I recently took part in a debate on a radio station. The discussion focused on the economic vision driving the African business class into the next decades. On the panel were the well known CEO of a large West African group of companies, a successful telecommunication entrepreneur and the founder of a business services company with a continent wide footprint.
Unfortunately, the audience did not come out any wiser as the debate sank into a tired criticism of African politicians and their economic policies. The point developed was that the anaemia of the African private sector originates in the bad governance, corruption and incompetence of the political class.
I felt uneasy. Not that the criticism was unfair: African politicians have gone out of their way to discredit themselves in terms of economic policy. Still, I had hoped to hear from our business elite some new narrative, some new ambition to make up for lost time, a new will to move to a best-in-class status, be it on a regional or continental basis. I also hoped -vainly- to hear from our leaders some hints at self criticism.
After all, are African businesses models of good governance? Are companies chiefs busy building up tomorrow’s African champions or are they simply attending to the status quo? Are these leaders bringing into their organizations the best practices that work elsewhere? Are our firms meritocracies where talent and creativity are rewarded?
The notion that politics explains everything really reflects the congenital dependency of our businesses on all manner of political protection including monopolies, quotas, high tariffs, straw men, public contracts parcelled out to friends and pervasive conflicts of interest.
The recurring railing against politicians could well serve as an alibi for our business leaders to exonerate themselves of their shortcomings. Unfortunately, it might also restrain their visual field and ambition.
For companies, the order of the day is to rationalize their organization, upgrade their skills, improve their productivity, strengthen their capital structure and get asset finance for business for better tax benefits.
Failure to meet these challenges will ensure that only foreign companies will reap the benefits of the future economic growth of the continent. This agenda, of course, is best accomplished with visionaries, competent and honest governments in charge. But even in their absence, the primary responsibility for achieving these objectives lies squarely with our business elite.