Forward Thinkers // 08.08.2010

What are we doing today for tomorrow?

Article by Aba H

Eric Kacou on what matters for Africa’s future

Embedded in the word “tomorrow” lies a mixture of sentiments such as anticipations, fears, and hopes which we tie not only to our individual futures but to Africa’s as well. The plethora of multifaceted problems faced by the continent would make anyone frustrated. We think of devastating unemployment and inflation rates and doubt whether plausible solutions are available. The seemingly haphazard development of Africa is a common subject debated and mulled over in lecture theatres around the world, in air conditioned offices, in backyards over weekend barbeques and in the homes of ordinary citizens.

On May 28th we sat down to talk with Eric Kacou, a business strategist and Managing Director of the OTF (On-the-Frontier) Group in Kigali, Rwanda. As a specialist in post-conflict economic reconstruction, Mr. Kacou knows a thing about hope and anticipation for tomorrow. He shared with us a positive and empathetic perspective on development in Africa, the role of women in society and a concept he calls “the Survival Trap”.

According to Mr. Kacou, the term ‘Survival Trap’ refers to the mindset common to many Africans, which prevents us from making the necessary advancements. It is “the state of mind where we are stuck in the problems that we face” and we are disheartened by our problems instead of being proactive towards our goals. The premise of the concept is that what we believe in drives our actions. This applies not only to individuals but also to businesses, nations and the continent.

Mr. Kacou noted that Africans are not in the Survival Trap because we aren’t trying. “I believe that we are amongst the hardest working people you will ever find”, he said. “Where else in the world do you see the majority of the people waking up before dawn every day, day in and day out to go out and work very hard but yet at the end they have nothing to show for it? The fact that people continue trying so hard is a testimony to the enduring spirit that you see in Africa.” He explained further “we’re not failing because we’re not trying, we’re failing because something in what we’re doing is fundamentally wrong…I think what is wrong is the mindset that we bring to what we do.” He points out that the Survival Trap mindset among businesses, governments and individuals results in people doing things in the same way but one day expecting different outcomes. He asserted that if we keep living in response to our immediate problems we’ll remain in an ongoing cycle of beating the problem and surviving in the short term but not going any further-hence the ‘trap’.

Thus, we need to bring a new way of thinking to the way we approach problems in order to get out of the Survival Trap. And the core mindset that needs to be changed, in this respect Mr. Kacou asserted, is our relationship to these problems. He explained in other words, that we must go from being victims, literally driven by our current circumstances, to a place where we plan and make choices based on the positive situations we want to create. He says it’s like going from thinking “ I’m starving therefore let me go get some food”, to thinking “I want to make sure my kids are educated; I want to make sure that as a country we graduate from dependence on aid.” And he has mentioned it: receiving aid has become a controversial area in need of a different approach.

The amount of aid Africa receives remains a legitimate concern for many Africans. Specifically, we are concerned with the ability of our governments to receive money to finance development, respond to donor requirements and still remain autonomous. “There is no shame in asking for help if it is help that is going to help you with getting where we want to go.” Mr. Kacou says. But he also emphasised that it is critical that we start engaging on our own terms and this can only happen when we have a clear direction about where we are going. But therein lies the problem. Many African governments haven’t thought critically about where the solutions to their problems should come from and consequently they don’t engage with external actors (for example foreign donors, investors and advisors) on their own terms.

According to Mr. Kacou, when we change our mindset and start engaging on our own terms, the opportunities for dependency, the embezzlement of money and inefficiencies in the systems decrease and we stop using other people’s resources towards a goal that we are not even sure of ourselves. Rwanda is exemplary when it comes to this. The Government of Rwanda has provided leadership for the country by creating a common direction for the entire country- Vision 2020. Vision 2020 provides a clear idea of where the country wants to go and serves as what Mr. Kacou calls a “lighthouse” towards which the country must move. It is within this framework that Rwanda interacts with external partners thereby ensuring that foreign help is used towards achieving their vision, and not those of investors or donors.

When asked about changes occurring right now in Africa that inspire him, Mr. Kacou named the increasing role of women in shaping society as one of them. In the past, the influence of women in Africa has largely been kept in the private sphere with only their immediate relations benefitting from their feminine perspective and unique approach to challenges. He tells us that “the idea that you can actually develop your country, or the region or continent while having only 50 per cent of the citizens -men- and if you say only men of a certain age you’re talking about only 15 per cent of the citizens being vibrant economic players is completely crazy, it’s not possible.” He elaborated by saying that the active generation of resources needs to be done by more than 10 per cent of society. He said this with conviction and let us reflect on the idea of how the increasing role of women will contribute to greater prosperity for the continent.

Mr. Kacou’s positivity continued as he reminded us that “development is a process” and as Africans we shouldn’t regret or be ashamed of any aspect of our past. He said, that rather than being consumed and paralysed by the past, “what matters is what we’re doing today for tomorrow.”

Before going to his next meeting Mr. Kacou left us with the idea that it is up to each individual to dare to face each challenge not with hopelessness but as an opportunity to be innovative and creative, whether it is in our businesses or in our individual lives. He makes it clear: we can either succumb to challenges or see them as an opportunity to be innovative whether as an individual, a business or as a country leader. We need to live today in a way that ensures a better tomorrow.

Eric Kacou specialises in post-conflict economic reconstruction and has made a significant contribution to revitalising the Rwandan economy. He has advised leaders of Nigeria, Uganda, Burundi, Mali, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Bermuda and the World Bank on competitiveness and private sector development. He also heads the Rwanda National Innovation and Competitiveness (RNIC) Programme, which was started by President Paul Kagame. He supervises the Pioneers of Prosperity award programme which is an annual, multi-million dollar initiative between OTF and the Social Equity Venture Fund (SEVEN).

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