An insightful e-mail exchange with a Social Entrepreneur

Oct 13, 2010 : “There is an amazing blending of Christian and animist beliefs across Africa.  There is  strong belief in witchcraft.  We had one farmer using our pumps and his neighbors could not believe how he went from being so poor to being so well-off.  They decided that he must be communing with the devil and set up a 24 hour watch to catch him.  Fortunately their surveillance led them to the truth and then embraced him, but this is the shit you gotta over come.

Technology that misses the point?  Could fill a shelf with examples.  I think of it as the electric fork syndrome.  (products no one actually needs).

Frankly, I think we’ve lost our grounding in science here.  In a decade we will be run by the Christian Taliban and kids will learn creation and that the world is 6,000 years old.  The flintstones will be shown on the history channel.”

Oct, 14th : “Did you know that a large percentage of Africans don’t believe that man walked on the moon?  When it happened there were few TV’s, and given that basic literacy can be as low as 40% in some countries, it’s not a surprize”

Oct, 14th, I write: “This loosely relates to a conversation I had with someone, last night, regarding “post-colonial” psyc

hology. His view came from the Indian, Chinese perspective, which is that Western colonialism taught the Chinese and Indians that a mass consumption economy is the correct direction for their development. The concern I was interested in, however, was the psychological blemish American and Soviet aid left on Africa during and after the Cold War. One article, that Aron sent me, broke African poor people into basically one of two categories. Either they were share holders or they were “farmers”. The share-holders, comprise about 30% of the population and are the people who possess entrepreneurial spirit, whereas the other 70%, the “farmers”, are those individuals who are always looking for a handout, and when they receive something, they almost always ask for more. Anthropologists, including myself, look at all humans as equal by nature, but because due to our varied environments we’ve developed different behaviors. I realize that there is always going to be a percentage of people in any society who leach off of others, but I’m wondering, in this case, if that 70% is unusually high, perhaps due to a deep seeded social-structural problem.”

Oct 14, he writes: “I think there always the issue of demonizing or romanticizing the poor.  Either way, it takes away the humanity.

That said, I could be really uncomfortable with saying 70% of the population are ungrateful mooches.  That would imply that people are intrinsically lazy and greedy and true or not, It makes me uneasy to think that.

What I can tell you about Africa is that for three decades, the US and Soviets were pouring in aid trying to win hearts and minds.  Ironically, in and effort to keep the continent from becoming communist, we turned them into socialists with a  lot subsidized commodities.  It was actually pretty easy to have a subsistence existence.  But when the Soviets were no longer an issue, they were thrown overnight (almost literally ) into a market economy.

What has happened, though, in the absence of any other choice, people have gotten very good at playing the charity game.  singing and dancing whenever the white land cruiser brigade comes to town.

I was thinking about this in relation to our frustrations working in Tanzania.  it’s a place very similar to Kenya and even share some ethnic groups, but its way poorer.  It was also socialist after independence.  It has less ethnic strife than its neighbors but people who work there will say that Tanzanians are lazy and slow. (Kenyans and Rwandans are pretty capitalistic and aggressive).  It drove our former Country Director crazy that no one could grasp the concept of “almost out”  as in “Hey Boss, we are almost out of copy paper/fuel for the generator/credits for the phone.”  And as a result the power would go off, and the generator would fail to start because the fuel tank was empty and the Gerry can was empty too.
It’s one of those cultural things that make Expats lose their shit.  But Tanzanians don’t “stock up” at costco.  They buy what they need when they need it because they don’t have enough cash flow.

Also consider this–you and I grew up with the message that anyone can grow up to be president, that if we were smart and creative and driven, we could be another trump, or gates, or buffett.   And so we believe that its true.  So what happens when you never get that message.  Like a herd of cows that doesn’t know the gate is open and they can walk to that greener pasture.  It’s hard to move toward a better life if you don’t even know it’s an option.”


About walkadm

I am an MS candidate is Science and Technology Policy. I have founded two startups in emerging markets; the first was in clean generation; the second is in smarter meter - the second has raised its first round of investment. My research focuses on agriculture and energy technology in emerging markets; inclusive business models; and entrepreneurship theory - my thesis concerns the dichotomy in survival rates between B2B and B2C startup copmanies
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