As an potential entrepreneur working here and looking for projects to invest in, I talk to a lot of people, and I talk over my business model with a lot of people.
I often (as often as almost always) get advice, along the lines of
You just be careful, you put your money where no one can touch it, and you get that money back. People will steal it. Don’t trust anyone. Everyone is out to get you. They all see you, the rich Mzungu, and they just want to work for you and eat up all your money.
This can, as you might imagine, become disheartening.
The best jobs for graduates
If you’re a top student from here, you might be lucky enough to go on to MIT or Harvard, or you might go to either KIU or Makerere University. And when you graduate, what do you do? What are your preferred options?
Go work outside of the country, preferably outside of Africa: This is usually the top option, and it’s understandable– it’s exciting to move away, to a bigger, richer, more exciting place. I did it, thrice, now.
Go work for the government: Secure jobs are in the government, and the government is full of interesting positions. In some cases, this may be because goverment workers amass powerful contacts, which can benefit in the form of power or cash. In other cases, this comes from a desire to change the situation from within– to work on anticorruption, for instance.
Go work for an NGO: I have no problems with NGOs, but it seems odd to me that this would be a top job, except for the security and stability. NGOs protect their own, and understand (and often index salaries for) inflation. Plus, the benefits are great. You get to meet people from other countries, and you may get to help out people in your own company.
Go work for one of the big companies: Big companies, stable jobs, decent benefits. No real surprises here.
But that, pretty much, is it. Almost no one starts a business early on. The best and brightest leave.
What is it that drives some people to return to their communities, start a business, and create jobs? What makes a student is inspired by a teacher and becomes a teacher? What is it that drives a bright young student to forego lucrative opportunities to work as a community organiser?
And what keeps that from happening?
Problems don’t get fixed
One of my biggest challenges here is in understanding expectations.
Lots of things go wrong, all the time. One of my South African friends reminds me that “Africa works, just not as fast or as reliably”, and he’s right.
But there’s another issue– that because of this working this way for such a long time, it’s become the norm.
People turn up late for meetings regularly– as much as an hour late. And they don’t call to let you know, it’s such a common problem. (There are lots of people I work with who don’t accept this and are relentlessly punctual. I thank them profusely).
There was a leak in the office the other day. A few guys moved the photocopier, but took no pains to either shut off the water or to call anyone to fix it– nor, even, mentioning it to the boss when he came in.
I get monthly reports from entrepreneurs and there are numbers off, and, each month, I have to go sit down with my guys and work with them to identify where the problem came in.
There are lots more of these problems, and they don’t get due care or attention.
I believe that these are all symptoms of a defeatist attitude. Why start a business locally when it’s so hard? Why re-invest in your community? Fifty years and trillions of dollars in aid hasn’t made a huge difference (and you can see the effects of this aid all over– including in cultures of dependency). Get out while the getting is good.
Sure, you’ll miss your home, but why bother fixing it? The problem is too big for one man to change it.
This defeatist attitude must change. This may be the biggest thing holding Africa back from significant development.
It will take committment, day by day, to change this. It will take huge effort by many people. Some of them will rise up and be Mandelas or Gandhis, while many will be the unnammed faces in the crowds. Whether you’re one or the other will be a matter of chance.
It will take boots on the ground, working hard, getting muddy, and facing the issues day by day.
It will take concerted effort by the Cheetahs to demand receipts for “stamp fees” from hippos, slowly but surely stamping out corruption and bribes.
It will take development and efficiencies in the tax code, so that police are paid enough that they don’t need bribes to survive and feed their families.
It will take investment, and not just capital, but labour investment by the best and brightest graduates, to come in and build pride– to develop Africa’s Richard Bransons and Henry Fords.
It will take pride, building a culture that looks for goods made in Africa rather than the USA, UK, or China.
It will take the gall to step up and say “Yeah, we can do that”, and to figure out how to do it, or to ask for aid to find out.
It will take determination to see something wrong and fix it.
It will take an end to hopelessness, and good examples.