Monday, March 16, 2009

Rising Africa

“The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Africa”.Enterpreneurs solve problems. Take away electricity, and they sell generators and inverters. Take away a stable financial system, and they make their money on speculating on foreign currency. Take away their employment, and they set up kiosks in the street.”

For this month I have really enjoyed reading Vijay Mahajan’s Africa Rising. The part that caught my attention the most was the quote above which seeks to bring to fore the natural entrepreneurial instincts scattered along the streets of Africa. It is this very instinct that ensures the survival of the illiterate and the jobless class in Ghana and many other African counties if not all.

For some strange reasons I was never intrigued by the sight of all these hard-core entrepreneurial attempts made by these people within the continent. A drive through the streets of Accra or other major suburbs of the city will bring to light a very strange but money making opportunity. Drivers and their “mates” find it difficult to walk into banks to request for change of theirs notes in the form of coins. Considering the fact that most drivers wake up hours before tellers and bank managers even go to bed, it is near to impossible for such tro-tro drivers to walk into these financial institutions to request for coins as change. This problem has been solved by the many young people on the roads who provide these drivers-in-need with the coins they need. Frankly I am tempted to think these middle men do not get their coins from the banks either!!

I do see the business as one that practically describes the above quote from Africa Rising. These “businessboys” run after their potential clients every now and then to exchange the “mate’s’ bigger denominations into smaller ones mostly coins. How do they make money? That is quite easy. For every one Ghana cedi transaction they make a 10 % profit since in return they pay to their customers 90 pesewas.

One other shocking business in Ghana is the “human blood bank” available in our hospital. In big hospitals such as Korle Bu and 37th Military Hospital, there are lots of individuals who have made it their job(or is it work rather ?) to provide blood transfusion services to members in need. More often than not, relatives of patients in critical conditions are required by the Hospital to transfuse blood for a major operation. In some cases it is easy for these family members to come up with the needed amount of blood. In other times however, the “merchandise” they come up with is either inadequate for the operation or they simply don’t seem to get a family member who is qualified in courage and in compatibility to go through the process.

These “blood transfusers” are on standby to solve this problem very problem the latter group faces. Most of them are universal donors. They approach these individuals in need and offer to go through the blood transfusion process for a fee. This is what I call “Using what you have to get what you want”.

There is this other group of social entrepreneurs who wake up very early to join queues in very busy embassies such as that of the UK or US. These are Ghanaians who have never applied for a visa and probably never will. After spending some time in the front part of these never-ending queues, they mark their position in the queue with a rock or by other unarguable means, and begin their quest for potential buyers who usually are in the rear section of these “away from Hell” queues. Since most of these burger-to-be would do anything to get the consular officers earlier, there is always an available market. The reserved position in the front then goes to the highest bidder. So a few hours of sleep trade-offs could earn the seller as much as GH¢ 5 or GH¢10; fairly more than the average minimum wage in Ghana.

There are a lot more informal and crude means by which Africans make money. Though some of these, on a few occasions fall within the illegal bracket I still believe the entrepreneurial instinct in Africa is alive. How else do the over 2 million unemployed people in Ghana survive?


Michael said...

A paradox of choice: less means more... less on cash drives us to more creativity!


I believe the African man is a naturally born entrepreneur whose skills have been developed as an adaptation for survival. The African continent is lacking when it comes to government 'made' or funded industries. There are very few 'white collar' jobs and employment in this sector is worsened by the lack of adequate skills. Man is then left with no other option but to capitalize on the long instituted barter trade, this time modifying it a bit to suit the current economic requirements.
There is this stuff I hear on news everyday... Small and Medium Enterprises a.k.a SME's and how government is targetting them for economic growth. From my personal observation, these SME's form the backbone of our country's (GHANA)economy and should be supported more it is being done now. But instead... what do we see? A high lending and interest rate... a high collateral. How then do we expect these SME's to grow individually to suppot the country's economy as a backbone? IF these SME's had enough money or higher collaterals, why would they be needing extra money to keep their bussinesses going? Like they say in Twi... "mede bεwe nam pa agye asotore no, anka mede bεwe koobi ama m'anum abon"... meaning "i'd rather eat a fermented fish and have a foul mouth, than to eat good meat and then recieve a slap"
Even if the aid to help the SME's develop are available, they wouldnt want to go for them because of the thick strings attached. I wouldnt want to talk about those that go to the extent of 'using what they have to get what they want' illegally... but I believe the economic status is a determinant. The latter situation is happening in the developed countries too but remember we have different norms and values.

Jareau Wade said...


Interesting examples of Ghanaian entrepreneurship. When I was teaching at MEST I was trying to think of some examples; I should have talked to you. How do you think Ghanaians (and all Africans) can turn this natural entrepreneurial instinct into real wealth, development, and change?

-Jareau Wade
Palo Alto, CA

Edward said...

Jareau, too bad we couldnttalk whiles you were around. In any case I believe the African entrepreneurship is as a result of the hardship in Africa. So people come up with different ways of surviving and varying ways of keeping the family. I guess some sort of training in this area could do some good. Some training for example in how they could invest some money for a needy season or something like that

Edward said...

I do agree with you Michael. More like necessity is the mother of all inventions.. But then why arent Africans winning any Nobels for any invention?