Africa has always been a prosperous continent. Apart from its natural resource endowments, it had a long-standing heritage of entrepreneurial prosperity until its weakening through slave trade and colonialism. The continent had several civilizations such as ancient Egypt, the Mali Empire, the ancient Carthage, the central African kingdoms, the kingdom of Ghana and the Songhai Empire. These kingdoms and civilizations flourished alongside important centres of learning such as the historical University of Timbuktu.
It will not be out of place to assume that the dominant cultural values of the continent facilitated such great achievements and manifestations of prosperity and entrepreneurship. Culture unarguably plays a very crucial role in resulting levels of well-being in every society. For instance, communities that value industry and education more than others are likely to be more prosperous than those who do not. Enough pieces of evidence show that prosperity is substantially a function of entrepreneurship. The latter, in turn, focuses on the creation of more wealth rather than merely reducing the incidences of poverty. It is positively catalytic and bothers itself little about the redistribution of the created wealth. But the act of entrepreneurship itself gains momentum on the back of specific supporting values such as the knack for opportunity discovery as well as working smart.
The innate proclivity for challenging work and a low tolerance for failure enshrined in most traditional African cultures are well-known. For instance, part of the explanation for the dominant polygamist system in Africa is the desire to have lots of human hands in farm work. Unlike this era of mechanized agriculture, commercial farming depended mostly on the size of mobilizable human resources.
The average African is hard-working. The environment naturally pushes members to work hard to meet their needs. The 2013 Gallup polls show that 85% of Africans believe that they can only get ahead by working hard. This figure compares favourably with 84% for North Americans and 82% for the Asia Pacific people. Similarly, on March 30, 2017, John O. Kakonge in his writing on the role of culture in Africa’s development for the Pambazuka News pointed out that foreign mining companies in South Africa recruit Basotho workers in their mines because they are so dependable and hard-working. He also noted that there are African communities that are known for their excellent business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. They include Chaga in Tanzania, Serahule in the Gambia, Fulas in Guinea, Mali, Niger and other nearby countries, Ibos and Hausas in Nigeria, and Kikuyu in Kenya. Again, Gabriel E. Idang in his 2015 article on African culture and values published in Phronimon, used the case of the new yam festival in Ibibio to demonstrate the innate quality of determination embedded in the culture of the Africans. According to him, it was shameful for an Ibibio man to purchase yams for his family within the first 2 to 3 weeks after the new yam festival as such would expose the man as being too lazy. Historical records also show that because of the zero-tolerance for laziness in the slave trade era, some families sold their children who were not hard-working into slavery.
As already mentioned, the handprint of entrepreneurship appears everywhere in the extended family and communal spirit that defines the African social fabric. Taking the Igbo ethnic group as an example, successful members of an extended family adopt other struggling members and support them to succeed too. That appears to be the original spirit behind the ethnic group’s highly reputed apprenticeship system. There is pride in helping other members of the extended families to become economically independent through the transfers of skills, finance, network, contracts, and every other thing that would enable the adopted one to succeed.
Before the series of disruptions of its traditional socioeconomic environment for entrepreneurship, the African people have always had a structure for an efficient justice system. Such a justice system was necessary for profoundly successful entrepreneurship. Being highly religious and with great respect for the voice of the ancestors, through the instrumentality of varieties of gods and goddesses as well as a deep respect for the elders, Africans were able to establish moral codes that ensured peaceful society. In many African communities, the elders within an extended family system were automatically the immediate court of justice. More complicated issues pass through the enlarged committee of elders. Justice and equality were commonplace as society itself were highly egalitarian.
For most African ethnic groups, failure is virtually unacceptable and sometimes considered a form of retaliation by the gods. The interpretation of the latter is that it is a curse from the gods. Young men and women who failed to meet up with the expectations of demanding work and entrepreneurial industry were sold into slavery. Victory and success in all its forms were celebrated. That is why the culture interweaves with teamwork and team spiritedness. These values are evident in the communal lifestyle of many African societies. Because of the primacy of the importance of succeeding, individuals complement each other to achieve that. For instance, women sweep the village square together while men maintain the roads together. In some cultures that depend almost entirely on farmland for economic survival, siblings work together in turns to cultivate each other’s portions. The examples are endless. However, teamwork and the underlying team spirit constituted forms of entrepreneurial organization for the most efficient production.
