With the current renewed focus on economic growth, it is now common to hear African leaders talk about entrepreneurship. When someone starts selling bananas at a market stand surrounded by other banana sellers, he is hailed as an entrepreneur. But in fact, he is just a businessman. To be an entrepreneur, he has to start something new, or do an old thing in a new way. The element of newness has to be there, something that immediately distinguishes him from other people in the same business, something that makes him stand out and be preferred by some buyers (or all buyers). In short, a true entrepreneur is an innovator. He thinks hard about distinguishing himself to create a special advantage for his business.
But that’s not what is common in Zambia or even the rest of Africa. In Zambia, you often hear “entrepreneurs” say, “mwana, I hear there’s a lot of money in the bus business. I am also going to buy a bus from Japan and get into this business.” There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a way of surviving. It’s business.
But real entrepreneurs think beyond mere survival. They want to build. They want to dominate. To them, business is an intellectual activity, an intellectual challenge, not merely a means of putting more food on the table. It’s a science.
This is the discipline that Africa almost totally lacks. You need only to look at African television to see how true this is. Almost none of the interesting shows we love to watch on TV originated from Africa. Whether it is Big Brother Africa, African Idol, or Survival, or any other interesting show; they are all imported from outside. And yet there is absolutely no reason that none of these ideas was started in Africa: it costs no money just to think of a concept like “we’ll put some young people in the same house for one month and film them live, then viewers will vote them out one by one” (Big Brother). Do you need a lot of capital to just think of that? Does that need to come from a rich country?
Even the shows that we think were started here were actually not. We have a certain local show that is merely a copyright infringement of “the Apprentice” from America. We have a number of dance competition shows which have infringed on more copyrights than one. And so on. Many of these “local” shows are just a lawsuit in waiting. We do not have the discipline required to think of something different.
Why can’t some people in that industry think of something original that Africans will love and then they could perhaps export it to Americans, Europeans and Asians, just as we import their creations?
The United States is the wealthiest nation in the world because it is the most innovative. Innovators all over the world know that the best place for them to succeed is the US because the culture there is simply the best at innovation (we’ll look into the reasons for that in another article).
Americans have always known that innovation is the most effective way to enter an established industry. Big corporations have frequently been dethroned from their market position by two kids working in a garage who come up with a new idea or intelligently bet on a new trend. IBM was a multibillion dollar corporation when Bill Gates and Paul Allen saw an idea that IBM had overlooked, and soon the great software company was dethroned by a small company started by two young programmers.
Yahoo was already a billion dollar company when two Stanford students thought of a better way of doing search – and they formed Google.
The stories are endless.
And even for these new companies to continue leading, they have to keep innovating, which means the whole management team (not just the founder) have to be innovators in their own departments. Once they slow down, it is only a matter of time before a new entrant creeps up on them and takes them out.
We have big companies in Africa that do very little innovation, but they continue leading because there is no one to challenge them despite their many obvious mistakes. There are no young or older people who even believe they can think of something that will challenge these big companies. In our consciousness, it is not even a possibility to think of taking out a big company.
We complain that this is because banks do not support entrepreneurs. There is probably some truth to that, but it is not the main story. Most times the biggest problem is really just that our “entrepreneurs” do not present any (provable) innovative ideas to the bank or venture capitalist. When an American who comes from that culture of innovation visits the same bank, he gets a loan and we all just assume that our own bankers are being racist against us!
Yes, it’s possible that there are some bankers who are irrationally intimidated by whites, but many times it is just that our local entrepreneurs are not really entrepreneurial. They do not have the character of an entrepreneur. Not only do they not have the integrity that will force them to repay the loan before they begin consuming the profits (they buy the latest Mercedes Benz before they’ve paid back half the loan!), they also do not have the character to think through the idea to the point where it is truly distinguished from other people doing the same thing. They go to the bank and just ask for money to buy some buses. Or to build a lodge. Or to start a farm. When they are asked what will be different about it, why it will make money despite the competition, they basically have no answer. They just believe they will work harder or be luckier or something.
Imagine if Bill Gates had gone to any bank simply with the claim that he would work harder than IBM. Everyone would think he is insane: you need much more than “hard work” to beat IBM. You need a scientific method.
Most of the proposals that are rejected by our local banks would most likely also be rejected by American banks. It is not true that their banks are absolutely more flexible than ours. No. It just so happens that their businessmen are generally much more innovative because they are more committed to the hard discipline of sustained thought — they have a stronger character, they are more innovative.