There is no gainsaying the fact that Africa is riddled by a plethora of challenges – poverty, diseases, conflicts, bad governance, poor infrastructure, et cetera. A special report on Business in Africa by The Economist (Sept 9, 2006, p. 79) succinctly states thus: “the prospect of investing in sub-Saharan Africa can cause businessmen to break out in a cold sweat. The region is often seen as a corporate graveyard of small, impossibly difficult markets, where war, famine, AIDS and disaster are always lurking… For many African entrepreneurs, operating legally brings too many headaches and too few benefits”. Conceding that this perspective is gradually changing 7 years down the line, The Economist is not alone in such perceptions of dire conditions of entrepreneurship in Africa. Notwithstanding, in the midst of these harsh challenges, there are equally sparks of untapped opportunities including – natural resources, population, endogenous energy, et cetera. Hence, while Africa might well be a challenging business environment, the continent also offers significant opportunities and latitude for business involvement in addressing some of its inherent challenges. The potential opportunities in Africa are undoubtedly driving the new rush towards Africa as the last frontier of capitalism and the focus of Africapitalism.
Tony Elumelu’s injection of Africapitalism into the business lingua is a welcome development. According to him, “Africapitalism is 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”. Elumelu argues that “Africa’s renaissance lies in the confluence of the right business and political action” – The Africapitalist, Q4, 1(1), 2012. This is a desirable call for many reasons.
In the first instance, it is a subtle push back on global capitalism, which does not pay appropriate attention to the unique factor of “place” in economic production and consumption. Globalisation prides itself on its ability to extract value wherever value is found irrespective of place and space. This view tends to see the opportunities of a globalised world and cares less about the global distribution of wealth. Despite the positive attributes of globalisation, it, more often than not, ends up creating a lopsided world of immense inequality and injustice. Then again, globalization leaves the world open to raw competition and the demise of the relevance of place (location) in cross border trade. It also leads to the so-called “north-south” dichotomy in trade relations, a distinction that ensures that the south (i.e. the developing economies) remains worse off. Africapitalism consequently becomes a pragmatic way to rein in run-away globalisation and its discontents, and a platform for refocusing attention on the significance of place in capitalism. The reintroduction of place in capitalism is not necessarily new as economic patriotism remains an essential part of western democratic institutions. What is rather novel, on this score, is the focus on Africa – the dark continent of diseases and poverty – as the last frontier of capitalism.
Another positive element of Africapitalism is its anchor on the Creating Shared Value (CSV) concept of Porter and Kramer, and the repurposing of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as a phenomenon beyond mere philanthropy. Africapitalism embodies the desire for the private sector to contribute to the development of Africa. Indeed, CSV emphasises the need for businesses not to divorce societal benefits in their pursuits of economic goals. CSV sees the intersection of business and societal needs as a superior expression of entrepreneurship and manifestation of capitalism. Unfortunately, CSV is global in outlook and geography-less. Its articulation of society is as broad and meaningless as the society of the globalised world. The focus of Africapitalism on Africa is a significant mark of distinction, and is a courageous aspiration to save geography (location and place) from the onslaught of globalisation. Nonetheless, it comes with its consequences, implications, and challenges. One of the challenges and implications is that Africa will be prioritised in economic/business decisions, even when that prioritisation does not necessarily meet the strict tenets of the global economic world order. For instance, the choice and decision to prioritise Africa should not necessarily be made on the basis of cost and profitability alone. In some cases, especially where the trade-offs are marginal and inconsequential, Africa could be prioritised against other economic geographies as a result of the pursuit of Africapitalism. While this appears as a laudable agenda on the surface, it will require a complementary mindset – i.e. Africonsciousness – to be realised and sustainable.
Capitalism has historically been regarded as a form of economic coordination with strong cultural influences and undertones. The European form of capitalism is different from the Anglo-Saxon variant. While the former is socially oriented, the latter is very economic in outlook and orientation. These varieties of capitalism are informed by distinct socio-cultural philosophies. The emergence of capitalism in China, for instance, has its peculiarities and uniqueness given the role of the State in furthering economic advancement. All these forms of capitalism are reflections of how the different societies have chosen to be organised. They are products of much deeper intellectual project. In other words, what are seen today as mere expressions of markets, are historical products of well-articulated socio-political philosophies. As such, Africapitalism needs to be founded on a robust philosophy and worldview. This philosophy and worldview will in-turn embody an Africa-consciousness. This consciousness will be a form of re-imagined Afrocentricism, which places the interests of Africa and her people at the epicentre of business decisions, and will guide Africa’s renaissance.
Africonsciousness is a socio-mental awareness of Africa and her people first as a continent and human beings with genuine needs, before being a market with viable consumers. The former is empowering and humane, and the latter is exploitative and dehumanising. The sudden characterisation of Africa as the last frontier of capitalism bears the hallmarks of the exploitative form of capitalism, which will not be good for the continent. Africonsciousness helps to neutralise the onslaught of globalisation and redirects the positive energy of capitalism in Africa to meeting genuine development needs of Africa and her people. Otherwise, Africapitalism without a strong philosophy behind it runs the risk of being hollow and ungrounded.
As much as Africapitalism is still work in progress, Elumelu deserves the credit to pioneer its articulation. However, it now needs to be engaged as an intellectual project to enhance its robustness and application. The suggestion of Africonsciousness as a complementary business philosophy to Africapitalism is an attempt in that direction.