A few years ago, I happened upon an article that was entitled the art of strategic questions. The premise of the article was that for people to make significant advances they need to ask the right questions to solve any type of problem. It is upon this premises that I base my thoughts in this article. And my question to Africans is quite simply why? For the purposes of this article Africans refer to black people and that is not to say that other race groupings are not African enough, however it is because the black children of our motherland are the ones who are mostly affected by the issues that I am hoping to raise in this piece.

The question I am asking is why is it that our innovations and ideas have taken to the main stream but never really benefitted us, the original creators? Before people start arguing that I have no basis I will show with a number of products that we consume without even thinking. These creations have become part of the mainstream society or black society however it is not the inventors who are benefitting.

A communal or community spirit is one of the trade mark African or black values. We generally love to be communal and share as much as we possibly can. Who can forget the fact that ten even twenty people can live in a four roomed house? From this value when I was growing up came something that was called a stokvel, this quite simplistically a group of people who would come together and pool money and then split it to make major purchases etc. Another variation of the concept was one where the group would contribute a certain amount of money to one individual at the end of each month to make some significant purchase, this circle would  continue until all the members of the stokvel would have purchased their valuable asset or finished whatever project they were planning to. The power of this practice would seem very negligible until I mention that my father owned three cars in his life time none of which were ever bought on credit, this was in part due to such a scheme that he ran together with some of his cousins and close associates. I saw the same practice being used by mother and her friends to take care of the end of the year festive groceries, this group of women would pool money together for twelve months and buy bulk groceries for sharing at the end of the year. This meant we never suffered from the usually high festive expenses phenomenon, hence at the beginning of the year our school fees where always on hand.

My grandmother and a group of her friends had this burial scheme thing going that they would initiate younger generations into. The group would contribute money on a monthly basis for burial of family members who were registered as beneficiaries by the person who contributes. The impact of this was particularly significant when that uncle who could never hold a job passed away as it would cover the costs of the casket, the cow, groceries and everything in between. One that I particularly loved was the one that my mother joined when I was in secondary school were they would split money every five or so years and your share would increased based on how many times you had claimed or not [ Anyone remember that innovative Outbonus from Outsurance].

For refreshment the men have always enjoyed home brewed beer or Umqombothi. There was also that common snack at the funerals or weddings called Mageu. We also even have some very interesting laxatives such as E speiti [For those who are not familiar it is usually used by Zionist healers to cleanse some other kind of food poisoning or bad luck etc].

However if you fast forward things from that time to where we are most of these products are still in existence in a slightly different format. A careful analysis of some of the products that are sold by financial services companies such as Outsurance, Sanlam or Metropolitan have their roots in the stokvels that uncle and auntie used to participate in. Indeed these types of institutions have also died as part of the social structures in our communities. The burial schemes of our grand mothers have given way to the Avbobs of this world and the Hollard’s, Old Mutual’s etc. Indeed this area of financial services is one of the fasted growing areas of that industry. Then you look at the traditional beer it is being produced by some giant corporate such as United National Breweries[1] which owns the most popular brands which are Leopards special, Ijuba and Chibuku[2]. The company that owns and markets this great product that is everyone claims is steeped in “rich” African history, tradition and customs is not black owned. Let me turn to another creation of blacks Mageu, this product is owned by Foodcorp a company that for all intents and purposes was never majority black owned and its website states that employees owns 20% of the business. To illustrate a further interesting point we did a snub survey sometime in a Spar shop where we asked random white customers if they consume Mageu they all responded by asking what is that, meaning they had never consumed it. However their families might be getting rich or living in expensive houses because of the self same Mageu. The last product I want to look at is Spuit or E Sepeiti[3] as it is commonly referred to. As an experiment a friend of mine once went to a pharmacist and asked him for one, which he duly provided. He then proceeded to ask the man what the purpose of the equipment and to his dismay he asked “what do you people use that thing for?” that the man does not know what the equipment does is the least of my concerns, however some white man is sitting somewhere getting rich based on that creation.

So the question is why have our creations not made us multi billionaires? Why have the products that are sometimes only produced for our consumption made others live in luxury while we consume them in poverty?

I am not very well travelled on my beloved continent having only been to only three or so countries, but I am almost certain that other fellow Africans can relate to this phenomenon from their home countries. The milling companies that produce the modified version of fufu (instant) I wonder if they are owned by indigenous Ghanaians. It did not sit very well with my intestines that the addresses of the two I searched on the net were based in Manchester and Germany respectively. The question though is why?

I do not have the answer to this question, however as I indicated at the beginning they say asking they right questions is usually a step in the right direction. I believe that a consciousness of the existence of these situations will help to raise a different generation of Africans who will not just be simple minded. I know that this article might have the undertones of racism for those of our readers who are sensitive but it is my view that truth at times must first offend you then set you free. Alutha continua.

[1] The Company was registered in the 1970’s

[2] Which UNB has distribution rights to in South Africa as the beer is marketed across the continent

[3] As a side note I am embarking on a research to determine the size of the spuit market in South Africa

Joel Maine

Joel Maine is a full time minister, scholar and a part time business consultant. In his spare time he enjoys working with community development organizations to improve the lives of the less fortunate. It is his deep conviction that it is the time for African's to make an impact in the world and take a leadership role in all spheres.