I’ve long shared the perspective that aid for Africa should be on its way out. Andrew Rugasira, founder of Uganda’s Good African Coffee, does a great job of laying the case why trade should be the new norm instead of continued reliance on aid. Establishing this practice of trade that many of us advocate for, is not easy. It is one thing for an international company to come in and establish extortive industries, (designed to benefit them as opposed to local communities), and another for African-driven initiatives attempting to create socially-consious enterprises (designed to benefit local communities).
In a lot of the work that I do in my community, I run into the same mentality that Andrew first experienced when he first approached farmers. As local Ugandans trying to do good, we are not taken seriously. Our communities have been sensitized into thinking that positive change or any kind of development can only be delivered by outside intervention from international NGOs, and not from someone that looks like them.
For those of us Africans ambitious enough to attempt to create sustainable initiatives in our communities, the road to success becomes a lot harder when we first have to fight for legitimacy. When the people you want to help don’t believe in you, how can you ever create anything sustainable?
I’ve been hard at work building UMPG for the last 5 years. I’ve run into similar problems that Andrew experienced 10 years ago. The toughest part of the last 5 years have been trying to convince communities that only through their efforts will their communities develop. Even trying to do a community fund-raiser to repair the NGO-funded bore holes was always met with the belief that it is the NGO’s responsibility to fix them. They built them, so they should come back and fix them. The community was OK struggling with access to clean water, believing that someone else was responsible for fixing the existing ones. This is the sort of collateral damage that charities create and fail to acknowledge. This is what local agency devolves to.
As African communities, we have to break this mentality that sustainable development requires external intervention and embrace the belief that sustainable development requires internal action. We need a paradigm shift in our thinking and I acknowledge that this isn’t going to be easy to achieve. Changing mindsets isn’t an easy process, especially if you are not a well-funded operation.
Winning mindshare takes a long time and requires the kind of tenacity that borders on stubborn insanity. Albert Einstein once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” To succeed as an African working on locally-driven development, you need to practice the sort of stubborn insanity on the level of religious zealotry. People are attracted the persistency of passion.
If you are building an enterprise with international implications, you have to fight the war of perception on two fronts; one with the people you are trying to work with and another with your potential customers. International customers will treat any African initiative as a charity case first, making it impossible to be taken seriously. It took Andrew 14 trips to London before he scored a deal for his coffee, despite his best presentations and command of the Queen’s English. Mere mortals would have quit after 2 trips, at best.
I submit that we need to stick it out. Embrace not the failures, but the very minute and sometimes infinitesimal victories to push you forward. Don’t dwell on failing to meet your goal of convincing 500 people or gaining 1000 customers. Instead, celebrate the success of winning over 5 people, because it is 5 people more than you had when you started. Whenever I am discouraged in my efforts, I’ve gotten into the habit of looking back to where I was at the same point last year and counting the positive things that have happened in that time. Then I project forward and dream of all the possibilities that could be if I stick it out just one more year.
Meaningful change is incremental, and incremental change only happens over time. Passion is infectious and truth is, Africa could use a lot more of this kind of infectious disease. So get on with spreading it about.