‘Semper aliquid novi Africa adferre.’
Social Innovation through Vocational Freedom.
“Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.” Why are Aristotle’s words so important to understand for development in Africa? One of the biggest challenges Africa faces today is that Africa is misunderstood and that western cultures are not thoroughly equipped in the art of listening; to their own vocational calling as well as the hidden wealth of potential in Africa. I might have found a way for all of this to change, but it entails that we should all understand something first – our passion.
The saying goes: ‘Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.’ Combine these words with Aristotle’s words and you will soon understand the heading for this essay which, translated, means: There is always something new coming out of Africa. A Greek elder first spoke these words some three hundred years B.C. and though all those years have passed, it still remains the truth. However, I fear it is a misunderstood truth.
A call to passion?
To take a closer look at why I fear it is misunderstood, we need to define some words first. What is meant by ‘vocation’? ‘Vocation’ means a strong impulse or suitability for a particular career or occupation. More importantly, it closes the gap between career and life. In Latin vocatio means ‘to call’, or ‘being summoned’. By means of extensive research and first hand experience, I have become aware of the need for and the lack of, efficient and relevant guidance to enable individuals to explore their vocations in a responsible manner. When individuals are equipped with a realistic self-awareness, together with a thorough understanding of the world in which they live, they see the opportunity to dream about their futures. Additionally, they develop the means to pursue these dreams with the necessary knowledge and motivation. For this process to catalyze social and economic innovation, there are three things to remember. We should have the courage to follow our passion, we should find and define our talents and skills and we should distinguish between interests and passion. The concept of a particular career is getting harder and harder for many communities in Africa to understand. Consequently, what we have in Africa are people who have utilized their passion (or understanding of it) to think creatively and innovatively about making money with the talents and skills they have.
Ernest Hemingway wrote: “Hunger is good discipline and you learn from it.” To explain the relevance of this quote I will use the story of a good friend of mine from Cameroon. He told me that when he was young he always knew the mealtimes of certain households in his community. He would time his visits half an hour early so the household will invite him to stay and eat – in Africa there is always room for another at the table. This was a creative way to make sure that he always had something to eat. However, he did not build on this idea and it did not grow to be anything more than just creatively showing up at the right time. He did not use his hunger – he did not learn to think innovatively because of it. However, he had a friend who taught him a very powerful lesson by using the same tricks, but in an innovative way. This friend would visit households with many children and entertain the children with stories through mealtimes. He became so good at storytelling that families in the community invited him to mealtimes for that purpose. He later became a famous writer and poet. His innovation was born out of hunger, but he used his talents and skills creatively, found his vocation and made a career out of it
The inverse of innovation?
People from outside of Africa largely power economic growth in Africa. As soon as someone from outside of Africa steps onto African soil they are faced with two very influential factors of possible growth:
1) Will they be understood?
2) Will the African people like their idea?
The problem with this is that we do not understand innovation correctly. We believe that it is our innovative ideas that will change Africa, and many times we will force these ideas on the people in the local communities, selling it as a life changing prospect of opportunity that they do not have the luxury of saying no to. However, these ideas only work if it came out of a local context, best explained by Dr. Ernesto Sirolli, who developed Enterprise Facilitation®:
“What is development? Ultimately all development is local; fostering real development involves creating an environment conducive to the transformation of good ideas into viable and sustainable ventures.”
As we speak, there are millions of Africans who believe in a dream and a hope that they can change things for the better for themselves and for their community. So why don’t they? Most of the time entrepreneurs don’t know where to start and because we don’t know how to listen and understand their passions, we are left with missed opportunities rather that innovative entrepreneurship.
If we could teach somebody to look at their idea in such a way that they can transform a dream into reality, imagine the future of a community, which encourages this way of thinking. First we need to teach ourselves to transform what we are good at into a way of helping African communities. Take a look at image 1.1
You will see that we have been looking at innovation with the ladder leaning against the wrong wall. We have an inverse opinion of it. For a very long time we have had a non-empathic view of innovation. We think we can show an African country how to become great by using innovative ideas when, in fact, it is the other way around.
The power of Empathy?
Africa has always been innovative. Africa has to be innovative to survive. Africa understands that innovation is a necessity – not a luxury as in first world countries. For Africans, innovation comes much more natural than for others people. Just look at the quick fix time saving culture we live in. We try and approve upon luxuries and not necessities. It is becoming harder and harder for anyone outside of Africa to be innovative, because we are not dependent on innovation like Africans are. This brings me to the next point.
How do we improve innovative potential by using our passions to facilitate rather than force economic and social growth in Africa?
Roman Krznaric stated that the biggest tool for social change in our time is empathy. We should teach ourselves to be more empathic:
“If you think you are hearing the word empathy everywhere, you are right. It’s now on the lips of scientists and business leaders, education experts and political activists. The big buzz around empathy stems from a revolutionary shift in the science of how we understand human nature. The old view that we are essentially self-interested creatures is being nudged firmly to one side by evidence that we are also homo-empathicus – wired for empathy, social cooperation and mutual aid.”
He listed a couple of points to help expand our own empathic potential: He explains empathy as the ability to step into the shoes of another, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions. This makes empathy different from kindness or pity.
That is why we can use and measure our ability to be empathic to predict future engagements with Africa, whether it’s in an economic, environmental, social or political field.
