End poverty—did we miss the mark again?

I came very close to calling the World Bank End Poverty Campaign event held at the University of Ghana recently another patronizing charade. But for the fact that there were highly intelligent individuals who have demonstrated great capability in many areas on the panel, I am sure I would have stuck to my conclusion. When you have the likes of Tony Onyemaechi Elumelu   (Heirs holdings, the united bank of Africa, Transcorp, Tony Elumelu foundation); Forbes’ one of the 20 most powerful men in Africa on the panel, you tread cautiously. You might be missing something. We do not have many of such men on the continent and for that reason; we have a responsibility to protect the few we have. And yes, such men and women can be instrumental in our fight against poverty. But should we be fighting poverty in the first place?

I am in all candidness deeply concerned about the notion that agribusiness is the way forward as far as this end poverty thing goes. Apparently the figures for what they are worth, prove that young people are actually interested in agribusiness since 30% of applications to the Tony Elumelu foundation entrepreneurship program actually needed support to grow their agribusinesses (one would have thought that meant that we were already in agribusiness). This might be true but does it really support the idea that agribusiness is the way forward. One cannot help but to wonder what the other 70% of the applications were about but since we do not have the benefit of adequate information a degree of deductive reasoning must be resorted to.

Ghana’s very own Professor Nana Opoku Agyemang who happens to be minister of education on her part insisted that Women and children are the most vulnerable. Groundbreaking information! How about a more detailed analysis of the issue of poverty itself and not the group you think it affects the most? I am leaving the children out of the equation for now but is poverty really a gender issue? Is your country itself by accepted standards not poor and is that because we allowed the women to live in poverty?

Dr. Kim Yong Kim of the World Bank group (is that a Bretton woods institution or is it just me?) thinks it is the poor child living in and around rural areas between the ages of 0-5 that we should be concerned about. He insisted: “It is the height of unfairness to relegate children under the age of 5 to never being able to learn. Children have to be able to learn anything and quickly. We have to dedicate a huge portion of our operations to the achievement of this objective”. (Really? Show me) But the question is this; are we going to simply put the children in school or are we going to empower the parents to make sure they handle their responsibilities?

Dr. Kim adds ; “this is the most important thing I can tell you, the Korea of 1959 is now the Africa of 2015, we talk about Africa rising but in quiet conversations we hear all kinds of talk about impossible, you know what we hear from the prime minister about DRC lots of people were saying that’s impossible. Don’t ever believe and certainly don’t believe it by yourselves”. Erm, Africa is a continent Dr. Kim.

Mr. Akinwumi Adesina’s (President of the African Development Bank) view is not nothing near unorthodox; Agribusiness and technology is Africa’s best bet at reducing poverty. “65% of all the world’s arable lands are not in Asia, Latin America, but right here in Africa, great sunshine, great water, and cheap labour. You throw anything up, it comes down it grows”.  Yeah… thank you very much! We did not know that. Their final words did not add much;

Dr. Adesina: just end it. Well… How?
Dr. Kim: listen to young people and listen to the women.
Oh Thanks but were they represented on your panel?
Opoku Agyemang: focus on quality education delivered in the right medium. Who will do that again? And are you saying these won’t be necessary if we weren’t s poor? Bright Simons has a few words for you on that language thingy.

Tony Elemelu at least gave us five factors on getting out of poverty; “hard work, enabling environment, discipline, culture of saving, long term thinking, aligning with people with similar perspective”. The first two; sound like something from an economic text book. But one can almost be certain that if hardwork made people billionaires, 98% of women in Africa will be billionaires ahead of Tony Elemelu. Nobody pays you for how hard you have worked; they pay you for what you have produced. Enabling environment however, is another matter altogether; it just doesn’t exist but we have to at least continue our search for it. The rest are just the usual you hear from motivational speaking sessions. It will be refreshing to learn that Mr. Elemelu saved his way to billions; that will at least provide some comfort in that direction.

The source of worry is simple; one cannot be so sure what purpose an event like this with all its pomp was supposed to serve. Maybe it is just useful to keep talking but if anyone is really interested in eradicating poverty (and I have reached a disturbing level of skepticism on the matter), they must first stop telling us that agribusiness is the way out. In America, less than 2% of the population is involved in agriculture, in Africa, some 65% is. The difference is that the American farmer is a billion times more productive. Perhaps we do not need to be told we ought to be in agriculture, we are already in it, always have been. For most of Africans, we return to the land when other things don’t work out. We have always been in it and if things don’t change soon, we are seriously considering migration.

But here is the thing though, if the idea that how one thinks about something determines how he deals with it is anything to go by, then we must stop looking at what we do and start thinking about how we do things. Africans always find something to do. Our “vulnerable” women are working hard in the markets and in the streets amidst the threats to their well-being often perpetuated by government and its agents. It is how they do what they do that is the bone of contention.

Walking through one of our many slums recently, I counted 6 traditional drinks; Brukina, lamugii, Asana, Ice-Kenkey, Sobolo, Shitor-daa, Nme-daaa. I am told there are many others. None of these drinks have made it to commercial levels and they have been around for a while. There is clearly a viable market for these products. A small study of Kenkey sellers and how they do their busin6ess (and they DO NOT think of themselves as business people and potential billionaires) revealed some obstacles to wealth creation. They all insist on making their own Kenekey. It turns out most of them are not good at making Kenkey (the process is nowhere near simple) yet they refuse to buy from those who make better Kenkey and resell. Or perhaps it hadn’t occurred to them that they could do that and possibly make more money. On the other hand, those who are good at making it do not even realize their competitive advantage so they do not capitalize on it to expand by making retailers out of their weaker competitors. Because of this, Kenkey making still remains a cottage industry even in the heart of the city whiles still remaining the nation’s number one meal. These are real thought problems that when addressed can unlock the wealth trapped within communities.

It is known that the way out of poverty is a positive motivation not a negative one. Negative is flight (trying to get out of a situation) positive is fight (making your way to an aspiration). Wealth creation mentality might just be the best thought system for ending poverty. Citizens must be led to think about aspirations—what they could be and how they could be it.

One must stress the point that we are not short of things to do; our issues are more to do with how we do it. Those who insist on agribusiness must at least see if they can promote the making small mechanical equipment with the engines and hydraulics that have been developed by Safo Kantanka in the hope of improving the performance of the average farmer.

These are the reasons why we think a project like SPiD-UP extremely important. Each African must be conscious of what we do and how we do it. We must insist on being the best we can be regardless of what we have chosen to do with our lives. We must see the world standards and want to meet or beat it. This is a way of thinking and it has to be said; it was to be the new African that Nkrumah wanted to create.

Those who claim they want to end poverty must therefore, of necessity turn to performance consciousness. Without that, we will put 80% of our people into agribusiness and end up worsening the conditions. This is easy to predict with the benefit of antecedents. A change of pattern is needed and if Dr, Kim is serious about ending poverty, lets see some -more investment towards changing mindsets towards performance consciousness. 

About Markus Kennedy Katey

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