Ubuntu – The Essence of African Business
Ubuntu. I first heard the word in an A-level poetry class and was immediately struck by the beauty of the idea. A term which refers to the practise of human kindness, as someone with few examples of Ubuntu in practice, I underestimated its prevalence across African communities. Its presence even leaves traces in different dialects: “I am because we are” and “it takes a community to raise a child” refer to South African and Nigerian interpretations respectively. Perhaps then, behind the masks of arbitrary borders causing civil war, corrupt governments, the threat of Ebola and widespread poverty, Africa is really the sum of communities working to elevate one another.
Observing Friday’s panellists at the LSE’s Africa summit, each speaker in their own way stressed how their research revealed the importance of understanding Africa’s context when approaching innovative governance. However, if, as Vanessa Iwowo exposed so skilfully exposed, governance is anchored upon the customary interactions of people, those leading Africa through some of its most exciting times would profit from devoting more time towards understanding African people. Put differently, meaningful solutions to Africa’s problems will be originated by those who not only build upon the ways in which African communities already interact but also by leaders and innovators who facilitate these customs.
Luckily, Saturday’s business focused summit showcased some of the exciting ways in which entrepreneurs and policy makers leverage context specific solutions to solve Africa’s problems. For the sake of demonstration, I will hone in on one example which I believe so beautifully epitomises the key message of the summit.
If something is certain, it is that African mothers generally fret about feeding their children. Equally, learning makes children hungry, especially at the formative ages where regular, well-balanced meals are essential for a child’s physical and mental development. Combine poverty with a school system that requires parents to pay for school meals, several pupils in Nigeria’s Osun state were left hungry in school and as a result were under-performing in class.
“The challenge with the African leaders is an inability to fashion programs that will link with the people in such a way that they own the process, project and program.” Governor of the state, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola’s freezes the crowd in a collective and complicit agreement.
“We found out that a large number of our kids are terribly malnourished and that explains the stunting that African people really have. If we imagine that the Africans that were taken to America are giants! Why are they giants? Aren’t they the same people that are now stunted? So why are we stunted?” This time laughter serves to unite the audience. Aregbesola adjusts his Agbada before continuing his story.
“… Despite the leanness of the resources of my state, I took it upon myself to feed pupils at their formative ages of 6-9. At a great cost to the state, I initiated a program that will feed 250,000 school children one square meal a day. We began by restructuring the education system in such a way… that I got the overwhelming support of mothers who could not feed their children. They are now governing and owning this process.” As you can imagine with a tale so sweet, the crowd applauds. Even further, these mothers were the proverbial soldiers who took to the streets with brooms in defence of Aregbesola under the threat of rebel militants.
Several other examples arose on the day all demonstrating a key lesson relevant to those looking to make impact on the continent through business. As Dr Adeolu Adesanya put it, malaria and Ebola have the same symptoms but the treatments for both are different. Prospective and current leaders of African businesses will do well not to simply impose western ideals and solutions upon African issues. The continent will only grow if authentic and relevant answers to African problems are found. To reach these solutions shapers need to look deeply, identify and build upon what they know to be at the core of the African identity.
This notion of identity brings me back to Ubuntu… If I may try and create a quote-worthy synopsis:
It takes understanding a community to build a business that will serve it’s people well.