Africa's Economic Future Depends On Local Ownership, Entrepreneurship & Big Ideas

Olu Koucoi
Olu Koucoi, seen here in Manhattan's East Village, is a young Ivy League-educated Beninese man whose ideas about how to fix his homeland don’t necessarily fit into the more traditional development models. International Business Times / Connor Adams Sheets

Growing up in the West African city of Allada, Benin, Oloufounmi “Olu” Koucoi studied Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin while his friends were reading comic books.

It's not the kind of upbringing you'd expect to produce an entrepreneur advocating for market-driven wealth creation as the key to bringing Africa out of poverty, but that's exactly what the 29-year-old wants for his continent. It’s trickle-down economics as the key to Africa’s future.

Koucoi’s father, an Allada councilman educated in Russia, instilled a political sense in his son from a young age, and it followed him across the Atlantic to the United States. Arriving here in 2008, Koucoi worked as a researcher at Ohio State University before earning a graduate degree through the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious nonprofit leadership program in May 2012.

And the young Beninese man has used that background as a launchpad for a number of ambitious programs aimed at bringing opportunities and resources to the people of West Africa.

“Bill Gates in Africa”

Koucoi, who now lives in the rural central Beninese town of Savalou and returns to the U.S. frequently, is in the vanguard of movements aiming to change the narrative about how to bring Africa out of poverty and its people into the international marketplace as empowered independent players.

Koucoi’s ideas are controversial as they go against many of the more traditional business and development approaches, but he believes there is great potential in his wealth-creation model. His nonprofit Novi Africa is engaged in a number of initiatives, from helping local artisans gain business skills and access to markets, to distributing inexpensive solar lights and solar cellphones to West African countries.

But his vision for the future is for Benin and other African countries to create their own mega-entrepreneurs, business leaders who can bring massive opportunities to the continent through their contributions to technology and other sectors.

“We want Bill Gates in Africa. We want Warren Buffet in Africa,“ Koucoi said over beers and pizza at a dark bar in Manhattan’s East Village earlier this month. “That’s shocking, but that’s what will pull people out of poverty.”

It’s an interesting proposal: creating wealthy business barons as a way of helping the African people, but he has a point. Bill Gates employs thousands of people, and he pays huge sums in taxes that go toward all manner of public endeavors that benefit Americans.

“You can choose right now to support one person who’s very smart with his business to be the richest man in Benin,” he said. “So what do you get by doing that? A thousand people with jobs, growing the middle class … Bill Gates is not just making money for himself; he’s making money for America. He’s paying 30 percent of [his earnings] in taxes, and that’s what we need in Benin, wealth creation.”

But while his idea has support from some camps, many experts on Africa think Koucoi’s approach is naive.

One such doubter is Dr. Richard Mshomba, a Tanzanian professor of economics at La Salle University who studies economic efforts in Africa.

“I don’t buy it. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are unique individuals. There are many, many extremely wealthy people in this country and in the world. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are unique because they are willing to share their wealth,” Mbosha told IBTimes. “An economic system that depends on people like them is not going to work for anyone.”

But Koucoi is just one of many people, businesses and organizations taking new approaches to Africa, which then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared last year to be “the 21st century continent that is the land of opportunity.”

The future of Africa is in many ways the future of civilization, as 10 of the world’s fastest-growing economies over the past 10 years are located in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Economist, as are eight of the top 30 countries with the greatest recent progress in well-being, the Boston Consulting Group reports.

The challenge now is to determine the best ways to ensure that that growth and progress leads to positive outcomes for people of all classes across the entire continent, with ideas being hashed out in the academies, at board meetings and on the ground in Africa.

The range of suggestions is wide, but all of them -- including Koucoi’s wealth creation model -- center around the concept of Africans becoming self-reliant, in a way that's sustainable in the long term.

Local ownership, personal stake

A favorite mantra of experts who spend their time thinking about improving life for Africans long-term is “local ownership.”

A concept that seems to be eroding in many developed economies as they turn increasingly to a corporate chain-based model, local ownership emphasizes working with community groups and members to find ways for them to generate economic opportunities.

