Might a bird’s eye view of investments in agri-food systems in Africa alarm or excite us, as we consider the findings of the EAT-Lancet Commission? Is the future food supply in Africa sufficiently incentivised to transition to meet future demand for healthier diets?

Ten million young Africans enter the workforce each year, but only three million new job opportunities area created. This has African and European policy-makers quivering in their shiny shoes.

“We are drifting deeper into global problems from which we will struggle to extricate ourselves.” This bleak outlook summarises the World Economic Forum’s recently published Global Risks Report. The scale, complexity and urgency of such challenges is breathtaking.

After a decade of hard work, the foundations are in place for substantive progress within African food systems. New tangible partnerships are emerging that combine focussed intent, long-term commitment and significant ambition. For anyone asking when African agriculture will deliver its long-touted potential, these partnerships offer the best hope for change at scale.

There is no doubt that complex problems disproportionately affect the less powerful: hunger, drought, floods, and conflict all punish the poor and marginalised first. It is understandable that the less powerful feel angry at the more powerful. They may despair or rage against the injustice. “Why me?”

The powerful may be the winners in the system – wealth, health and power accrues to them/us. They/we may have power over the less powerful, and thereby be in a position to protect the status quo. This does not necessarily mean that the powerful have much effective power over the system itself. Indeed they/we are as much a product of the system as anyone else.

As Duncan Green describes in his excellent new book How Change Happens, much effort from principled activists goes in to “speaking truth to power.” This energy can feel like shouting in to the wind, because it is like shouting in to the wind. The system’s dynamics are more powerful than any individual leader. Like the monsters of old, you could chop off its head but the system will grow another back. We attribute too much power to leaders, and they/we are often obliged to perpetuate this myth to secure their/our position. Let’s see how effective Trump is at fulfilling all his promises to “Make America Great Again.”

System change requires a different kind of power – a collective power that Wasafiri terms “adaptive capacity”. This is the ability of actors in a system to know and act upon that system, so as to intentionally change it. Like other aspects of systems, the whole is not simply the sum of the parts. Collective power is not the aggregation of the power of individuals. It is a product of the social structures, behaviours and attitudes that allow collaboration and communication at a system level. The toughest “complex” problems are those where adaptive capacity is inadequate to the scale of the challenge – climate change, violent extremism, food security. A classic power analysis will not miraculously identify the individuals who can wield enough influence to solve these issues.

This does not diminish the responsibility of leaders. They/we often hold a privileged point of view from which to perceive the system more completely. They/we certainly have convening and decision-making power that can be the basis for greater adaptive capacity and effective interventions that drive system reform. But they/we are as much part of the system as anyone else, and can feel powerless to effect change.

A family is often described as the Complex Adaptive System that is easiest to relate to. As the Dad and primary breadwinner, a pure power analysis would suggest I have most individual power in my family. Do I feel powerful as one child has a tantrum, the other refuses to do his homework, and my wife fumes? Not very.

I recently described Wasafiri’s work on system change to an old friend, expecting the usual slightly blank look followed by, “So what exactly do you do?”. Instead she replied, “Oh that sounds just like my work as a family counsellor”. She helps whole families understand how they affect each other, and then collectively they make changes to the routines, norms and behaviours that define them. She helps increase the adaptive capacity of that family to evolve itself as a micro-system. That’s the help I need as a Dad. I’m not powerful to effect change on my own. I need my whole family to be working together.

Duncan Green would describe this approach to system change as “strategic activism”, in contrast to “principled activism”. Wasafiri uses the term “Systemcraft” to evoke the long-term effort of simultaneously strengthening adaptive capacity within system, whilst also coordinating interventions to address complex problems.

Ubuntu: why adaptive capacity has profound value?

A few years ago, the Wasafiri team attempted to articulate our values. Our North Star was a sense of purpose that we struggled to articulate. It was broader than poverty-alleviation, less benevolent than compassion, less “us vs them” than solidarity. It was a sense that the problems we worked on required people to work together in new ways that transcended boundaries; that their success was interconnected, even if they did not recognise it at first.

The African concept of Ubuntu was introduced and immediately resonated. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in his book No Future Without Forgiveness, says: “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language… It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life.” Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee defined it as: “I am what I am because of who we all are.”

This philosophy gives a value-base to why work on adaptive capacity is important. It emphasises the collective over the individual, or at least that the individual cannot understand or fulfil their humanity outside their relation to the collective. Our work is to evolve human systems in which we can all thrive. It is to increase human agency over structural constraints. This we can only do together, wielding collective power, not looking to mythically powerful leaders to resolve our problems as if they sat God-like above the systems.

Whether it is my family striving for a little more harmony, a village countering the rise of extremist ideologies, or the global community facing global warming; we must consider how to increase our adaptive capacity. That’s when power is no longer a zero-sum game, we are collectively fulfilling our humanity, and we might just counter some thorny problems along the way.

Here in the UK we are living in complex times. Last month we voted to leave the EU; it turns out if being in the EU was complicated, leaving is the definition of complexity.

