Five 'native' African solutions to Africa's development pains; some are as old as the hills

The continent has attracted at least $130 billion in pledges in the last four years alone, but it need not look outside to grow itself.

AFTER several years on the fringes of the global economy, Africa seems to have caught the eye of the big international players who determine which country gets the beef, left-overs or bones from the world’s financial dining table.

In the last four years alone, Africa has dined with China, India, Japan, the European Union, and the United States, and received a total of at least $130 billion in promises from these heavyweights of the global economy.

The big boys seem to have concluded that if ‘Africa is rising’ now, then in a few years’ time it will be soaring. And they are making early bookings for that flight.

At the first US-Africa Summit in August, US President Barrack Obama said he believes “a new Africa is emerging” despite the challenges the continent continues to face. (See: 7 startling facts you didn’t know about US-Africa trade)

“With some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, a growing middle class, and the youngest and fastest-growing population on earth, Africa will help shape the world as never before,” he said.

Yet, when compared with some of the world’s largest economies, Africa in its entirety is still dwarfed by countries such as the US China and Germany. Even emerging economies such as Brazil and India are fast outpacing a continent with some of the world’s largest deposits of natural resources.

What most of these emerging economies have done is to adopt western technology and adapt it to suit their purposes. In some cases, they have looked inward for solutions altogether.

So, if African was to similarly look inward in search of development models, which originally African attributes, cultures and activities would stand out? 

1. Umuganda in Rwanda

One place to start, could be Rwanda. Few countries epitomise an African turn-around story better than Rwanda, which was resuscitated from the shock of the 1994 genocide to become one of the more organised countries on the continent.

A not-so-small part of that success is down to a community work ethic developed through a programme called Umuganda (mutual support). The programme requires every adult Rwandan to dedicate at least two hours of their time in the first weekend of every month to communal work.

According to Rwanda government officials, Umuganda has enabled the state to save billions of dollars that it would otherwise have had to allocate to activities such as renovation of buildings, construction of classrooms, road maintenance, and cleaning of the urban areas.

For instance, if the government intends to build a classroom, which costs six million Rwanda Francs, it will not allocate money for labour. That contribution is provided by ordinary citizens who make bricks, fetch water (in areas without piped water), mix cement and perform any other physical activities as part of Umuganda.

Across East Africa, the culture of community work formed the fabric of society before colonialism. Buganda, the largest kingdom in Uganda, named it bulungi bwa nsi (literally meaning for the good of the community) while even smaller communities such as the Iteso in eastern Uganda had eitai (community work).

With the amalgamation of many ethnic groups into modern-day states, community work fizzled away despite attempts by nations such as Kenya and Tanzania to replicate it at national level in the form of Harambee (all pull together) and in a more institutionalised way such as Ujaama (extended family) respectively.

Most of the present–day great nations in Europe and the Americas were built using slave labour, which was unpaid for. Even oil-rich nations such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and United Arab Emirates are seeking out cheap labour despite the fact that their development is fuelled by oil money.

Africa, which is already several decades behind its developed counterparts in many areas, cannot afford to compete by employing the methods that the rich nations are doing today. In order to play catch much more productively, Africa needs additional contributions that go beyond what the money in its coffers and from its begging bowls can buy. Rwanda’s Umuganda, shows us one good way this can be done.

2. Ubuntu in southern Africa

Most sub-Saharan Africans have been breastfed on the traditional saying, used by societies in nearly every corner of the continent, that, “it takes a village to raise a child.” The lesson from this saying is that without the contribution of every member of society, a child may never have all that it needs to grow into an adult.

A more concise word for this philosophy of living is Ubuntu (human kindness). Ubuntu is that aspect of African culture that appeals to the inter-connectedness of people in a society, and their capacity to help each other.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, one aspect of Ubuntu meant that, “a traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food and attend him.”

Ubuntu served southern Africa well during the struggle against colonial domination and racial discrimination. People coalesced together, shared their meagre resources and empowered each other to form tightly-knit societal bonds that some of the worst forms of oppression, incarceration and deprivation that a group of people were subjected to by other human beings could not break.

Over the years, however, individualistic streaks and survivalist instincts in sub-Saharan Africa’s fast-urbanising communities seem to be whitewashing the Ubuntu philosophy among its inhabitants. South Africa, for one, has some of the world’s highest rape and murder rates just 20 years after defeating apartheid.