Once we have been trained in our ability to be empathic as well as the process of understanding our own passions, we can then engage with the African communities in a much more informed manner. We will do this by also practicing the art to understand, and then to be understood.
Otto Scharmer, a researcher who creates innovations in learning and leadership that he delivers through classes and programs at MIT, explains this beautifully with his methodology:
“Theory U; Leading from the future as it emerges. The social technology of presencing.”
Look at how he describes the art of listening, and how empathy can fit into this model.
He stresses the point that we should, if we really want to understand to be understood, listen with an open mind, heart and will. We need to rethink the way in which we listen from the outside, from within and where we could find the source of generative listening. Of course I believe that the source is connected to the process of growing your vocational freedom. I think if we can reach a state of generative listening between investors and entrepreneurs, Africa will be a very exciting place indeed – a place where the ‘future will want to emerge.’
There should be a mandatory Board for Context Sensitive Conduct to ensure that the most effective outcomes can be reached between Africans and investors or businesses from outside of Africa. Currently, we have no way of ensuring that business leaders outside of Africa work in such a context sensitive way. We have approximately 650 Universities in Africa that could serve on this board for context sensitive conduct. The problem is that there are only about 90 Business Schools in Africa that can effectively help with this predicament and only ten of these schools have proper accreditation. Of those ten, we find four to six of them in South Africa, which means that the rest of Africa, with 640 million individuals under the age of 24 and 460 million individuals under the age of 16 are left out in the cold and out of the loop in terms of innovative business creation. Not to mention the implosion of a possibility to catalyze the undertaking of a national Board of Context Sensitive Conduct.
Innovation, corruption’s twin brother?
At the moment we are facing a very big challenge regarding the relationship between corruption and innovation in Africa. Some say that to be corrupt, you actually have to be very innovative. Let me clearly define innovation by using the business dictionary:
“The process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value for which customers will pay. To be called an innovation, an idea must be replicable at an economical cost and must satisfy a specific need. Innovation involves deliberate application of information, imagination and initiative in deriving greater or different values from resources, and includes all processes by which new ideas are generated and converted into useful products.
In business, innovation often results when ideas are applied by the company in order to further satisfy the needs and expectations of the customers. In a social context, innovation helps create new methods for alliance creation, join-venturing, flexible work hours, and creation of buyers’ purchasing power’. Innovations are divided into two broad categories:
1) Evolutionary innovations (continuous or dynamic evolutionary innovation) that are brought about by many incremental advances in technology or processes and
2) Revolutionary Innovations (also called discontinuous innovations) which are often disruptive and new.”
Now that we have a better understanding of what innovation is, we can take a look at what is needed for corruption to stay away. We are facing a massive problem regarding corruption. When we take a look at what the World Bank has to say about corruption regarding theft and bribery among government officials, the main focus of the 2003 United Nations Convention, we see that it costs developing countries between $20 billion and $40 billion per year. We will all agree that it is a very big amount of money. It does however only account for a very small proportion of the total unlawful flow that somehow leaks out of the public treasury. That is because of the fact that multinational companies are stealing more than $900 billion per year from developing countries by using tax evasion and other unlawful (innovative?) practices. See figure 1.3: (Transparency International)
Like I said: ‘Africa is Innovation.’ For us to understand this as an opportunity instead of thinking we need to teach Africa about innovation, we have to start by looking at business ethics and policies regarding economic, environmental and social/political issues. Growth is always supposed to be inclusive, but it becomes harder when faced by people who do not understand your potential or ideas – or when the system that is suppose to support it is corrupt.
When a company has a clear understanding of its values and has the potential to sense the future, it can become a growth engine. Organizations that would like to do business in Africa should teach themselves never to become comfortable in their business – because innovation is never comfortable. It is a hard fought battle worth every scar, because you ‘fake it until you make it’. The economic challenge we are faced with, is to find the shared commonalities regarding values or goals for an innovative future.
We have to be sure that all the sectors share the same values for integrity, growth, environmental impact and innovative ideas.
To take into account what I have spoken about in this essay, I will again list possible guidelines that we can use to promote engines for growth, transformation and innovative sustainability of natural as well as human capital resources. Firstly I want to emphasize the importance of business and innovation driven by a relational vehicle of understanding. Creating a Board of Context Sensitive Conduct can accomplish this. It will then cultivate a better understanding to transform innovative ideas into reality. By using a new way of practicing these ethics we can be better equipped to give certain people a much needed skill, but only if that person shows the passion to commit to his or her business idea with a sense of entrepreneurship. Only if we learn how to listen through the source of generative listening, will we be able to encourage ethical business engagement.
The one who gets it first?
Entrepreneurship should not be clouded by paperwork and cluttered by perceptions regarding business. Let us remember that the word entrepreneur, in many languages means ‘the one who gets it first’, or ‘dare to do’. We should stimulate a value of empathy, and practice empathy not only in our daily lives but also in the way we do business, write economic policies and definitely the way we look at environmental issues and go about harnessing natural resources. Politics can become a great tool and platform to show others how this value is used to encourage a direction of social innovation.
There is always something new coming out of Africa. It is up to us to make sure that this saying remains true for another 2000 years. But why don’t we start by focusing on the next 20 years? I hope to continue this discussion on the future of our beloved Africa soon.