Africa: Working Hard or Hardly working?

Published on 15th July 2008

Our rural farmers are a hardworking lot. They wake up very early, milk their cows, go to the farm hoe in hand, walk back to graze their cattle and back to the farm again. Lucky ones harvest over 5 bags of maize- lucky because little ingenuity is applied to determine the harvest. We also know our hardworking city folk; they too wake up early, walk to work at construction sites or informal workshops, and walk back in the evening having earned $1 for the day. We also know the office type, who engage in a predictable routine - a conveyor belt type of productivity for months on end.


On the other hand is another category of Africans: very alert and receptive to available but often overlooked opportunities. They scan the horizon as it were, ready to make discoveries. Each of their steps involves above average bold resourcefulness and greater financial risks. The outcome of their work is always a big surprise to the general public on how easy and obvious a solution they present to the market turns out to be. Such individuals rarely work hard, they always work smarter. How many of this type can you identify in your circle of friends?


Africans have a 'hardworking culture' that starts right from our education system. Every morning, our children brave the chilly weather, walk on average two kilometers to school, spend eight years in primary, four in high school, and four at the university. Upon graduation, they wonder how they can get absorbed by the job market. The hard work attitude is inculcated in our minds through the exam-driven education system where higher grades matter and quality of graduates is secondary. A casual survey of our economic landscape reveals that the majority of those who 'smell opportunities' and boldly move to exploit them for profit are not the high grades type.


Kenya's post election violence mirrored our hardworking culture.We witnessed our own brothers and sisters, frustrated by the system, turning against each other. We experienced violence outbursts in what many thought was simply a PNU and ODM affair. In my view, the two combatants were mere triggers - Kenyans were involuntarily rejecting the hard work culture that rewards the politically connected personalities only. The system refused to grant jobs to educated youth hence unemployment. It refused to redistribute resources equitably - hence some parts of the country are poorer than others. It allegedly robbed people of their land hence some communities are resourceless. The system is designed in a manner that if a political party is not in government; it is out of the 'cake eating feast' - so a party must win in the winner takes it all race. The attitude of hard work in Africa connotes a structured system where if one fails to fit into it; he is out and dejected.


The post-election violence was a wake up call to all to recognize that over and above the quest for strong governance institutions; Africans urgently ought to adopt an entrepreneurial attitude. Netherland based economists Sander Wennecker and Roy Thurik define entrepreneurship as the manifest ability and willingness of individuals, on their own, in teams, within and outside existing organizations, to perceive and create new economic opportunities (new products, new production methods, new organizational schemes, and new product market combinations) and to introduce their ideas in the market in the face of uncertainty and other obstacles by making decisions on location, form and the use of resource institutions.


According to a New York University economist Israel Kirzner; an entrepreneurial attitude is one which is always ready to be surprised and take steps needed to profit by such surprises.When scientists point out certain causes of a disease, for example typhoid; this presents an opportunity to an entrepreneur to offer a solution in the form of sale of purified water.


Africa ofers many areas of surprise. Some of our communities believe diseases are caused by witchcraft, that eating mangoes and getting rained on causes malaria and that pawpaw fruits are food for donkeys! What our education system ought to inbuilt in our minds is the aspect of cause and effect relationship from which entrepreneurs can build momentum to boldly and with imagination offer solutions for profit.  


To develop the entrepreneurial attitude in Africa, individuals, corporations, learning institutions and government ought to promote a competitive-rivalry process in which we can outdo each other in a fair game. Government regulatory framework should not interfere too much with market activity as this will obstruct and frustrate the spontaneous forces churned by entrepreneurs. Economic sages point out that open-mindedness towards other cultures, curiosity, creativity, experimentation; perseverance, valuation of wealth and savings; acceptance of risk and failure set entrepreneurs aside from the general population. In general, an entrepreneurial culture ought to be nurtured where measurements of success do not limit themselves to academic credentials but also to innovative contributions to society.


To paraphrase Jack Shewmaker (former CEO Wal-Mart Stores); entrepreneurs 'work easy' where others 'work hard'. Jack argues that an entrepreneur ought to define what is around him without prejudice; and then look at the global perspective and move on. Should Africans be talking of unemployment when our farmers still use hand held hoes, the majority of the population do not have proper housing and clean water ? The hard worker might recommend that we keep people busy in the farm since the job market is taken up; but an entrepreneur can figure out how to feed the nation without any hoe in hand - say through no tillage agriculture.


Now that we can not run away from globalization, Africans need entrepreneurial culture as a matter of urgency. We can no longer afford to be comfortable with the jobs of today; they will be phased out by entrepreneurial innovations in a matter of time. We must start focusing on the jobs of the future: move away from candling eggs to determine which one is best quality for sale; away from analog water meters that measure passage of gas instead of  water thereby  leading to high water bills and away from waiting for government to offer donor driven service that dries up whenever donors change their moods to innovative individuals keen to make profit in the service to society.


Africa is ready to reward individuals who will offer solutions to problems facing our society with profit. Real entrepreneurs are those who overcome challenges. Entrepreneurs will help Kenyans reframe their minds and stop fighting over the known wealth to creating new wealth.


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