Politicians, on the other hand, are not only failing to deliver services to ordinary people from the government resources available. They are stealing those very resources in a callously primitive attempt to feather their nests at the expense of the very people they promised to serve.

If such people embraced Ubuntu again, albeit in more pragmatic forms in tandem with modern settings, it could mean the formation of foundations by the rich that provide scholarships for brilliant but otherwise under-privileged students to study in the best universities. 

It could mean doctors volunteering some days in a year to providing free medical services in the rural areas that they come from. It could mean professionals from all walks of life volunteering several hours of their life to speak to and inspire young people to achieve as much as they have or even more. It would not cost a lot of money, but it could be a priceless service to today’s Africa.

3. “Tribes”/kingdoms

Before the arrival of western colonialism (and, subsequently, democracy), what we now know as “tribes” were Africa’s nation states. In most of those states, kingdoms were the governments. Despite the flaws of that governance system, most African nation states functioned quite well.

Very few African kingdoms survived the colonial era (only Swaziland, Lesotho and Morocco come to mind) and went ahead to form internationally recognised governments. And while they are at it, they have not really proved to be beacons of hope for a continent that seems not to know how to develop democratic structures.

Even those kingdoms that have somehow survived by metamorphosing into feeble traditional strata of authority, which are overshadowed and hamstrung by the formal layers of central governments, have contented themselves with waiting for handouts to continue existing.

However, these “tribes” and kingdoms, long demonised as sources of upheaval in Africa by outsiders, can be utilised in a positive way to effect change across Africa.

“How?” one may ask. Well, the Buganda kingdom in Uganda provides a practical example. In March 2010, the Kasubi tombs, Buganda’s equivalent of the Egyptian pyramids, were burned down under mysterious circumstances.

After a few years of waiting in vain for financial support from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and other international organisations, Buganda decided to find the resources from among its people. In September 2013, the Katikkiro (Prime Minister) of the kingdom, Charles Peter Mayiga, launched a mobilisation project simply named Ettoffaali (bricks). 

Since then, people of Buganda origin from within Uganda and as far as Dubai, US and the United Kingdom have willingly contributed to the fund. By May 2014, Buganda had collected three billion Uganda Shillings (about $1.2 million) for the reconstruction of its UNESCO world heritage site— without any foreign help.

One study says Africa has 7,400 “tribes” while the number of kingdoms, at least according to the number of kings and traditional rulers gathered by former Libyan president Muammar Gadaffi in 2008, number north of 200. All of those are traditional nation states and informal administrative structures waiting to be utilised for the good of Africa. The beauty of it is that love for tribe is something that doesn’t need to be enforced; it happens naturally.

4. Organic products

In an era where increased demand has led to the adulteration of many products from cotton to food items, Africa can gain an edge by sticking to organic products.

Gifted with tropical climate conditions and productive soils that can grow just about anything most of the year, this is one area where the rest of the world is likely to flock to Africa in the years to come.

And yet, going by the results so far, and in spite of all the natural advantages it enjoys, Africa is bottom of the league of countries carrying out organic agriculture.

According to 2014 statistics from the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, Africa uses only 1.1 million hectares, or 0.1%, of its total arable land for organic agriculture — beaten to last place by North America which uses three million hectares. Oceania is top of the pile with 12.2 million hectares while Europe is second with 11.2 million hectares.

Organic farming discourages the use of synthetic products and encourages reliance on methods such as crop rotation, green manure, compost and biological pest control.

With more emphasis on the utilisation of nature rather than nurture to prop up its agriculture, Africa could find itself becoming the world’s go-to continent for anything organic, including food.

5. Technology

By the time Europeans came to Africa, most African communities had developed their own technologies, however rudimentary, that enabled its people to get by.

One of the tragedies of the colonial era (or error) for Africa is that it was compelled by the foreign rulers to completely abandon its own nascent technologies and adopt those that were alien to its people.

Since then, because Africa does not enjoy the advantage of initiating the technologies that can spur the growth of its housing, road and energy sectors, it has played catch-up to the rest of the world.

Consequently, without home-grown technological solutions to its infrastructure and medical problems, for instance, Africa is often forced to look elsewhere for solutions — at great financial cost to the continent.

What India and China and other fast-developing Asian countries have done, which has propelled them closer to the global high table, is not to adopt all western technologies lock, stock and barrel, but to adapt those technologies to formats that meet the needs of their local communities more effectively.

Despite the several years of brainwashing, Africa has not completely forgotten its own local technologies and it could do well to adapt only those technologies that can help it to improve its native expertise.

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