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Why Africa needs capitalism that is aligned with its development needs

First published October 20, 2015 in The Conversation

Capitalism in Africa has failed to create social wealth. A new approach is needed to ensure that growth in profits results in social upliftment.

Africans have long engaged in capitalist economic transactions. But the type of capitalism introduced by colonialists has not always been aligned with the needs of Africans. It remains overly informed and driven by agendas set outside the continent. These agendas primarily see Africa as a market for exploitation and are obsessed by the profits that come from such exploitations. This is reflected in some of the excesses of the multinational firms operating in Africa. In the process they foster a measure of corporate success and performance predicated on individualism and not on collective interests.

The multinationals are often more concerned about their success, and not necessarily the success of the societies in which they operate. This is typical of most Anglo-Saxon multinationals because they come from a culture that promotes individual interests over group interests.

There is a potential solution. It is Africapitalism. This is an economic philosophy that embodies the private sector’s commitment to the economic transformation of Africa through investments that generate both economic prosperity and social wealth.

The term was coined by Nigerian banker and entrepreneur Tony Elumelu. He argues:

“Africa’s renaissance lies in the confluence of the right business and political action.”

Rethinking capitalism in Africa

Africa suffers from a crisis of development. Arguably this is attributable to the inherited colonial political and economic systems, which are yet to be properly domesticated in the continent. Based on the indices of Western political economies, for instance, most of Africa is crippled by weak institutions, poor governance and distressed civil societies.

The failure of either the state or the market to deliver has in recent years led to a call for better collaboration and partnership between the state, business, and civil society. This is necessary if developmental challenges in the region are to be addressed.

The study of capitalism in Africa often assumes strong institutional contexts and actors. This includes strong governments, civil society, and effective or efficient regulations and governance, as well as strong cultural alignment between African societies and the principles of Western capitalism. But this is not always the case.

A study in Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa in a partnership involving nine universities is underway. Its aim is to rethink capitalism in Africa by focusing on the role of business leaders, investors and entrepreneurs on the continent’s development.

The values espoused by Africapitalism

Africapitalism is still largely an idea and a discourse. It is underpinned by four core values:

1. Sense of progress and prosperity: This is not just about the absence of poverty but the presence of conditions which make life more fulfilling. Those include access to quality education, health, social capital and democratic institutions.

This is extremely important for a continent riddled with extreme negative human conditions. The Africapitalism project is committed to tackling these through the promotion of responsible entrepreneurship and an enabling business environment.

2. Sense of parity and inclusion: The benefits of progress and prosperity need to be equitably shared. It is very easy for the accumulation of wealth to be lopsided, as shown by the 2015 Africa wealth report. Africapitalism recognises that growth needs to be inclusive.

In other words, it aims to promote a form of entrepreneurship that strives to create financial and social wealth for all stakeholders. This includes but is not limited to shareholders, as ‘radically’ exemplified by a Ugandan agribusiness company, Good African. The firm reinvests 50% of its profits in the growers and their communities.

3. Sense of peace and harmony: The simultaneous pursuit of profit and social wealth is primarily a quest for balance, harmony and peace. This is the balance between economic prosperity and social wealth.

Africapitalism shares similar values with the sustainability movement. This could be summed up as:

“… a process of achieving human development… in an inclusive, connected, equitable, prudent, and secure manner”.

4. Sense of place and belongingness: Given that Africapitalism seeks to meet Africa where the continent is on its development path, it is underpinned by a firm and explicit value of sense of place and belongingness. It treats Africa primarily as a place (and not necessarily as a market) with meaning and value to people’s identities.

The potential of Africapitalism

Africa should strive for a system that promotes both the generation of profits and social wealth.

As an idea, Africapitalism is an imaginative articulation of a possible face of capitalism in Africa. It is a discourse to galvanise a movement. That will ultimately change the practice of capitalism in Africa.

Positioned as such, it becomes an aspiration for Africa’s renaissance. It challenges the status quo – capitalism in Africa – which has not transformed the continent.

The problem here is not necessarily the spirit of capitalism as the harbinger of human freedom and economic emancipation. It is the inherited form of capitalism practised in Africa, which is often at variance with the socio-economic development of the continent. This misalignment invariably creates lopsided outcomes such as economic banditry, corruption, inequality and poverty.

How Africapitalism can become mainstream

If one accepts Africapitalism as a world view, then one way to make it mainstream is through education. Its tenets need to be firmly embedded in the curricula of business schools in Africa.

Another way to enhance the adoption of Africapitalism is through government incentives and policies such as tax credits and concessions. There is also the possibility of using public opinion and pressures such as social rankings and reward systems to nudge firms into adopting Africapitalism as a standard practice.

Above all, the fastest way is to galvanise “a generation of private sector entrepreneurs who have the vision, the tools and the opportunity to shape the destiny of the continent”. This is exactly what the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme and the African Entrepreneurship Programme – supported by The Duke of York KG, entrepreneur Aliko Dangote, and former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo – are doing.

Hopefully, Africapitalism will eventually lead to a new economic regime that will truly reflect the development needs of Africa. But as a new idea and discourse, it still suffers the liability of newness. This is typical of new ideas and discourses. As such, it runs the risk of falling through and not being adopted and implemented.

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