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Doing Business in Africa: How Culture Changes How We Work Together


Business, the Prosperity Gospel, and Monistic Philosophy

There may be some truth in the saying that ‘money makes the world go round’. There is little doubt that money has become an essential commodity for almost anything anyone might want to undertake. It is also widely recognised that money is a complex creature that causes problems and can distort human society. The breadth of the implications and impacts of money should be borne in mind by the conscientious businessman.

African people’s understandings of money are without doubt complex. While in some ways resembling those of Western people, books like African Friends and Money Matters by David Maranz (2001) also show that they are different. African monistic worldviews affect their understanding of money. Rather than something largely distinct from the ‘spiritual’, in many African worldviews the material and financial are considered to be in the same category as the spiritual. The resulting widespread notion that financial success arises from spiritual blessing is the basis of the much discussed and much condemned prosperity gospel. Whether unfortunately or otherwise, enrichment of African people, especially when the enrichment process is in some way associated with the sharing of the Gospel of Christ, is likely to be interpreted as being the prosperity gospel. While it is true that many Westerners may want to temper this association, such is not always possible.

The full depth of the implications of the monistic worldview for money and business are vast. I will not be able to exhaust them here. I can mention just one or two repercussions. Mauss (1967) points us to some impacts of gift giving that are common in traditional societies but that seem to have been lost in modern Europe and America. Gift giving, especially that associated with feasts/celebrations, seems to be very common in Africa. The obligation-of-return set up by such giving become a part of the spiritual/physical dynamic of the monistic ontology concerned. The spiritual and financial are not so much interchangeable as indistinguishable in this dynamic. To use Tempels’ terminology describing African philosophy; being is force and everything that is has its force including of course money and wealth in general (1959).

It is in practice very hard for any Western originated business venture on the African scene not to be influenced by the above dynamic. As a result, business transactions do not flow in the way that they do back home in the West. The causes for such non-flow are often considered under the general heading of corruption. Use of the term corruption seems to imply that an otherwise functional system contains anomalies. More accurately we could say that, in Africa and probably elsewhere in the majority world, people’s understanding of material wealth, especially in its relation to spiritual powers, results in an approach to business and finance that can in the West be considered ‘corrupt’.

The above is certainly related to trust/honesty or its lack in monistic communities. In the absence of objectivity and in the presence of spiritual powers who are setting out to deceive; honesty and truth can be very slippery concepts. Standardisation practices (i.e. accurate and trusted means of assessing weight, volume, quality and so on of a product) may be highly unreliable. Pre-literate societies do not have the means of providing written records; recently pre-literate societies often still prefer the methods of their oral predecessors. The way to ensure that important transactions are appropriately noted is therefore to engage them openly and in front of as many witnesses as is practical. The way to attract a crowd of witnesses is to offer to feed them; to give them a feast. Feasts themselves of course cost, they do not just happen for free. For key transactions to occur, a proportion of available resources must be allocated to feasts; hence the well-known African metaphor of ‘eating money’. Because agreements are consumed with food, it can be worthwhile to enter into agreement over non-workable arrangements, providing funding is available. Although it is aid relationships that are most vulnerable to this kind of thinking, businesses are not immune to it.


Modelling Business as Deception

Business models are designed to work in particular contexts. Transferring a model of operations from one context to another (e.g. one country to another, or one time period to another) will require adjustments. These could be considered to be compensations for the environment. Westerners are accustomed to functioning in Western contexts. What they do can succeed when they come to Africa, only in so far as Westerners remain in charge and/or in so far as Africa has imported a Western context. In parts of East Africa, the Western sector is often run largely by Indians, plus some Arabs and some Chinese and so on. It is not necessarily what it appears, especially when considered at depth. My main point here however is to say that this Western sector is not necessarily accessible to local Africans. This is for various reasons. It is in this sense especially that advocating a Western business model to Africans may be a deception or a lie. A bit like taking a baby push-chair into an African village. A pushchair may be a great asset where all surfaces are firm and smooth but useless amongst muddy village paths, over streams and rocks and around trees. I want to consider below more specific reasons for non-functionality of Western business models in Africa.

One reason Westerners may succeed in business in Africa is because of their well-to-do contacts/friends and relationships overseas. African people typically do not have these. When African people realise that having such overseas relationships are a necessity for success in business, they attempt to acquire them. Unfortunately efforts at acquiring them can be very fraught. (Part of the reason they are fraught is of course because Africa’s understanding of business and finance is different from that in the West – see above. Westerners “do not want to contribute to waste and failure” is how Maranz explains why many Westerners are reluctant to cooperate in business with Africans (2001).) Even with an educational system largely using European languages, it still remains difficult for African people to acquire the kind of native fluency in the same that will put a foreign business partner at ease. (The pragmatics of how to use a language in relation to a variety of different contexts may be as important as knowledge of vocabulary, phonetics, and grammar.) We can add access to start-up capital; a Westerner entering business is likely to have access to more of this than would many African people. I would add however, that in the light of the rest of the content of this article, the issue of capital is not as much the bottleneck as is often thought.

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Category: In Depth, Summer 2015

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is is professor of religion with Global University and adjunct faculty with William Carey International University. He works closely with a wide variety of churches in western Kenya in informal theological education. These include many African founded churches, Pentecostal churches, and the Coptic Orthodox church. Jim uses indigenous languages, and local resources in his ministry. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and is the author of Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (William Carey Library, 2011), Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager (New Generation Publishing, 2011), Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal (Wipf and Stock, 2012), Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa (Wipf and Stock, 2013), Secularism and Africa: In the Light of the Intercultural Christ (Wipf and Stock, 2015), New Foundations for Appreciating Africa: Beyond Religious and Secular Deceptions (VKW, 2016), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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