Archive for June, 2011

Got ninety nine problems…

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

Welcome to Africa! Well, Sub-Saharan East Africa to be a little more specific.

I am at the end of a two-week trip to Tanzania and Zanzibar, and I have to say with this being my first trip to the continent, this place is truly amazing. I am down here doing some work for a British NGO who source human and financial capital from fund managers and European organisations who wish to invest in social and sustainable ventures in emerging economies.  Nice.

So let’s get the travel component of this blog out of the way first. Africa is awesome, but in a really unique kind of way. Firstly, the people are the best. Almost everyone we bumped into could not have been more helpful or welcoming. With a profile dwarfed by the neighbouring, more popular destination of Serengeti, the Mikumi National Park is truly one of the most amazing places I’ve ever visited. The only thing that was cooler than the local people in Mikumi it was the animals… and I’m talking thousands of them!! I never really had the desire to go on safari, but now having done it, I would say it is a “must do” when comes to building a bucket list.

Zanzibar is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. All the people are super cool, the beaches are great and there is plenty of rad quality seafood which is pulled straight out of the ocean. The island is very much structured around tourism, but is quite thin on other industries, as everything (including energy) is supplied from the mainland. It is a great place to have a break and truly unwind. And “Yes”, I did sing “Fuck Her Gently” each time I’ve ordered food from a restaurant (obviously).

Dar es Salaam is an interesting city. With a population of just under 2 ½ million people, the city has a massive waste problem. I have nothing against the city, but man, there is shit everywhere! When speaking with locals, many believe that it is the responsibility of the government to keep the city clean. When I put it to them that maybe they might have more success if the citizens decided to clean up the city, I got some very weird looks. “Why in Gods name would we do that?!?” was the most common response I received to this question.

This takes me to the work I was doing in Dar es Salaam, which was due diligence on start-ups businesses that creates positive social impact and are looking for capital. I interviewed companies in the areas of media, bio diesel, construction, finance and logistics. Across all these businesses, were two consistent themes to these business people were only too keen to discuss… the influence of China in Africa, and the entrenched culture of corruption throughout Tanzania.

I didn’t come across many people who had anything nice to say about African assets being purchased by the Chinese in recent years. Actually, to provide a more accurate explanation, they were ‘passionately bitter’ when it came to this topic. But when it came to the issue of corruption within the country, their real passion for change came out. Unfortunately, the majority of people I spoke with were at a loss to how they should deal with this crippling issue, especially when corruption is so entrenched in the culture of doing business in this part of the world. Their feeling of desperation got me thinking that surely there is someone in the country who has a half reasonable strategy to address this. So I made it a little bit of a mission of mine to talk to as many people as I could to find out what that answer is.

I heard a couple of good ideas, and a whole lot of bullshit (from poisoning the water supply to torching the Government Ministry Christmas Party). But I did have the pleasure of sitting next to a newly married couple for a few hours while on a boat journey from the mainland to Zanzibar. As with most locals who come across a foreigner’s willing ear, they were very quick to move our conversation (without being prompted) to the national issues which their country faces, which were unsurprisingly, China and corruption.

Like most locals, they too believed that China was being opportunistic (I think the word they use was “predatory”) in Tanzania. I explained that there is also another side of the story (ie: a Chinese prospective) which they weren’t particularly interested in hearing. They also were passionate about how the level of corruption in the country was a noose around the neck of the nation and their citizens. So I propose the question… “How do we fix it?” For the following 90 minutes, we vigorously conceptualised, challenged, and debated possible ways forward. We worked…. HARD! Although the three of us may not have come up with the silver bullet for a nation’s problems by the time we docked, I do think we made some inroads:

  1. Tanzania is a nation where its culture is holding its people at ransom. The actions of their leadership have dictated the behavior of those who follow. As one of my new Tanzanian friends so beautifully put it:

“A farmer’s responsibility is to look after his cows. If a farmer feeds his cows, the cows will follow. If a farmer moves left, the cows will follow. If the farmer moves right, the cows will follow. If the farmer moves away from corruption, the cows will follow”.

The focus for change must start at the top. Fighting the corruption culture at street level is futile.

2.  By creating an environment in which the government can consciously move away from the culture of corruption, you then begin to create an environment which is conducive to long-term thought processes. Once citizens begin to think like this, a business culture based on what it is considered to be ‘fair value’ can begin to emerge.

They firmly believe the only way that unity could be brought into an anti-corruption or ‘fairness’ culture would be under the instrument of religion. Although I am someone who does not have a religious bone in the body, I have a strong understanding and respect for the role of religion in society. The case that my newfound friends put forward, although not airtight, sounded better than most things I had heard on the continent. At the end of our ferry ride, we wished each other well and went our separate ways, but their views have kept me thinking… how can a country like Tanzania truly break the corruption cycle to become the country I know it can be? And more importantly, who will make the first move?

All if this talk of China and corruption is from what I heard from the locals, but I have a question based on what I saw; Since when did Africa become the dumping ground for the developed world’s shit?!? Seriously, all of our unsold and ‘used’ products end up here! I saw shipping containers of what I could only describe as ‘landfill’ rolling into port to be sold on the street. Hey, I’m good for bringing stuff of actual use and value into a country which needs it, but some of this shit IS SHIT! I have a story or three about this topic, but a plane back to London awaits, so I’ll pick this one up later. x