Accessing Africa, the Last Commercial Frontier
U.S. President Obama invoked the Nguni word, ubuntu, during his eulogy for the beloved Nelson Mandela, noting that the concept of ubuntu was what drove Mr. Mandela to suffer and to forgive and, by example, an exhortation to move his nation to forgive and to work together. Because it was by shared sacrifice and shared success that their society would move forward.
Our Western social concepts are different. But world opportunities and social practice suggest we might pay attention to the implications of ubuntu in our business affairs.
It was French philosopher and mathematician Descartes who, in his recognition of “I think, therefore I am” arguably set the stage for Western individualism. Immanuel Kant later identified humans as beings that think of themselves as “I’s.” And so, it was inevitable that as commercialism, then mercantilism, then colonialism grew, the “privilege of I” would grow as well, aided by the philosophy of capitalism inherent in Western law, which promoted private production, private development and private exchange rights.
But since the Recession of 2007-09, we see that the “privilege of I” also can include the mutual falling of “us,” when local excesses occur in an interconnected economic system. The US and European banking systems came close to failure, markets collapsed and burgeoning economies not only of the West but also the BRIC nations fell back. But what does all this have to do with ubuntu?
Well, ubuntu is a concept of existential, interpersonal interconnectedness. Under ubuntu, not only do we rise and fall together, we also exist or cease to exist together. Quite a different concept from the mechanized, compartmented, disconnected world of capitalistic thought where the One benefits, even from the suffering of the Many.
But capitalism is changing. It is recognizing the importance of networks, the systematic nature of our global existence. Data and communication providers and even banking are starting to build at the village and region level. While manufacturing still follows the path of lowest cost, manufacturing processes are fragmenting with fabrication in one place, and assembly in another.
Meanwhile, though, national economic advancement does not succeed from just one employer taking root in a developing country. Rather, economic advancement and enhancement can only come from a rich soup of enhanced housing, improved water and food supply, improved tourism, and places for the rising middle classes to spend their money.
In our view, all this is connected. Improved housing is pointless if the roads to and from work slow traffic with potholes and accidents. Improved food is pointless if the jobs necessary to afford it are not there. Tourism is pointless if no one can reach the country by air or road.
It would appear that the “privileged I” of capitalism could benefit from recognizing the benefits of ubuntu. (Should we capitalize it as Ubuntu Capitalism?). A business that can link its product to a vertical benefit, or to a vertical partnership, either public or private, has an opportunity to earn doubly and generate double benefit for the local citizens. For instance, NAGP seeks opportunities to build affordable and middle class houses. But, in addition to its housebuilding, contracting capability, it has made relationships in the equipment leasing business. There, one finds vertical, linked profits, linked job generation and linked economic stimulation. Perhaps one of those new employees will one day buy one of those NAGP houses which for which the NAGP backhoe he maintained moved earth.
Ubuntu is a singularly African concept. It is, at the same time, a tribal concept and also a liberating concept of self, for rather than being a sort of African version of redistributive socialism, it is, according to African historian Michael Onyebuchi Eze, a concept that promotes a community’s benefit as coming from unconditional communal recognition of individual uniqueness and difference. No stratification or classification. The society makes what it needs of individuals. Not all are equal, but every one in the society has a purpose. So, one could argue that it is the responsibility of the society to make managers and workers alike. In our view, as part of the society, a company making a foreign direct investment would do well to keep this in mind.
We do, every day. I guess you might call us Ubuntu Capitalists. We profit from what we will build, in all senses of the word. But we expect that our profit measures the opportunities we provide.