As an African who has spent my adult professional life in the U.S., I am proud to say that I have never encountered racism here. I am, of course, even prouder of the U.S. for having elected Barack Obama, thus proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that a majority of U.S. voters care more about merit than they care about race. I truly believe that the U.S. has largely moved into a post-racial phase, and that in the future we will continue to move towards a world in which people love and celebrate racial and cultural differences. I look forward to bringing my children into such a world, one in which they will be celebrated for who they are.
Prior to living in the U.S., I was educated in France, and occasionally I would encounter some racism there, especially among older people. On one occasion I was visiting an elderly French woman, a relative of a white French boyfriend, who, when I arrived, whispered to him, "But what will I feed her? I don't have any bananas." She was well-intentioned but ignorant; good-hearted as she was, she confused black Africans with chimpanzees. What does one do if one doesn't have bananas to feed them?
On a brochure for a tour of Jeff Sachs' Millenium Village in Rwanda, managed by one of Sachs' Columbia University colleagues, Rule #1 is "Please do not give anything to the villagers -- no sweets, cookies, empty water bottles, pens or even money." While I'm sure the rule is well-intentioned, it captures perfectly the revolting condescension that I feel from the Millenium Villages project. Unlike the ignorant elderly woman, celebrated professors at Columbia University cannot be excused through their ignorance. When highly educated people can objectify us with a "Don't feed the animals" sign, the only explanation is a blinding arrogance. These people are so sure that they are noble for helping the ignorant chimps, that they hadn't even noticed just how humiliating the expression is.
Rule #1 goes on to explain the rationale for the rule, "Our desire is to encourage a culture of entrepreneurship and service provision rather than handouts." Again, I'm completely sympathetic to the encouragement of entrepreneurship, but the situation is entirely ludicrous -- American professors spending tens of millions of dollars telling villagers how they should live their lives, so that American tourists can go and watch the new feature at the zoo in which the African natives are doing just as they are told by the American experts -- with the careful warning to the tourists not to contaminate the zoo display by feeding the animals. This is how Sachs supports African entrepreneurship?
As an African entrepreneur living in the U.S., just over a year ago I was approached by a representative of the Millenium Villages project. As someone who cares about Africa and who is eager to eliminate African poverty through enterprise, I was happy to meet with this person to see what we might be able to do together. Imagine my surprise when, rather than propose some kind of professional business partnership, he expected me to open up my connections so that they could sell the agricultural and artisanal products being produced in their villages. First I was stunned by the fact that they had produced goods before thinking about how to market them, something a real entrepreneur never does. Second, as a successful entrepreneur, I had expertise in sales that could have been useful to them if they had been willing to consult me as a relevant expert. Instead they simply asked me to give them my sales contacts and offered to sell their products to my company -- neither of which was respectful of my entrepreneurial expertise nor me as a business person with a carefully cultivated reputation. I was being objectified as "The African businesswoman who will be grateful to work with Columbia University professors to end African poverty." There was no real understanding of or respect for my expertise as an entrepreneur.
In my first company, Adina World Beverages, I had spent years traveling to trade shows and retail stores in order to get our beverages into Whole Foods Market, Wegmans, and dozens of other high-end retailers. As a consequence of many thousands of miles and hundreds of hours of relationship building, I had gradually built up an effective network for selling our products. I had gotten our products into retailers by paying close attention to market trends as well as to the idiosyncrasies of various buyers both retail and wholesale. Moreover, even before hitting the pavement to sell product, I had designed the entire company concept based on a prior identification of a market niche that I believed I could fill. My success at selling on the ground was directly linked to my identification of a niche prior to creating the company. I knew that the cultural creative demographic would relate to both the product and story that I was promoting.
By contrast, Sachs had begun with a self-important "save the Africans" concept, obtained tens of millions in philanthropic donations for his projects ($50 million from Soros, $15 million from Gates, etc.) and then gone on to carry their White Man's Burden. Only after spending gobs of other people's money did it occur to them that "Oh, maybe we need to find a way to sell the products that we are encouraging our villagers to produce." I had seen this story before. When I began training Senegalese women to grow organic hibiscus and promised to buy it from them, initially they laughed at me, because countless NGOs had helped them grow hibiscus in the past, only to have it rot after harvest because there were no buyers for their product. The women were delighted to find that because I had, in fact, identified a niche and was an effective saleswoman, the hibiscus had found a market. But NGOs and academics rarely think in these terms.
