Is the Idea of ‘African Solutions’ too limiting in a Globalised Economy?

Note: I paraphrased the title of this blog post from this tweet by Professor Calestous Juma. 

The question was prompted by a recent statement by Bob Collymore, the CEO of Safaricom, one of Africa’s pioneering mobile money platforms. Collymore suggests that the idea of ‘African Solutions’ (to African Problems) may be hindering the ability of African firms to have global impact.

Here is an excerpt from the Mail and Guardian:

The phrase “African solutions” has in recent years taken major meaning on the continent, but it unintendedly creates a canvas that is short of conquering global markets, the chief executive officer of Safaricom, east and central Africa’s largest telecommunications firm, has said.

Speaking at the Kenya Trade and Investment Summit in South Africa’s financial and business hub, Sandton, Bob Collymore used the analogy of how well US car-booking firm Uber has been adopted across the globe to illustrate that business success is not a function of a currency or locality, but of a can-do attitude.

“We need to change our mindset as Africans – both as Kenyans and South Africans. We need to set out to conquer the world, and we can. M-pesa could have conquered the world, but we didn’t,” he said of the globally-recognised mobile money transfer service that is now synonymous with the success of Kenya’s technology innovation.

“We need to think stop thinking about ‘African solutions’, we need to go beyond simply building a global brand through partnering with other companies and finding solutions that will go on to be leaders [in any territory] but you can only do that if you work together. Don’t think about it as going across a boundary.”

Collymore was referring specifically to tech innovation and the problems that many startups face in developing solutions that address global problems and have the ability to scale.

I think there may be a lot of wisdom here. I used to be an advocate of ‘African solutions to African problems’ – I even wrote something to that effect here – but I have been rethinking that position myself over the past few years.

The reality is that Africa exists in a hyper-connected world not as an island, and this process of globalisation will not be rolled-back. Any strategy of continental quasi-autarky for individuals, firms or even countries will be detrimental to progress in many ways. One example is that the underdeveloped sectors in many countries, such as agriculture, require, among other things, governments to re-establish farmers’ access to global markets, rather than focusing only on domestic self-sufficiency, which is also critical.

Furthermore, glimpsing from China’s experience, Chinese multinationals such as Huawei and ZTE are becoming household names around the world due to the ‘going global’ strategy of the Chinese government from the 1980s. This strategy encouraged local firms to become globally, not only regionally or continentally, competitive multinational firms.

This is not to dismiss the real urgency of building African intellectual capacity in areas such as STEM (Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), social sciences and entrepreneurship, and for Africans to be actively engaged in problem solving. However, I find there is a tendency to limit the scope of Africans’ creativity in many fields of endeavor to just local issues at home or on the continent – as though as an African, one is expected to only think, act and aspire to something African.

My position on these issues is work in progress…

What are your own thoughts?

5 thoughts on “Is the Idea of ‘African Solutions’ too limiting in a Globalised Economy?

  1. First and foremost I really love this your write-up compared to your evaluation on buharis 100 days in office but in what ways can the government such as Nigeria encourage indigenous companies become global

  2. The prefix, Africa, should only indicate the source of the solution. They usually always have global applicability. Am unable to think of any such idea with limiting applicability really. Unless I did not quite grasp your message. Regards. Usman Umar

  3. Well said. I agree that “African solutions” in an increasingly globalising world is limiting what African youths, entrepreneurs and innovators can achieve in contribution to global markets. On the other hand, as reverse psychology, “African solutions” can inspire a generation our of ‘siege’ to outperform as a statement and demonstration of what we can achieve despite history of disenablement from slavery and colonialism. It just would matter how we are influenced by “African solutions” – does it challenges us to make “African solutions”, the best solutions of reference of a higher identity, or does it make us less ambitious, less competitive and more compromising? I guess it would depend on who is promoting “African solutions”. If it is for “African problems”, it may be a political statement – suspect suggestion of compromise!

  4. The answer is simple: We need to focus on building ‘African solutions’ that will compete with foreign firms currently operating in Africa or at least be an alternative to these firms first before we think of going Global.
    We haven’t mastered the art of replicating foreign technology currently in Africa but we want to export technology. I’m not saying we don’t have the capability. We definitely do. But from an economic perspective it might be better to build alternatives in Africa first.
    China is a master of that art. That is why you here of economic espionage or massive information theft from china on foreign firms. China has an alternative to almost every technology in the country that is why they have confidence in testing other markets like Africa.
    E.g. Uber is breaking into the Chinese market but China already has Didi Kuaidi-which is the Chinese home built version of Uber.
    Maybe if we successfully master the art then we can begin to test other markets like Pakistan were such technologies are relatively new.
    I believe in crawl before you walk and we have to face reality; many African countries aren’t even providing 24 hrs electricity yet but want to conquer the world.

    Again we need to build ‘African solutions’ that will compete with foreign firms currently operating in Africa or at least be an alternative to these firms first.

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