While attending the recently held FT/Arcelor Mittal Boldness in Business Awards 2010, I was reminded again of how much harder an African entrepreneur needs to work in order to gain a seat at the table of global business leaders. Standard Chartered won in our category by the way.
In an invitation only gathering of industry titans, only one other lady apart from me shared the same skin colour. We had more in common with the numerous black waiters attending to us at this high profile gala that I feared at any moment I would be asked by a guest for a champagne refill, or a tray of canapÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©s.
With hindsight, I was curious as to how we got nominated for one of the categories, given that our annual turnover most likely is less than a monthÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s salary of some of the CEOÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s present. I was struck by the irony of the presence of many corporate executives who run huge conglomerates that do business in Africa but there wasnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t a single African corporate leader with large scale operations in the UK.
On the way to my hotel, that evening, I reflected on the distance African businesses need to travel to seriously be considered as global industry players. I also thought back to the journey I had undertaken as a small African company trying to have our coffees listed on the shelves of UK supermarkets.
I remember spending the better part of 2005 travelling to the UK from Uganda in an effort to persuade UK supermarkets to consider listing our coffee on their shelves. At that time, the then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, was busy bringing Africa to the centre stage of world attention through his Commission for Africa initiative and the G8 Summit in Gleneagles.
The irony for me was both comical and inescapable. Here was Prime Minister Blair challenging the world to give more aid and make trade fair; yet as an advantaged English educated African entrepreneur, I had to make fourteen trips to the UK because supermarket buyers were sceptical about doing business with an African based coffee company. This scepticism that many of the continentÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s entrepreneurs face, is continuously reinforced through television imagery and reports that portray Africa as nothing more than an assembly of corrupt and disaster prone societies.
I remember watching an anchor of a UK breakfast show thank Bob Geldof for all he was doing for Africa through Live Aid, and the implication was clear: without Geldof and Bono, Africa would not be getting the attention and support they were receiving. The impression was unmistakable- Africa was a child and unable to survive without ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“wet nursesÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢ like Geldof and his band of well meaning but, I believe, misguided celebrities. Little wonder then that this paternalism translates to pessimism in business meeting rooms.
Ironically, I also found that well meaning trade advocates were equally misguided in failing to appreciate the extent to which non tariff barriers impede African exports to the global market. And as if this was not enough, the African producer on the continent whose psychology has been shaped by years of dependency presents a complex stumbling block at origin. The latter was particularly instructive for me.
Seven years ago, we began our journey working with coffee farmers in Western Uganda. I believed, at the time, that they would automatically embrace our vision of trade led community transformation. I was wrong. Instead, the farmers greeted us with outright suspicion and cynicism. Why were we there? What was this talk about farmer training, premium prices, and investing 50% of our profits in sustainable projects? Were we part of an international NGO? If not, then how could we deliver? Only International NGOs with big 4×4 wheel drive vehicles deliver!
This shocked us to the core. We had believed that a Ugandan social enterprise model would generate an immediate community buy-in, but instead here we were confronted with decades of cynicism and suspicion occasioned by a history of exploitation and abuse. In hindsight, it was me and my team who were naÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¯ve and assuming.
For decades, the coffee farmer has been one of the most exploited producers in the world. Of the approximately $140 billion (2008 figures) that global coffee sales represent; only $16 billion goes back to the producer nations. Over $120 billion in value is surrendered to the consuming nations. With such economic scenarios being played out across many other commodities, one might be inclined to ask: “who in fact is the real donor here?”
Despite improvements in coffee prices today, farmers still earn only a fraction of the end consumer price. For example, of the Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£2.00 a consumer pays on average for a cup of coffee in London, that uses approximately 5-7 grams of ground coffee, the farmer in Uganda gets Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£0.70 for a 1 kilogram of green coffee beans.
Scaling the tremendous structural barriers to trade, especially the psychological ones that are continually reinforced by negative media imagery is an immense and costly challenge. How can people view the continent as a source of entrepreneurship and innovation when all they see are distended stomachs and begging bowls?
If African businesses are to achieve global recognition then the debate must shift to a serious review of the realities that undermine trade with Africa and the inadequacy of most policy responses. Africans need the space to shape and the respect to inform this debate. Without this, African countries will remain producers of what they do not consume and consumers of what they do not produce.
The Boldness in Business event was co-sponsored by Arcelor Mittal – a Lakshmir Mittal owned company. Mr Mittal is from India and one of the richest men in the world. The last time I checked the policies that underpinned IndiaÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s rapid economic growth and spawned off so many Indian global business leaders, have very little in common with those promoted in many African economies. It will take tremendous and sustained boldness by African entrepreneurs to begin attending events like these as opposed to serving the drinks.