Agriculture Business Community Development

In search of authentic salespeople for African agricultural economies

It is one thing to be blessed with natural resources such as fertile soils and water but quite another to be able to explain and convince investors about opportunities embedded in those resources. Given the intensifying competition for investment and influence, the art of articulating opportunities can no longer be a preserve for government officials and national trade promotion agencies alone. When you are proposing love to a lady, you may say many good things about yourself but everything you say will not be more powerful than validation from an outsider like the lady’s cousin or your friend.

The power of Gwevedzo or Munyai
Irrespective of culture, most marriages in the world have since time immemorial been cultivated and cemented by brokers or go-betweeners known as Gwevedzo or Munyai in the Shona language of Southern Africa.  The Gwevedzo or Munyai expertise is now being called upon to pitch natural resources-based African economies to the world. No amount of generic advertisements, conferences, pamphlets, documentaries, Public Relations firms or spin doctors can beat the power of an independent broker. Many countries have been competing using the same strategies to lure the same investors for decades but results have not been very satisfactory. Some of the most compelling business stories are not convincing funders.

Being very smart, investors know that you cannot be a neutral sales person for yourself. It is natural for government officials to say only the good things about their country and policies while hiding weaknesses and threats when in fact investors may be interested in how these can be turned into strengths and opportunities if properly explained. Only an independent broker can creatively weave together a country’s opportunities, threats, weakness and strengths in ways that convince skeptical investors.

The power of historical relationships
While historical political relationships are critical, to what extent should they continue laying the foundation for current and future business relationships? Such a question can only be tackled by a neutral broker. For instance when government officials try to sell Zimbabwean opportunities to China, the narrative is usually framed around other relationships outside business, for instance, assistance provided by China to Zimbabwe towards liberating the country from Western colonialism. To what extent should historical ties continue taking precedence over evidence-based investment analyses?  Several African countries continue to rely on historical relationships with the East and West which has more to do with political reasons than business potential.  For how long will African countries continue basing business relationships with the East and West on colonial ties and assistance rendered during the liberation struggle?

Who should spearhead investment opportunities?
Given that they are not really entrepreneurial, African governments should not be the ones spearheading investment opportunities.  They should just be creating enabling environments with advice from key stakeholders not just corporates. While governments always trust corporates, these guys are always advocating for their own self-interests at the expense of new potential investments and national interests. If corporates are not asking for foreign currency they are asking government to ban imports as a way of protecting their interests.

There is definite need for an independent broker who can use unbiased evidence to identify potential investors and local industries in which outsiders can invest. When most African leaders go on foreign missions they take along a business delegation comprising mostly corporate leaders. Some of the people in the business delegation represent chambers of commerce and monopolies that are more worried about their existence than providing national solutions. These certainly identify opportunities in their favor not those that can expand opportunities and create competition. How can a business delegation be expected to invite competitors?  It is clear that these are not the right candidates to invite potential investors except those in line with their business survival interests.

More reasons for a neutral independent broker
A neutral independent investment broker or analyst is the ideal person or institution to drive investments into African countries. This individual or institution is able to consider the interests of local enterprises, external investors, local populations and government interests like staying conscious of environmental management issues. Corporates would certainly prioritize profits over environmental sustainability. Such a balancing meeting the interests of government, investors, local industry and local populations can only be played by an independent broker.

The broker will also be able to look at the interests of other sectors and get answers to questions like: To what extent do investments in agriculture benefit other sectors like mining and tourism? Corporate captains of industry interested in specific value chains like oil processing or milk processing will barely consider such fundamental holistic questions. Given that government ministries also function as silos (Agriculture, Health, Mining, ICTs, Industry & Commerce, Local government, foreign Affairs, Education, etc.,) they do not have capacity to tackle such over-arching questions holistically.

An independent broker will consolidate an investment portfolio that embraces different government departments, industries, farmer unions and other sectors. Membership-driven groups like chambers of commerce and farmer unions cannot be expected to satisfy such a comprehensive mandate because their eyes are on fishing out members as opposed to being inclusive.

The role of the independent broker can also extend to guiding development organizations into diverse areas of operations. Currently, due to lack of such guidance, most development organizations continue implementing their programs based on recommendations from their donors independent of national priorities.  There is currently chaos in the market as some NGOs compete with private players like agro-dealers and seed companies as well as with government departments. An independent broker can assist by ensuring evidence is used to craft business models that do not suffocate existing industries.

Independent brokers can lure the diaspora
Some Africans in the diaspora are not investing home because they still have grievances with their governments, depending on circumstances through which they ended up in the diaspora. Persuading them back cannot be done by government officials like Ambassadors. They need a different independent institution where they can present their ambitions for consolidation and matching with local businesses at home.  Those who were driven out by political reasons cannot immediately forget what happened and come back unless a neutral person or institution heals the wounds and builds new bridges.

It is no longer just about advertisement or hiring expensive public relations firms but understanding ecosystems that bring together commodities, interests, communities and people. A broker or Gwevedzo / Munyai will play a very important role in opening minds, clarifying opportunities and nudging people into positive relationship building. Fortunately, a Gwevedzo/ Munyai or mediator has always been part and parcel of African economies and societies for generations.  His/her role has traditionally been to connect and build bridges between families and communities. Even if parents may not like each other after accusing each other of witch-craft, the Gwevedzo/Munyai would ensure new relationships are rebuilt through marriages of their children if they fall in love.

How the independent broker can be supported
The independent broker should initially be supported by government and the private sector but once set up should have an independent business model.  The fiscus can only support start-up phases and ultimately the broker’s business model should include creating a fluid investment analysis portfolio which swings with the fast changing situation influenced by climate change, inflation as well as consumer taste and preferences. Tracking all this information for investors and policy review will become a source of income for the broker.

As part of directing investments, the broker should become part of the implementation arm for government investment plans. A government investment plan is meaningless without fluid trends of what is happening on the ground. The broker will ensure policy makers understand the big picture and its important details, both of which are often hidden from policy makers because they are not close to forces that are shaping the future of agriculture and natural resources. Through engaging with all actors, the broker becomes aware that people at the edges of the economy like SMEs and informal markets know more and have more real-time data than the people at the top of government or companies.  In this fast-paced economic reality, opportunities can only be explained through conversations guided by smart  neutral brokers. You definitely cannot have your cake and eat it.

About the author

Byron Adonis Mutingwende