Are procurement leaders intellectually lazy when forming African strategies?


MorneMostert.jpgAfrica is deeply dichotomous. This reality confronts any procurement leader when addressing the question of African distinctiveness in the process of long-term strategic decision-making, says Dr Morne Mostert, Director of the Institute for Futures Research, in this month's SmartProcurement.

If distinctiveness is the thinker's vantage point, then the African universalist is tempted with an almost immediate defence of why Africa should so often be regarded as somehow different. Is Africa not part of one world? and Are we not one humanity? are the staple critiques of the universalist. And, why is the so-called 'West' the benchmark against which Africa must be compared?

However, if your vantage point is sameness, or similarity, then the critique is, equally speedily, that Africa has a unique character that distinguishes her from all other places and that this character is discernible in her people. How often are ancestors discussed in London? is a typical way to question assumptions of universality.

Thus, Africa is the same or at least similar. And Africa is different or at least discernible.

Both assertions hold true and in holding both, the scholar's curiosity about Africa is simultaneously confounded and deepened. So much can be said of this great continent and evidence to the contrary is equally accessible.

Perhaps procurement professionals suffer from intellectual laziness, confounded by Africa's complexity, which has often limited perspectives on the continent to beads, drums and animal prints. It is easy to describe Africa's challenges: HIV, malaria, TB, tribalism, poverty, civil war, corruption and dictators with excessive and apparently invulnerable periods of tenure in power.

The solutions seem equally easy to find: develop the uncultivated agricultural sector, expand tourism and ensure value-added industries around natural resources, specifically mining.

But patently, despite the "simplicity" of challenges and solutions, Africa remains a largely unresolved conundrum for most Western strategists. Many have arrived with a 'business-as-usual' approach, moulded from Western models of operation, only to discover at their cost the utter impossibility of a copy-and-paste approach, despite their proven track records in the West.

We may be entering a time in which Africa, therefore, deserves a great deal more investigation. And the line of questioning must extend beyond why Africa remains so resistant to Western models and must include an appreciative interrogation of Africa's nuanced identity. This humble pursuit of greater understanding is likely to demand a deeper respect for her rhythms, quirks and appeal. It may be that the very methods of enquiry need to be revisited. Africa presents risk and opportunity in her own way and the paradigms and techniques required to unlock her secrets may be similarly unique.

To reduce this potential uniqueness to a simple list might, counterintuitively, contradict the very aim of the investigation - a classic example of drowning in the conundrum. Consider, for example, a check-list approach of pre-defined criteria - as a classical Western methodology: this is already significantly different from an emergent interpretation of time and opportunity - as a potentially African approach. The Western strategist might recoil from such distinction, believing it to be inefficient and even mythical. But Africa will not be defined by strategists. The discerning strategist can only dance with Africa's own rhythm. And the clumsiness of the spreadsheet-minded strategist is no fault of Africa.

Elders and ancestors

This rhythm says much about Africa's sense of time and timing, with timing defined in this context as residing within the containing system of time, i.e. timing as the art of deciding when, not merely how, to capitalise on (to misquote Victor Hugo) a strategic idea whose time has come. One interesting example of conceptions of time in Africa is the phenomenon and central role of ancestors. Naturally, the West is familiar with the idea of ancestry, but for many people of Africa, ancestry does not belong to a time gone by. Here, Africa possesses a remarkable parallel perspective of time. The status of being an ancestor, despite obvious connotations to the past, is only possible in the present, preceding which one is simply a member of a community.

Ancestors are potential companions to the present. They may be invited to join the present and to play a more active, interventional role in affairs of the day. The parallel extends to the important notion that ancestors, although originating in a former time, serve as guides to the future. They offer insight into critical decisions. Even at the most pragmatic interpretation, they provide a higher consciousness and even a higher conscience - an elevated moral compass for future endeavours. The notion of ancestors stretches the very sense of time and suggests a circular perspective on time as those members of the community who seek a higher consciousness aspire to the status of becoming a good future ancestor - encouraged by former members of the community (current ancestors) to engage with the present in such a manner that a meaningful future ancestor status is achieved.

Some comparison may be made with the role of elders - experienced members of the community who offer wisdom to the present that may increase the probability of realising such aspirational future ancestor status.

One may add to ancestors and elders the intuitive relationship that many people of Africa retain with nature, particularly the rivers and mountains. Nature is timeless. And the closeness with and respect for nature in so much of Africa reveal the true potential for future-mindedness hidden in the people of Africa.

Even the most rational two-by-two-matrix strategist must recognise the potential value of this future perspective and its clear distinction from a common Western paradigm in which self-serving short-termism has all but annihilated a sense of community, alienated elders to irrelevant 'pensioner' status in distant old-age homes and substantially disrupted the sustainability of the planet. The segmentation-driven analyst, obsessed with taxonomy, may do well to appreciate the systemic interconnectedness offered by an African paradigm.

That is not to suggest that the West does not also possess its own magic - indeed, to a large degree, the world is an increasingly better place. Nor does this perspective on Africa imply a new universal truth about all of Africa. It is simply to argue that some distinctiveness is clearly discernible and that the potential for learning about and from Africa is boundless.

Following Africa's rhythms

As Africa enters the 4th Industrial Revolution, it is reasonable to consider the extent to which Africa must follow the classical trajectory of the West. Superficial claims to leapfrogging may be ill considered, but so are assumptions that Africa must repeat the mistakes of the West. For the first time since the original industrial revolution, global society is coming to the realisation that humans cannot compete with machines for work designed for machines. This hegemonic paradigm is collapsing at long last, having shaped education, work and notions of productivity for centuries. Therefore, as global society enters the age of self-governing technology, it may well, quite paradoxically, simultaneously be entering the era of exploring what it means to be truly human. In this regard, Africa may not need to leapfrog at all. As the birthplace of humanity, Africa has in its DNA the deep knowledge of what it means to be human as part of an enormous number of apparently disparate communities - Africa is already home to over 2 000 languages. This remarkable competence to navigate extreme social diversity and to create meaning through others may be one of Africa's greatest exports as societies grapple for meaning and belonging in ever-diversifying global communities.

Africa will dance to her own rhythm. The tempo will be syncopated and often inaudible, but the successful strategist will discern the extravagant noise-to-signal ratio and discover symphony in the cacophony. Africa's eternal beat will show no sign of slowing down. Strategists with a humble ear to the ground will detect the rumbling risk but simultaneously sense the growing opportunity to dance with her abundance. In a time yet to come, the 5th Industrial Revolution will be born in Africa. And it may not be industrial at all.

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