The high degree of cooperative relationship among individuals and communities also makes it easier for African societies to adopt better alternatives. For example, if a neighbouring town discovers a better way of carrying out an activity more efficiently, it was easy to transfer such newly acquired skills to other cities. The latter also quickly adopted a new and better alternative based on mutual shared trust among communities.
Africa’s historical entrepreneurial successes, which stand upon its cultural values, were manifest in at least four well-documented areas. These include its accomplishments in the trans-Saharan trade, the gold trade of ancient West Africa, the iron metallurgy in sub-Saharan Africa as well as the many ancient African cities and prosperous empires. Many historical writers recorded that black African merchants of the Nile Valley had four-wheeled caravans for trading as early as the sixth century BC. Trade boomed across the route that connected central Sudan and Morocco to Ghana in today’s West Africa. North African merchants came with salt in exchange for Ghanaian gold and other spices. There was, in essence, a high level of entrepreneurial alertness as different geographical areas in the world at that time. A sizeable number of the empires that emerged in Africa stood on gold propelled trades exchanged for salt, ivory and slaves. This natural resource also attracted the attention of the Portuguese as well as other explorers who rampaged West Africa to enhance Europe’s gold coinage.
Archaeological evidence shows that the Nok culture of modern-day Nigeria had developed iron smelting by 1000 BC. There are also similar shreds of evidence of iron smelting in the Djenne-Djenno culture in Mali as early as 250 BC. Overall, sufficient research appears to establish that Africans discovered and developed iron metallurgy that served their agricultural and hunting needs at that time. It was another compelling evidence of the indigenous culture of enterprise in Africa long before its fall through colonialism and slave trade.
Several great pre-colonial empires and cities of Africa also attest to her outstanding entrepreneurship and prosperity. West Africa boasted of the Nok civilization, the Oyo, and Benin Empires, the Nri kingdom, the Ashanti Empire and the Sokoto caliphate. In central Africa were the Luba kingdom and the Lunda Empire. In southern Africa, there was the Mutapha Empire of great Zimbabwe, the Zulu kingdom, and Maravi Empire. There were also the empires of Kitara and Buganda in modern-day East Africa. These empires and civilizations equally had well-developed cities comparable to what obtained anywhere in the world at that time. It is, therefore, easy to see that the African man has been hard-working and entrepreneurial-minded. Many of the celebrated successes pointed out above derive their strengths from the underlying cultural values. These values, to an exceptionally significant extent, whenever in support of poverty alleviation, are the primary focus. The continent has always been rich with natural resources, and its inhabitants have ever done great jobs of expanding on its nature given prosperity.
For example, many African cultures frown at begging. The Igbo ethnic group in Nigeria, for instance, consider begging as a curse. Beggars are embarrassments to the families and lineages they belong. Therefore, many put forth their efforts to help each other to succeed and thus prevent such. It was the individual culture of discipline and industry that gave birth to the reputed groundnut pyramids of Kano and the Cocoa Mountains of Southwest Nigeria. They were the visible testimonies of Africans acting based on the DNA of enterprise without much of central coordination. The underlying motivations were not of a struggle to survive but of motivation to create prosperity that others can as well enjoy.
Again, as already explained, that motivation is evident in the polygamous and communal social structures. Since the abundance of human resources in the agricultural enterprise was almost synonymous with today’s commercial machines, structures that bring about more hands into the production process were acceptable. Polygamy was the surest route to actualizing that objective. Therefore, its adoption as part of the culture of African societies had strong entrepreneurial undertones.
Finally, the entrepreneurial acumen in the DNA of Africans is also evident in the way with which they acculturate the norms and values of other societies. While the combination of colonialism, slavery, trade, and Western education have facilitated this process, Africans’ assimilation of many aspects of the cultures of other societies is commendable despite their implications on our brand of entrepreneurship. Consider the ease with which the individualism of the Western world is increasingly dominating the psyche of the Africans. Even with the appreciation of individual actions for entrepreneurial growth, there is no sufficient evidence that it is superior to the communal route to entrepreneurial progress of African society. Similarly, mainstream economics premised on the scarcity mentality may be very alien to the traditional African culture. The implication is the growing monetization and attachment of monetary values to things ordinarily considered so abundant that it should not have a price attached to it. That on its own is inconsistent with the nature-given abundant prosperity mindset of the African.