In the hours following the vote there was profound shock, particularly amongst those of us that voted remain. Certainly I had never imagined this result, though neither perhaps had many that voted leave. The post-mortems are mounting and if no one saw it happening, everyone can now explain why it did. Duncan Green, on his ‘Poverty to Power’ Oxfam blog, offers a great summary of contributing factors and avoids any sort of simplistic explanation. For my own reflections (once past the shock and anger), I try looking through the lens of ‘complex adaptive systems’. These are systems that, as Wasafiri, we seek out to work in, and of course unsurprisingly, find that we also live in. One of the clues to understanding such systems is to look for power; where it moves, where it pools, where it stagnates: “Identifying types of power and where they are located is an essential factor in understanding complex social systems” (1)

Well, in the EU referendum many of us saw power in all the normal places; with the business leaders, with the economists, with the analysts of political and economic impact, with our political leaders. Yet BREXIT was voted for in large numbers by those that live outside of London, by working class voters, by older voters, and above all by people who have, politically and economically, been marginalised for a long time; and it turns out however marginalised individually, collectively they held a power that few truly appreciated, at least for this vote.

And now, from the press to the school playground when I pick up my kids, our conversations are dominated by the what ifs, the maybes and the impossible to knows. What we can know is that we are part of a complex adaptive system; one that right now we are trying to change. Like all complex adaptive systems the issues are emerging and changing; they are too complex for any one person or institution to fully understand; and no one body can control, determine or even ‘lead’, let alone predict, exactly what will happen.

So what might BREXIT mean for the UK’s international aid programme? On paper, the value of our aid budget has just dropped by about $1.4 billion(2). This is due to the drop in the value of the pound and the corresponding drop in the value of our aid budget. But in the coming months, as the pound (hopefully) strengthens, or (terrifyingly) drops further, this number will prove to be what it is – a projection. More significantly, though still off somewhere in a post UK Europe, is that the UK contributes about 2 billion Euros to the EU aid budget – though whether this money ‘disappears’ from international aid, or appears in a different form is, as yet, unknowable. Beyond the money there is also the issue of influence. We already see, in many of the countries in Africa where we work, that the UK government has no monopoly on political influence; we compete for space with other national governments, with the boom in Chinese trade and with regional agendas and bodies. As we leave the EU and cease to be part of that substantial infrastructure of delegations, funding and political access, we may have more freedom to ‘sing our own tune’ but we will be singing it on our own, and not as part of a choir of 27 states.

However, as much as many of us didn’t want or vote for BREXIT, and however much we believe it is wrong for our country, we now have it. We will leave the EU. And we need to work out how to do it well. Doing it well means that the process as well as the outcome matter; and that they are actually one and the same. It means working with the emergent nature of the issues; it means engaging across all the stakeholders – those in our country and beyond –  however contradictory their views, needs and experiences; it means not pretending that any one person or institution can control, predict or, however brilliant they are, ‘save’ the process. It means recognising that we are living in a complex adaptive system and we had better not underestimate the consequences.

References

(1)

http://www.thebrokeronline.eu/Articles/Connecting-the-dots

(2)

p://www.humanosphere.org/opinion/2016/06/brexit-causes-value-of-u-k-foreign-aid-to-drop-by-1-4-billion/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-36618843

 

Africa is open for business! Or so we have been told. There is enthusiasm from investors; there are entrepreneurs with great (and some terrible) ideas; and there are businesses to be found all over the continent. Yet the flow of capital and investment into Africa are still slow. There are undoubtedly lots of reasons for this, but the question is: what can be done to encourage more catalytic investment in Africa and more successful African entrepreneurs?

As with all complex problems, the solutions are also complex and vary across the continent. For example, while Somalia is famous for its entrepreneurial and business-minded people, the chronic insecurity makes it a very hard place to invest. Meanwhile Nigeria has one of the biggest domestic markets on the continent and its $800 million ‘Nollywood’ film industry produces around 50 movies a week, making it second only to Hollywood (even bigger than ‘Bollywood’ on a per capita basis); yet the country is hampered by a reputation for corruption. Or in Kenya, where there are some fantastic, innovative businesses emerging (watch ‘mobile money’ take over the world and know it all began in Kenya); but the challenges of setting up a business and the political climate mean any investor will need a strong stomach for bureaucracy.

Here in Rwanda, there is a great deal of attention on and energy around entrepreneurial development and, indeed, the subject is now on the national curriculum for secondary school students. So I caught up for breakfast with Sara Leedom and Julienne Oyler, founders of African Entrepreneur Collective, to talk entrepreneurs, development, investment and the value of cows. Its pilot company, of Inkomoko Business Development, (which means ‘origin’ in Kyinrwanda) has been working in Rwanda since 2012 and, with a local team of eight and a rolling supply of international mentors, has supported over 170 businesses.

Kate: What is it that inspired you to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs here in Rwanda?

