Africa business models

Building Africa-centred Business Models

I believe that what we need is isivivane—an old African tradition which obligated every traveller passing a certain spot to add his or her stone to a pile of stones. In doing so, every traveller became a part of isivivane with solidarity, common purpose and identification with a good cause.

The tradition of isivivane originated in remembrance of an important event, such as the death of a person or a battle that had occurred at that spot. Death is a familiar phenomenon in our lives, i.e. death of Ubuntu/humanity, death of patriotism, death of apartheid and segregation, death of the loved ones for many other known factors and death of a shared common vision that together has afflicted all communities as we are all victims of the past.

Isivivane can thus be thought of as a metaphor for partnership in creating the new Africa. Everyone has a meaningful role to play.

We should realize that traditional African values need not be a source of conflict. We can begin to regard them as our soul and our spirit; they must be retrieved and mobilized to help to build a sound economic base.

We all need to add a stone to create a mountain, so strong that our economies will become a powerful force.

Problems faced by business in South Africa, for example, are:

  • Business practices that alienate the workforce.
  • Employment practices that are discriminatory.
  • They cannot be globally competitive because of the long isolation experienced during the apartheid era.
  • They operate on old management principles that engender confrontation and contribute to low productivity.
  • They are driven by a corporate culture that is predominantly white and male
  • They are characterized by a corporate culture that is highly centralized.

In summary, they tend not to mobilize their full strength and potential because they are not connected to the majority of the workforce. In addition, many businesses fail to build on the full potential of the workforce, thereby preventing development of a more authentic corporate culture. This is, in part, because African values have not been integrated into the workplace. Existing corporate cultures are foreign to most African workers.

To remedy the above scenario, a new paradigm shift is imperative. The retrieval, strengthening and revaluing of an African identity is of paramount importance. The integration of African values and their role in business and management practices needs careful attention.

The treasure and richness of African life, culture, philosophy and value systems can be traced through Ubuntu which is the main stem which underpins values. The roots are the storytelling, work rhythm, spiritual transformation and communal history. The branches are formed by networking reconstruction, socio-political reconciliation, leadership legitimacy, communal enterprise and value-sharing. Ubuntu is the key to all African values and involves humanness, a good disposition towards others, and a moral nature. It describes the significance of group solidarity and interdependence in African culture (‘a person can only be a person through others’: umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu).

African socio-political life is influenced by the great value placed on dignity and respect (inhlonipho). This maintains harmony and embodies the Ubuntu philosophy which cuts across boundaries of position, status, age and gender. As a result of experience gathered over a long period of time, values around harmony are deeply embedded in communities, and in relation to marriages and interpersonal relationships.

Proverbs are linguistic tools that teach interpersonal relationships, and to emphasize the importance of harmony. Examples of such proverbs are:

Induku kayi wakhi umuzi (A stick cannot build a stable family).
Ihlonipha laph’ingayikugana khona (She respects even where she will not marry).
Umuntu kalahlwa (A person cannot be thrown away, despite bad behaviour).

Such proverbs, and many others, help to create attitudes which support the tendency towards harmony, conformity and reconciliation in the midst of conflict and hardship.

Leadership Legitimacy

Traditional African leadership embraces Ubuntu and the masakhane philosophy, and is built on participation, responsibility and spiritual authority. Leadership includes the possibility of group transformation and requires thorough consultation. African leadership requires the following elements:

  • The ability to be analytical and to synthesize issues;
  • Transparency, accountability and legitimacy;
  • The capacity to facilitate collective decision-making;
  • Listening skills, ability to enter into dialogue and problem-solving skills;
  • Patience, competence and fairness in dealing with people;
  • Flat management structures to maximize participation and understanding;
  • Facilitating and enabling skills.

Transparency combined with accountability is essential. All cases of dispute and moral behaviour are dealt with publicly, yet individual dignity is protected, as much as possible, through confidentiality. The emphasis on maximizing participation and understanding, means that the flatter the structures, the better.

