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James Shikwati, and crisis as opportunity

Economist James Shikwati is introduced a one-man Libertarian think-tank. Chris Anderson references his now-legendary interview in Spiegel, reported under the title, “For god’s sake, please stop the aid“. He is “shockingly misguided, amazingly wrong,” according to Jeffrey Sachs… which makes him very popular already with some of our audience.

Shikwati believes that Africa’s economic weakness comes from a failure to commercialize the resources and inventions of the continent. He urges us to “stop addressing African problems and start addressing African opportunities.” Famine, he tells us, is a business challenge: 200 million people are facing food shortage, and they’re a market. Malaria, with 300-500 million cases a year and $12 billion in economic loss, is an economic opportunity.

“How can you say you don’t have a job in Africa when there are all these opporunities?” Shikwati points to a new Kenyan business focused on indoor insecticide spraying, protecting houses from roaches and mosquitoes for six months. The cost is afforable – from 100 to 400 Kenyan shillings – and providing this service is an entreprenurial opportunity for otherwise unemployed Kenyans.

The challenge for Africa is for businesses to move beyond their home countries and spread throughout the continent. “What’s missing is not money, but confidence.” Shikwati suggests that use culture to introduce people to business and build their confidence. He wants to “create passion amongst the youth” through business competitions and awards.

He fears there’s a “constrained vision” that Africans suffer from, a need to release the African mind. “If I eat yams, people say I’m poor – I should eat bread. That’s nonsense.” It’s the result of cultural preconception, he believes. “People are looking at African entrepeneurs as corrupt and untrustworthy
– a leader may be corrupt, but Africans are not corrupt.” To succeed, Africans need to challenge these stereotypes, internally and externally.

From the outside, Shikwati tells us, “Aid looks quite sexy. If we see a beggar on the street, we feel we should help him.” But this might not be the right decision. “If you’ve been giving us aid and have made us lose confidence in ourselves… I think you are not helping Africa.” Instead, he asks Shikwati to invest in Africa, or to allow the Africans to sell their products globally. But African companies have to step up as well. “How many indigenous African businesses are ready to tap into COMESA, a market of 400 million people? Or ECA, a market of 100 million people.”

Shikwati warns us that “countries bring not just aid, but their companies.” If we’re not careful, we end up putting ourselves in a situation where we’re waiting for aid instead of innovating – “we need to be competing with international business” across the African market.

3 thoughts on “James Shikwati, and crisis as opportunity”

  1. Well, not the whole truth, since we still have many simply corrupted leaders who hold many of these opportunities so far away both from the people of Africa as well as from foreign companies.

  2. Pingback: The global recession and foreign aid « Design in Africa

  3. Correctly said, Africa is littered with numerous opportunities. However only a few and i emphasize just very very can realize such opportunities.
    the first step is to revise the learning curriculum that borrow a lot from the wester world. Most of what is talk in the African schools is not beneficial to the students.

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