Africa Watch

Why Africa needs capitalism that is aligned with its developmental needs

Tony Elumelu, who coined the term Africapitalism
Tony-Elumelu two.jpg

Africa suffers from a crisis of development. The solution might lie in rethinking capitalism in Africa, in line with an economic philosophy called Africapitalism.

Africans have long engaged in capitalist economic transactions. The type of capitalism introduced by colonialists, however, has not always been aligned with the needs of Africans – remaining overly informed and driven by agendas set outside the continent.

These agendas primarily see Africa as a market for exploitation, obsessed by the profits it brings.

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 – often more concerned about their own success than that of the societies in which they operate.

This is typical of most Anglo-Saxon multinationals coming from a culture that promotes individual interests over group interests.

Potential solution

Africapitalism as 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, is a potential solution.

The term was coined by Nigerian banker and entrepreneur Tony Elumelu, who argues: “Africa’s renaissance lies in the confluence of the right business and political action.”

Africa suffers from a crisis of development, arguably 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.

Studies of capitalism in Africa often assume strong institutional contexts and actors, including 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 Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, in a partnership involving nine universities, is underway. Its aim; 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 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 that make life more fulfilling, including 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 – aiming 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, that 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: 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 – treating Africa primarily as a place (and not necessarily as a market) with meaning and value to people’s identities.

The potential of Africapitalism

As an idea, Africapitalism is an imaginative articulation of a possible face of capitalism in Africa, 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, 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 its adoption 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, typical of new ideas and discourses. As such, it runs the risk of falling through and not being adopted and implemented.

by Kenneth Amaeshi, associate professor of Strategy and International Business, University of Edinburgh

(This is a slightly shortened version of an article that first appeared on The Conversation website. For the full article click here.)

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