Sara & Julienne: For us it is all about jobs. Across the continent there is a real need to generate a huge growth in employment. In general, African economies need to grow 8-10% per year just to keep up with the growing labour market population and maintain current levels of unemployment. If you want to reduce unemployment, then even more growth is needed; and this growth has to come from the private sector. So, across the continent, there is a need for businesses that can set up and grow to create new jobs. For us at Inkomoko, it is all about supporting the entrepreneurs to build and grow the businesses that will create these jobs.

As for starting in Rwanda, well we actually explored a number of countries and there are a few things that make Rwanda a great place for entrepreneurs and investors. For a start, structurally, Rwanda is really well set up for entrepreneurs. It is easy to open a business; it is politically stable; there are efficient systems around tax and employment; and so on. Also, politically, there is a real encouragement for entrepreneurs with things like subsidised training and support for people to start businesses. In fact it’s the only place we have worked where starting a business is seen as ‘patriotic’. So while in the USA or UK, your average entrepreneur is often quite individualistic and there is a real emphasis on personal success, here in Rwanda, being an entrepreneur is much more about collective effort and about contributing to your community and country.

There are challenges too – it is a small country and so any successful business really needs to be looking beyond national markets. Also, outside of Kigali, infrastructure such as Internet is more limited; and, culturally, there can be a more cautious, less ‘risk’ taking, approach than you traditionally see in entrepreneurs in the West.

 

Kate: I feel like I read and hear a lot of enthusiasm at the international level for investment in Africa. Yet on the ground and certainly here in Rwanda, it seems that enthusiasm isn’t quite translating into actual investments. What’s your perspective on the challenges entrepreneurs here face?

Sara & Julienne: Matching investors and business is not simple. While it is easy to talk about and get investors excited about ideas, actually getting capital into businesses is much harder. Often investors, particularly those from mature markets in the West, have unrealistic expectations about what it will be like investing in an African business. They don’t necessarily know what it means to invest in, say, an agricultural business in an emerging economy and they have unrealistic expectations about levels of mechanism, or the ways labour will be organised, or how a business will plan and report on activities. Interestingly, what we are increasingly seeing is ‘South – South’ investment, particularly from Indian investors. They often have a better understanding of how markets and supply chains work in an emerging economy and are more able to understand the risks and recognise the opportunities. I think we will see increasing flows of investment into Africa from various parts of Asia.

The other challenge is in the types of businesses that international investors are drawn to. There can be an over enthusiasm for what are seen as ‘innovative’ ideas in, for example, technology business. While tech businesses are important, especially here in Rwanda, they are not going to be the engine of large employment. In a country where 80% of the population is involved in agriculture, the business opportunities and types of business that are likely to create significant numbers of jobs, are in agriculture and, particularly, in processing. For example, at the moment we are supporting a great business focused on avocado oil and we are also trying to work out how to structure financing for some cows for a diary business. But it can be a challenge to get investors, who are new to agriculture, to really explore these sorts of businesses.

 

What next for Inkomoko?

Sara & Julienne: At Inkomoko, we are committed to expanding our work in Rwanda. Everyday we are seeing local businesses with tremendous potential and opportunity, and we want to continue to provide the support and resources necessary to see these grow.

For African Entrepreneur Collective, we want to see take our learnings from Rwanda and move to new geographies. We want to explore working with partners in other countries across the continent, to see how we can grow the model we have developed here, to support more businesses, in more countries, to grow and create more jobs. I think what we have found here is the importance of working with entrepreneurs in a very tailored, individual way. All their businesses are different and so are their challenges; and while we have developed a really good training curriculum for business skills, helping entrepreneurs really scale up their business is about supporting them at all stages.

 

 

For more interesting information check out:

www.AfricanEntrepreneurCollective.org

http://inkomoko.com/

https://www.emergingcrowd.com/

www.growafrica.com

Complex, interconnected challenges demand new forms of collaboration and innovation between diverse partners. And yet, the many meetings and conferences that are supposed to create this collaboration continue to be managed in didactic formats, with a few dominant voices holding court whilst everyone else though present in body, is absent in mind,  awaiting the short coffee break to have the conversations that they really need to have. New ways of working need to turn this on its head. We need to create spaces that accelerate the number of connections and conversations, and get people energised, aligned and committed to action.

In October I participated in the World Economic Forum’s “Transformation Leaders Workshop” for leaders working on the challenge of boosting agricultural production around the world. This event was bold and innovative about creating the context for transformational leadership. The video below captures the spirit of these highly productive few days. Key ingredients included:

  • Inviting diverse people, united by a common overall challenge and a spirit of entrepreneurial hunger to make change happen.
  • Never, ever, having a keynote speech, formal presentation, or even a stage.
  • Creating as many conversations as possible, but each with a level of clarity and focus about the topic, and with participants free to chose which conversations to participate in.
  • Fostering community by making the event fun, playful even, with dancing and creative construction activities.
  • Focussing minds on what actions they will undertake upon leaving.

Refreshments were always available, and we never took any scheduled breaks, because essentially the event was the ultimate coffee break – two days packed full of people and conversations that were inspiring and pioneering.