Which is critical, using what you have or looking for what you don’t have?


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Writes Charles Dhewa

Abundant natural resources like land, minerals, water, and climate conditions appropriate for producing diverse commodities all year round are some of the blessings in many African countries. However, African policymakers are still to realize that it is more about using what they have and not searching for what they do not have. It is also about using what they know (existing knowledge) as opposed to looking for what they do not know (external knowledge). Once that is understood, it becomes easy to use existing knowledge to convert natural resources into wealth and better lives.

One unfortunate trend is that African countries continue to spend much of their resources pursuing academic qualifications. This obsession creates a big gap between the real world and the academic world as shown by cases where school drop-outs have more practical knowledge than PhD graduates in economics or any other academic discipline. Those who spend 20 years in academic studies do not often know how the local economy functions. For instance, introducing an academic graduate who has spent decades in academic circles to the African informal economy is like introducing a toddler to the practice of herding and milking cows. This is because the formal academic system does not adequately expose learners to important aspects of the African informal economy.

Unpacking the connection between academic studies and natural resources

Many African academics do not see the connection between their studies and local natural resources. Some of the questions that are not adequately answered by African academics include: As you conduct your studies, how are you ensuring your engineering, banking, economics, medical training, law or any other career of choice speaks to real-life situations? What makes such questions fundamental is that it seems African curricula continue to be informed by imported knowledge geared to using imported technologies. Just as family members who take over a business may fail to the level envisioned by the founder, African countries took over policies, infrastructure, and companies from the colonizers but failed to get the knowledge of the initiators.

This is visible in how African countries continue struggling with developing financial sectors relevant to African contexts. For instance, the academic system has not been able to tap into financial innovations by the burgeoning Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) sector which continues to survive through difficult economic circumstances, independent of government. In fact, policymakers like ministries of finance are lagging behind in understanding SMEs. While policymakers think they cannot solve anything without foreign currency, SMEs have more faith in local currency and can use barter trade to complement cash shortages.

There is a strong realization by SMEs that knowledge and technologies from outside are not donations but come with negative terms because whoever is providing those resources will eventually benefit at the expense of local economies. Those who provide food aid and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) have invisible vested interests and will be the first to reap benefits from existing opportunities. When African countries manage to turn academic institutions into pathways for transforming natural resources, it becomes possible for parents to get the best Return on Investment (ROI) in education. Most African households and nations are failing to attach academic knowledge to natural resources as a pathway for earning some meaningful returns. Otherwise, the whole African mining sector would by now be in the hands of thousands of graduate geologists and mining engineers, not in the hands of artisanal miners. Agricultural graduates would be the ones driving agriculture production, value addition and exports. The fact that all that is not happening is an indication of failure to apply academic knowledge to natural resources.

No need to blame external factors for everything

Blaming droughts, climate change and the absence of foreign currency imply all collective knowledge and natural resources are redundant. Farmers have a lot of knowledge but policymakers are often quick to declare a national food disaster in the event of a looming drought when people are not just seated waiting to be fed. It appears African policymakers are saying natural resources are useless without foreign currency yet that is not correct. Given the availability of many irrigation schemes and agricultural expertise, most African countries should be using abundant land and other resources to produce enough food. Why should African countries import food or depend on food aid when parastatals are there? The main challenge could be an ingrained element of dependency. Policymakers, parastatals, and private sector companies with links to the government could be thinking that if the country produces enough food there will be no pretext for getting free foreign currency. In that sense, food shortages could be deliberately homemade challenges so that when external support continues to flow, it would be an opportunity to siphon foreign currency in the name of importing food while directing resources to personal use as development agencies bring foreign aid.

Building bridges between opportunistic and survivalist economies

Failure to convert natural resources into better lives through formal academic education has given birth to two economies in most African countries. On one hand, is the economy comprising opportunists who want to maintain the status quo in which they thrive on unscrupulous business deals and tenders. On the other hand, is a survivalist economy comprising SMEs and food traders who are creating their own future using what is available. Survivalists do not even have time to read newspapers, listen to the radio, or watch television.

They depend on their own information sources, relationships, and networks including word of mouth. Meanwhile, the mainstream media is obsessed with opportunists and politicians whom they follow around turning their speeches into national news. The only time the mainstream media covers the survivalist economy is when there is a challenge like an outbreak of cholera or when SME businesses catch fire.

This trend has openly become an opportunist versus survivalist economy. African policymakers are still to realize that if developments in the economy are not known or shared by the majority, there is no economy to talk about. SMEs and traders know what is happening in the informal sector rather than details about the visiting Foreign Presidents or Ministers. Ordinary people know that there is nothing for them from what is coming from the top through big deals covered in the national media. However, the survivalist economy is not poor but a thriving livelihood economy that deserves recognition through inclusive economic development frameworks.

Ideally, academics from universities should be building bridges between opportunistic and survivalist economies. Working as independent investment analysts, academics could also be building the capacity of rural communities to value their natural resources and globalizing local knowledge.


charles@knowledgetransafrica.com / charles@emkambo.co.zw/


Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

Mobile: 0772 137 717/ 0774 430 309/ 0712 737 430