we do not have and importing exactly what we have. Nigeria for instance exports gas and security personnel to neighbouring countries while contending with a shortage internally. Also, the same country, especially its ruling class, imports every stock, lock and barrel importable from tomatoes to leathers, from paper to toothpicks. Things which cannot be imported are sought directly from their source. In tackling this problem, a far-reaching campaign will be kick-started to encourage the patronage of locally made products. Presently such a campaign is afoot for the increased purchase of made-in-Nigeria products. It is endorsed by its National Assembly, and the Federal Government has directed its Ministries, Departments and Agencies to buy locally made vehicles. In a similar vein, local companies such as Dangote Cement, MTN, DStv, Shoprite, Katanka Group (which produces cars in Ghana) and Seemahale Telecoms (manufacturing phones in South Africa) will be highly encouraged to advance and expand.
While encouraging local startups and patronage, there shall also be a corresponding implementation of trade barriers. This policy aligns with the propositions of Burundian researcher, Javier D. Nkurunziza who, last year at the 10th African Economic Conference, called for the local processing of raw materials as this will in turn generate more wealth, employment and spur growth through investment in the infrastructure sector. I will encourage a moderate foreign policy on trade, lingering somewhere between uncontrolled liberalisation which is likely to destroy not-so-strong local businesses and extreme trade protectionism which will reduce competition, hike production costs and upset international laws and trade relations. By and large, products which can easily be manufactured will be subsidised while their wanton importation will be greatly discouraged.
Furthermore, African businesses will be empowered through financial shots in the arm. This will be done in collaboration with the African Development Bank which has that mandate as well as other institutions such as the Bank of Industry in Nigeria, the Industrial Development Corporation in South Africa and the transnational Tony Elumelu Foundation. It is a fact that several Africans, the youth particularly, have brilliant ideas on how to effectuate solutions to the countless problems plaguing their environment. Sadly however, they do not have enough wherewithal to crystallise those ideas into reality. This is evident in the teeming population of youth (over 45,000) who applied for the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme in 2016. Without capital, these youth are handicapped. Hence if I have my way, they will be wooed and propelled with grants, loans and other forms of succour. Certainly Mark Twain was right when he remarked that ‘the lack of money is the root of all evil’. Without it, ideas will suffer premature death and our businesses will be dwarfed beyond relevance.
Need I say I will likewise look critically into the aspect of infrastructure. This is because according to the African Development Bank, Africa invests only 4% of its collective GDP in infrastructure, a paltry figure compared with China’s 14%. It has equally revealed that up to 60% of the continent’s population are without electricity. There is no news more tragic for businessmen than this because poor infrastructure not only affects transportation of goods, powering of apparatus and availability of structures; it also hinders customers from patronising online businesses due to lack of internet connectivity. As a matter of fact, poor infrastructure according to Harvard Professor, Calestous Juma, is the African economy’s soft underbelly. And so as a matter of paramountcy, heads of state through the African Union will be charged to augment their budgetary allocation towards infrastructural development.
Asides the aforementioned, also existing is the need to reinforce the educational system. Often times, businesses complain about the ‘unemployability’ of university graduates and the unfair burden of having to train and develop human capital almost afresh. For this reason, many of them tend to demand a minimum amount of work experience before considering any candidate for employment. The leadership must wade in so that the individuals whom are annually churned out of the academia do not end up as liabilities. They would not only be taught with utmost practicality, they would be hammered into being solution-seekers. In fact, they would be made to hearken to the prayer of John Kennedy on January 20, 1961 – to ask not what their countries can do for them but what they can do for their country.
I shall conclude lightly with a quite common joke in Nigeria. 18 professors were called to sit in an airplane. When the plane was about to take off, they were informed that the plane was made by their own students. They all quickly ran out leaving one man who was sitting confidently. Surprised, onlookers asked him why he was still in the airplane and he said, ‘if indeed this airplane was made by our students, trust me it won’t even start’. I think it is high time this mind-set changed. And that is why if I ever get to be in the lead, my goal would be to transform Africa from a hotbed of mercantile capitalism to an El Dorado of industrial capitalism. It would be to make sure that those pessimistic professors, coupled with the entirety of Africans, believe in African businesses not just because they are run by their kinsmen, but because they are the best.
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12. Calestous Juma: Poor Infrastructure is Africa’s Soft Underbelly. Published by Forbes on 25 October, 2012.