Why Knowledge Is Not Power

Published on 16th July 2019

We’ve always underestimated the role of educators in our society. As you may well know, for a society to progress, the younger generation must be far more educated than their parents.

A few times, I was invited to speak to young graduates from High schools and universities, in Liberia. I always declined. I declined, not because my story cannot inspire the young graduates. No. no. no.

Bill Gates declined all invitations to speak at high school graduations and college orientations; because he dropped out of college, built a company and became the richest man on the planet.  He feared that one or two kids would emulate him, by not going to college, believing that they can succeed, without a college degree. He rightly believed that his situation is the exception, not the rule.

That is why I also declined to speak at all my previous speaking invitations. I do not have a master degree. I feared that my story could inspire one or two kids, who would believe that graduate school is not important.

People often say that knowledge is power. This is not entirely true. Only applied knowledge is power.  Society has never paid anyone and will not pay anyone for what they know. Society pays people for what they do with what they know.  Everything you learned so far is mostly the map, M.A.P, in other words, the description of the territory. And believe me, ladies and gentlemen, the map is not the territory. The MAP is the description of the territory.

A painter in Brussels, many years ago, illustrated this fact better. He drew a large smoking pipe on a large billboard and posted it at a big intersection in the city. He wrote under the painting: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”Translated from French, it means “This is not a pipe.” People would shake their heads and say to themselves, if it is not a pipe, what is it? Not until few years before his death, the painter explained: it’s the painting of a pipe, a pipe is a tangible object. You can put tobacco in it and smoke it. You cannot do that to a painting.

A student in sales, is thought to find the consumers, wherever they are, give them reasons why they should buy from him or her, instead of the competition.

Two sales men from two competing shoes companies, were sent to an island of 100,000 inhabitants, to explore the possibility of selling shoes. One returned to his boss and said: “Boss, the trip was a waste of time and resources, no one on the island, not even the king or the queen, wears shoes.” The other salesman returned to his boss and said: “Boss, it’s a gold mine, none of the 100,000 inhabitants wears shoes, we can go back there, teach them the importance of shoes and subsequently sell tens of thousands of shoes to them.” That is knowing the difference between the map and the territory.

Throughout human history, there have always been opportunities hidden in challenges. When we graduated from the University of Liberia in December 1983, my friends were busy learning how to put an impressive cv together, busy learning how to appear at a job interview, busy learning what to say or what not say at a job interview, for me, even though I already had job offers, I had seen a huge   opportunity. At the time, there was no Liberian company engaged, in an organized fashion, in the distribution of petroleum products in Liberia. You had large multinational companies like, Mobil Oil, Texaco, Shell and so on, doing all petroleum distribution. For me, in that challenge, there was an opportunity.  I took advantage of it and started a company, which has now grown to be the pride of Liberia.  AMINATA & SONS, INC. has created hundreds of jobs and still counting.

This situation is still true today. There are even bigger challenges all around us. We are 4.5 million people living on 43,000 sq miles; in a country where everything you throw on the ground, grows. Yet we import almost all of our staple food, rice. Isn’t that a challenge? To make it even more challenging, let me tell you what is happening in the world of rice.  

China is one the biggest producers of rice. The government of China has a company called COFCO. One of  Cofco’s roles is to ensure there is a strategic reserve of rice in the country to mitigate the risk of famine, should there be bad harvest during any year. To play that role effectively, Cofco built mega warehouses around the country. They buy rice from farmers at subsidized prices and store it in these warehouses. The following year, if the harvests are good, Cofco exports the stored rice to the world and replenishes it with new harvests. If on the hand, there is an issue with the harvests during the current year, the Chinese government orders Cofco to avail the stored rice to the population. Of course, if that happens, the price of imported rice goes up exponentially.