In contrast to humanitarian aid, grants and other exhaustible resources, the local ownership model can help people establish their own sources of income.

One strong believer in this concept is Pierre Ferrari, CEO of Heifer International, a global development nonprofit that partners with impoverished populations through gifts of livestock and training aimed at helping people to become self-reliant, to work their way out of poverty. Heifer's programs create “pro-poor, wealth-creating value chains” that empower people to produce a surplus of crops or goods, and educate them on how to sell that surplus within their communities.

“The value of the wealth-creating value chain is the ability to engage billions of people in the marketplace so they are not dependent on others for food,” Ferrari told IBTimes. “Once you have that, you start to see trade begin to build, retail, schools, banking and other things start to come about, and it’s the beginning of economic lives.”

Furthermore, many within the local ownership cadre try to ensure that the folks they work with make personal investments -- financial, emotional or intellectual -- in the ventures to give them a stake in their new opportunities.

Lastly, the concept of local ownership depends in large part on people doing things they're interested in or are already doing, as that leads to long-term commitment and lasting benefit.

“In Tanzania there is a group of Australians who have this project where they’re helping women to establish little businesses, really starting with almost nothing, and going with what they are interested in doing,” Mbosha said. “The first thing is to be aware of what people themselves want, and what they are capable of doing … If you really want it to be sustainable, it has to be something where they have an input.”

Investing in entrepreneurship

The targeted efforts of groups like Heifer and countless others are helping to bring some of the most impoverished and disconnected people in Africa out of abject poverty and lives of mere subsistence.

But another array of businesses and organizations is working to find ways to create a top-flight community of entrepreneurs in Africa, not only to bring benefits to their countries’ economies and people but also to partner with them in their endeavors.

In the minds of many global-minded tech investors and analysts, Africa is emerging as the world’s next technology and entrepreneurship hub, with tech incubators sprouting up in cities from Nairobi and Lago to Accra and Johannesburg.

These places’ arrival on the international tech scene may be news to many, but the most savvy analysts and businesses have been turning to Africa for the past decade for collaboration and growth. One such company is Caerus Associates, a strategy and design firm that “helps leaders and communities shape opportunities for stability, growth and resilience.” Caerus' Matthew McNabb, also adjunct fellow at the American Security Project, sees the African continent as a land of great opportunity for foreign investors as well as the people who live and work there.

“It’s no longer about taking all of the valuable things out of a country and selling them elsewhere. It’s now more about, ‘Hey, there are people in Africa who want to buy things.’ This is the rise of the African market,” he told IBTimes. “Tapping into these emerging markets and helping African businesses do so is a win-win for the foreign investor and for the development of the continent.”

But like Heifer and other outfits that face drawbacks such as limited scope and the massive challenges of bringing large populations out of poverty, companies like Caerus also have their limitations.

“[One] inherent limitation that I’m suggesting about the business approach is that rising consumer markets really relate more to people that have the available funds to buy things. It leaves out the bottom of the pyramid, if you will,” McNabb explained. “In Africa, I think there is a role to play for both business and development.”

These competing challenges help explain why continuing the development of Africa as an economic player will require a broad range of efforts and ideas.

Change-makers

Whether or not any specific plan pans out in the long run remains to be seen, a number of forward-thinking approaches are coming together to help Africa’s economy blossom, and experts say that’s exactly what’s needed.

Dr. Heidi Hardt, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington who follows such issues closely, told IBTimes that ideas rooted in the ideology of independence are coming together to unlock great potential.

“I think that local ownership is a really positive thing. It goes without saying that the more you can allow people to just lead their lives in sustainable ways and do the things that they’re doing anyway, the better the result will be,” she said. “I’m quite optimistic.”

Koucoi agrees that independence must be an integral part of any solution.

“Human beings want to be independent. That’s natural. So why don’t we apply that to African countries?” Koucoi asserted. “The indigenous community doesn’t want food and shelter; they want the ability to compete, to be part of something bigger, to be acknowledged as change-makers.”

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