One of the key components of success in business is that the company becomes a community. Companies should become communities or family units in order to nurture cohesion and unity in diversity. They should not continue to impose on people a culture which is fundamentally foreign. A contextualisation strategy becomes, therefore, the key to any intervention.

Communal Relationships

Communal relationships refer to networks of reconstruction. In an African system, communality is a strong and binding network of relationships. Children, for example, belong not only to their biological parents, but are also under the authority control of any adult in the community. This communal network becomes a system regulating the behaviour of both children and adults. Any person who does not conform to certain standards would be referred as akamuntu wamuntu, ‘this is not a human being’. Role modelling is widely encouraged. Welcoming of people into a community is coupled with festivals, introductions, allocation of land, sharing and giving of basic resources as a form of start-up capital. This practice is referred to as ukusisa. Communitarian society meant neither a society of equals nor a free society; there are hierarchical relationships that need to be respected and many obligations to the community.

Communal Enterprise

African enterprises are typically communal and are rooted in Ubuntu values which have the potential to be transformed into a dynamic force for economic development. Examples and characteristics of traditional African enterprise include:

  • Collectivism and solidarity through work teams;
  • Working practices that are based on two different philosophies: zenzele (do it yourself, which becomes individual entrepreneurship) and masakhane (doing it for ourselves together—the precursor of cooperative enterprise). Other group based practices include harvesting (ukuvuna) and hunting (inqina) strategies. The importance of these strategies is collective ability and sharing. The person who succeeds, doing it on his or her own through zenzele, uses her success to help others. There is the example of an entrepreneur in Bushbuckridge (Mpumalanga, South Africa) who used the profits from his hotel to build a school and a clinic. Or famous Senegalese singer, Akon, who is using his international influence and financial capacity to install solar panels on the continent.

Erosion of Values
Colonialism and the apartheid systems eroded African values. This was compounded by the migrant labour system, urbanization, industrialization and Christianity. The education system, workplace management values and religious practices all served to reinforce a particular dominant culture which is Eurocentric. This dilemma has placed African people in conflict throughout their lives. Most Africans end up living in and mediating their way through different worlds. In doing so, many tend to become chameleons in adjusting their role and behaviour to accommodate a particular cultural system. A great deal of effort is needed to reduce the contradictions in social reality that many Africans have to mediate. Successful mastery of this can be a source of strength, but for some it is confusing, humiliating and disempowering.

A story is told by my father that one day, Mswelanto his brother, who was a teacher, attended a traditional African wedding ceremony in Nqutu, Hlazakazi (a rural village in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa). This became a serious issue for a local priest, Reverend Mkhize. He took exception to Mswelanto’s participation in the wedding ceremony and then announced my uncle’s temporary suspension from the congregation. Mswelanto stood up immediately and challenged the decision by saying ‘Ngihlubuke ngabhinca ibheshu yini?’ (‘Did I leave the church and wear a cow skin?’). The minister stormed out angrily and the service stopped. This story shows how some African people internalize the erosion of their own culture. Everything that is African becomes evil. It was only someone with a strong and independed will, such as Mswelanto Mthembu, who challenged this. There are millions of other victims who gave up the battle and adapted to the new way of life; they did not stand up and protect African values, and some lost their courage in the process.

The long term enforcement of Eurocentric values in the workplace has resulted in the conflict, mistrust, resistance, pretence, non-commitment and failure to nurture and strengthen harmony in this country. Therefore, it should be crystal clear, especially to the private sector, that African people cannot be changed and redesigned according to perceptions about what is best for them.

The private sector in Africa should accept the failure of having imposed Eurocrentric values on other people and work towards acknowledging and managing this rich diversity in a different way. If we all continue pretending to know, to change, and to understand without really communicating, productivity and economics we will continue to be affected by mere indifference, confusion and suppressed conflict.§