The problems we have in Africa are myriad and complex but as the old saying goes – How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time! I believe one of the important bites in eating this elephant is in the area of self-sufficiency through micro enterprises.
Self Sufficiency is a crucial element in our economic development and one of the key goals of African governments should be to create, develop and nurture micro enterprises.
Take food for example. What must we do to achieve the goal of self-sufficiency in food? Micro entrepreneurs are the answers and heroes in the making.
Why do we import cooking oil while our coconuts are falling to the ground and rotting away?
Why are the rest of the mangoes rotting away in the mango season after we have eaten our fill? What stops us from drying the excess produce and packaging them as healthy snacks?
Why do we sell our basic crops so that someone can process them and sell them back to us? Why can’t we also take it to the next level and use it ourselves?
The reason why self-sufficiency in food is so crucial to our economic development is because ready access to affordable nutritious food is still a daily struggle for too many – adults and children alike. No child can concentrate and learn on an empty stomach so good nutrition plays a vital part in a good education.
Another reason is because food truly is medicine and eating properly will keep you healthy. Prevention is not just better than cure – it is far cheaper.
And for nations in Africa pursuing good health naturally is important so that we do not sink our scarce resources into unnecessary healthcare or continue to watch our people die avoidable deaths through ignorance. It is no secret that a highly sophisticated healthcare system costing billions of dollars is required to sit alongside any nation whose diet is mainly processed foods.
As developing countries with our quest to generate more foreign exchange we must also stop to consider how we are spending what we do have. How much of our scarce foreign exchange is being spent on buying food and medicines? How many African countries are net food importers? How do we reduce this proportion by not needing to import as much basic foods because we grow and eat our own produce?
So we could say that there are issues of shortage, quality, low yield price, lack of choice, increasing demand for Western food, poor infrastructure, etc etc. Are these problems with no solutions or these opportunities just waiting for an entrepreneur to address and make some money along the way?
And to that entrepreneur who sees opportunities where others see problems and is willing to work hard, to risk something, the role of government is to empower that person to succeed.
The government can do this by providing vision, information, education, training and micro finance.
Why vision? – Because poverty and prolonged hardship breeds a mindset of ‘I can’t’ , of ‘it’s impossible’ and of ‘being defeated before you even try’. That is why poverty is said to be the curse of the poor. As part of supporting micro enterprise we need to teach entrepreneurs about envisioning – the art of seeing something in your mind. We need to break out of the mindset that someone else has the solution to the problems we face.
Why information? – Governments should provide information via briefing sessions in towns and villages, riding on the back of established and informal networks to dissemination this information. They need to establish ‘buy local ‘national campaigns on to support local entrepreneurs. The information highway means that we can also find out what others are doing and even how they are doing it so that we also can learn and adapt it to our situations. Eg In 2008 the “Ghana Rice” campaign, an intensive marketing campaign to promote Ghanaian rice to consumers in Northern Ghana. The campaign was a pilot initiative to complement the Government’s initiatives aimed at increasing rice production and improving the quality of Ghanaian rice so as to make it more profitable for farmers in Northern Ghana. In four short weeks, the marketing strategies reached an average of 57% of the people of the Northern Region of Ghana. Of these people, 26% reported buying quality Ghanaian rice because of the campaign.
Why Education/Training? – Because we need to learn to work smarter than our parents not harder and that requires education in problem solving. We need a generation of individuals who will take things one step further and who understand that competition is good. This could involve quality improvements, packaging, processing, marketing, customer care and better distribution methods. Why not start them young and start teaching entrepreneurship in schools?
Micro Finance – Because finance will often be needed to kick start an enterprise. I propose some kind of matching with the existing local ‘susu’ type scheme with its built in safeguards, thereby doubling the amount that can be borrowed. This has been done successfully by some banks in West Africa.
The growth of micro entrepreneurs is instrumental to economic development of the African nations. Entrepreneurs see opportunities where other see problems, they will look for creative ways to start to maximise the resources we have at home and help reduce our dependence on food imports.
This all leads to reduction in imports, improved health and lifestyle thus reducing health costs to the individual and the state. A nation getter richer is also a nation getting poorer if its people do not change their thinking. We must be careful not to give up the good aspects of the African culture, diet, lifestyle and outlook on life while we import western food, western culture and western diseases. It costs far more than we are prepared to pay.
Ruth Djang, Co- founder of London Academy for Economic Development and ABi Associates (www.abi.co.uk)
Published in New Africa Analysis: July 2012