India, also one of the biggest producers of rice had parliamentary elections some 2 years ago. A small party, that had won no seat in parliament for a very long time, stated that rice consumers in most places in the world, where Indian rice is exported to, are taking advantage of Indian farmers. Indian farmers, according to them, should not do the hard work of producing rice and giving it out cheaply to the world. They ran a campaign, promising the farmers that should they win, they would ensure that they, the farmers, would get the right value for their harvests. That party won a good number of seats in the parliament, and the price of rice racketed.

In my view, that is a challenge for us here.  In this challenge, don’t you see an opportunity? If you don’t think so, let me quote Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank (ADB) “by 2030, the size of the food and agric business in Africa will reach $1 trillion. So, if you are thinking of how to make money that is the sector to be in.”

Now, let’s backtrack a little. I left college, instead of looking for job, as my friends were doing, I looked into the challenges the country was facing at the time, build a company that has become relatively a success. I just described to you similar situation. A situation in which, according to Dr. Adesina, there is $1 trillion dollars business opportunity.

The best way to put all this into practice is to emulate the journey of a company that has done it before. I am tempted to tell you the story of Aminata, its ups and downs, its endless challenges, but yet resilient and not quitting.  Unfortunately, the story of Aminata can be not told in 30 minutes. Alternatively, I will give you a few principles, embedded in quotations; principles that guarded my life to a relative success.

1.Choose the right business. In choosing a business, you must have in mind, service to people. You must choose a business that affects the lives of as many people as possible. Just by doing so, you will have chosen a business in a large market; one in which, there is always a big room for growth.

2.Build a strong team. Bill gates says and I will paraphrase it; on your way to becoming a billionaire, you must make others billionaires. The holy Koran puts it better, and I paraphrase: whenever two persons come together to undertake a project, God says He is the third, if it’s a group of 19 people, He is the 20th. And if God is a part of any project, that project never fails. But the minute one person out of the group decides to betray the others, God leaves the union. If God is not part any project, that project will be destined to fail.

Once you have the best team, you can render service to millions at any time. And When you can do that, you will have (in the words of Emmanuel Shaw) a money meter running for you. The meter will make money for you, whether you are present or not. It will make money for you even while you are delivering the keynote speech at the commencement program at Cuttington University on June 29th 2019.

3.Manage Money properly. We used to think that if our parents left some properties for us, and we needed some money, we can just walk to the bank, use the property as collateral and get a loan. Wrong. Banks will loan you money for two reasons, two reasons only. You must have a business proposal.  Your business plan must be good, real and feasible. You must be trustworthy. A banker from Citibank once said and I paraphrase him: For all the skyscrapers in New York, I will not give a penny of my bank to a man or a woman, I do not trust. But for a little kitchen in the Amazon forest, I will empty my vault for a man or woman, I trust.  The Koran puts it better and I paraphrase: whenever you walk to someone, a bank or any other lender, and ask for a loan.  If at the time you are asking, you really intend to pay back, God says, He will ensure you have the means to pay. On the other hand, if at the time of asking you intend to defraud, God says, He will ensure you never have the means to pay back.

These principles are universal. I know no one who has use them without succeeding. I also know no one who has succeeded without using them.

The two groups.

There is one group that went on the island of 100,000 inhabitants and saw no opportunity. It’s the group that believes that Knowledge, by itself, is power.  It’s the group, that believes consciously or subconsciously that everything is normal and nothing needs to change.It’s the group that believes that the drawing on the billboard is indeed a pipe.It’s the group that believes that the map is the territory.It is the group that will go looking for jobs and settle for less. And if they don’t find a job, their best innovation is to borrow a few words of Brezhnev, Che Guevara or Fidel Castro and go open an Atai shop on some street in Monrovia and discuss politics all day and every day.

There is another group.  It is the group I wish will be inspired, to realize that the people on the island just need to be taught the importance of wearing shoes. It’s this  group, by their actions, that will create jobs and assimilate their friends in the Ataii shops in Monrovia. It’s the group Dr Adesina also has been inspiring. That group, ladies and gentlemen, is hopefully you.

By Hon. Prof. Siaka Toure

Vice President, de I’ASCAD


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