Oxford BFA
Movemeback Oxford BFA Business Forum Africa 2017

Applying African Proverbs to the World: Proverbial Africa – Oxford BFA 2017

Oxford’s annual Business Forum Africa (Oxford BFA) applied Africa’s own wisdom to the development and growth being experienced today. Through the use of proverbs with which many of us (African and not) have grown up, Oxford BFA reframed the conversations we have about the Continent.
Oxford BFA featured keynote insights from the likes of Dr Mo Ibrahim, Khanyi Dhlomo (Ndalo Media), James Mwangi (Dalberg), Ambassador Amina Mohamed, Phuti Mahanyele (Sigma Capital) and Adewale Tinubu (Oando). With a series of challenging discussions and networking opportunities, there was plenty of food for thought. Take a look at our highlighted proverbs!

“Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter”


History books are always written by the winners; we only hear half the story

This was a remarkably apt theme for the Oxford BFA and the message was clear: not until Africa takes control of its own design will it ever break through and reignite growth for the next phase of its progress. Although we wish we knew the exact provenance of this quote, the sad truth is, it doesn’t matter. Throughout history, positive African success stories have not been told often enough, although this is changing. It is time for Africa to define its own narrative for the continent and tell the untold.

“The shroud has no pockets”


You can’t take material goods with you when you die, so spend your wealth wisely while you can

Philanthropists the world over have used this proverb and none more so than Dr Mo Ibrahim who used it as the basis of his Oxford BFA 2017 opening keynote address. Its roots apparently lie in mid-19th Century middle England but the message is a global one – Mo Ibrahim first came across the saying during his childhood in Sudan and Egypt.
Through his Foundation, Mo Ibrahim was instrumental in the creation of the Ibrahim Prize, which celebrates excellence in African leadership. Previous recipients have included Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano, Botswana’s Festus Mogae and Pedro Pires of Cape Verde.
The paradox of Africa however is that “everyone knows the bad guys and nobody knows the good”. Compared to some of their counterparts well-known for less than positive behaviours, these African leaders who had developed their countries, lifted people out of poverty and paved the way for sustainable and equitable prosperity were relatively unknown within the room.
When asked what is next for the future of Africa, Dr Ibrahim stated simply “There is no factory for creating young African leaders. You guys go out and create yourselves!”

“A toad does not run in the daytime for nothing”


People will take risks against their nature only in extraordinary circumstances

This is an Igbo proverb perhaps first brought onto the global stage by Chinua Achebe, the acclaimed novelist, poet and professor, in his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart. The panel, comprising of Ronak Gopaldas (Rand Merchant Bank), Suleiman Kiggundu (CDC), Peter Attard Montalto (Nomura) and Kevin Ryder (Nedbank), applied it to balancing investment risk with the potential for success.
For African entrepreneurs, clarity of vision is important but so is flexibility to be able to work with foreign investors, and that can be a risk in itself. That said, no region can be fully developed with foreign capital alone. Inclusive growth is the challenge we need to solve and the role of business in this is fundamental. Africa must look at mobilising its domestic resources in a uniquely African way. The assumption always seems to be that we should follow European models first but taking a risk and pivoting from this viewpoint could be where the real success lies for the Continent.

Additional Food For Thought From Oxford BFA…

You didn’t think we’d just leave out the rest of the proverbs from the Oxford BFA, did you?

“If you wish to move mountains tomorrow, you must start lifting stones today”


The biggest achievements take time – start small


“When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled”


In your power struggle, don’t forget to look out for the people who will actually be affected


“An old story does not open the ear as a new one does”


Constant innovation is key


“If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk with others”


You can’t do it alone, it is other people’s skills and support that create success


“Maize bears fruit once and dies because it is not rooted into the ground”


Without a good foundation, you cannot succeed and remain successful


“Stealing a drum is easy, but finding a place to beat it is not”


Work hard for what you have – it’s difficult to proudly proclaim ill-gotten gains

A huge congratulations to the team at Oxford Business Forum Africa and the Saïd Business School for a thought-provoking event! Have we captured your favourite African proverb? Let us know in the comments or tweet us @movemeback!

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