When Sachs' colleague came to me expecting me to hand over my contacts, he did not bother to bring me product samples or to provide me with any evidence that their products were of sufficient quality that I would put my reputation on the line for the products. Nor did he provide any evidence that their organization was capable of executing on their operations in a sufficiently reliable manner that I would want to hand over my contacts to them. They simply expected that because they were from Columbia University, with celebrity cheerleaders and mountains of cash, that I should therefore be eager to open up my network for them. But why should I believe that Columbia University professors can manage a reliable supply chain?
As an entrepreneur a significant portion of my expertise is identifying appropriate products that meet my quality standards and are aligned with my products' branding. The notion that an NGO rep could show up at my doorstep and "offer" me products for which I should be grateful is both condescending as well as profoundly ignorant of how business really works. It is as if I had showed up at a Whole Foods Market and deigned to offer them my products, for which they should be grateful -- sorry, guys, producing and selling products is hard work, managing a global supply chain requires a great deal of management expertise, research and legwork, and is a tough game that one can never take for granted.
In addition, a portion of an entrepreneur's skill is, well, selling. Most academics and NGO types have no respect for nor appreciation of the art of selling. Living in a world without accountability, most of them simply don't understand it. If Sachs & Co. want to support African entrepreneurs, they should first learn to understand Africans as human beings, then to understand entrepreneurs as professionals with distinctive expertise, so that they can then become more effective at supporting real African entrepreneurs to create real businesses. There is something surreal about a group of famous, mostly white male, professors claiming that they know how to make Africans more entrepreneurial. Black Africa as learning laboratory for white academics in New York? Maybe they think they can learn more about how to make us Africans more entrepreneurial by telling the tourists coming to admire their work not to feed us sweets?
The Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo is receiving a great deal of attention for her recent book Dead Aid, in which she proposes that all government-to-government foreign aid to Africa should be stopped in the next five years. Jeff Sachs, the great aid advocate, has harshly criticized Moyo, believing that her proposal would result in great suffering.
While I am largely in agreement with Moyo's perspective, her great failing is that she does not offer realistic solutions, and is thus vulnerable to Sachs' attacks. The fact is that most African leaders abuse foreign aid (but not all; I support aid to Liberia due to the fact that I trust Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf more than I trust most African leaders). But Moyo does not focus adequately on African entrepreneurship and the way that Africans themselves need to step up to the plate. Aid has corrupted the African work ethic and encouraged a culture of corruption and manipulation, and we need to work together to identify and support the up-and-coming new Cheetah cohort of honest, hard-working Africans (in honor of Ghanaian economist George Ayittey's distinction between the older generation of Hippo rulers dependent on aid and the younger Cheetah generation of fast-moving entrepreneurs. Sachs, by the way, did not create the Cheetah generation. Indeed, he is ignoring us).
It enrages me that well-intentioned Americans, ranging from Hollywood celebrities, to academics such as Sachs, to philanthropists such as Soros and Gates, limit their focus on Africa largely to misguided advocacy for increased foreign aid. Rather than experiment on rural villagers in Rwanda (and in Senegal, my home country), I'd respect Sachs more if he supported real African entrepreneurs. Bono, to his credit, has moved beyond an advocacy of foreign aid to support trade through his DATA program (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa). I would like to see a new generation of caring Americans focus more on respectful collaboration with real African entrepreneurs to create great new businesses through investing in our companies, buying our products and services, selling products and services to us, and working with us as respected business equals. Poverty in Africa will be eliminated not by aid, but by entrepreneurial job creation, by real entrepreneurs creating scalable enterprises that will ultimately create millions of jobs. Despite Sachs' warning not to give us "sweets, cookies... or even money," you can, in fact, invest real money in real African entrepreneurs. In exchange, we'll supply you with great products and services because we Cheetahs are committed to excellence, to exchanging value for value rather than relying on handouts.
You might even enjoy joining us for a business lunch. Whether we buy the lunch or you buy, know that it is okay to buy a business lunch for a real African entrepreneur. And, by the way, we eat many things other than bananas ;).