What Does Africapitalism Actually Mean? Power, Gender and the Promise of Africapitalism

All forms of capitalism, including Africapitalism, ultimately, depend on the devaluation and exploitation of essential domestic labour, which women still perform almost exclusively in Africa.

First conceptualized by Nigerian billionaire, Tony O. Elumelu, in 2011, ‘Africapitalism’ has been as an economic philosophy that embodies the private sector’s commitment to the economic transformation of Africa through investments. It is an ideology to pay attention to, because of how it is shaping the landscape of business and investment in Africa. Kenneth Amaeshi, the director of the Sustainable Business Initiative at the University of Edinburgh, calls Africapitalism a creative push back on the ways global capitalism seeks to extract value from the African continent with no concern for the global distribution of wealth. But just like most other forms of capitalism, Africapitalism’s key principle, on paper, is entrepreneurship.

Amaeshi was one among the diverse pool of scholars Elumelu invited to the 2015 retreat in Calabar to refine and develop this concept. Speaking to the historian and professor at Vanderbilt University, Moses Ochonu, who was also at the retreat, he recalls that only three out of about 13 scholars at the retreat were women. My initial instinct was to shelf this representational ratio as inconsequential because gender-inclusive capitalism (e.g., #GirlBoss capitalism) remains capitalism. Being a woman does not preclude the exploitative power dynamics at the heart of capitalist entrepreneurship. But Professor Ochonu reminds me that ‘when women are not adequately represented at the table, women’s experiences and aspirations factor less into discussions of how to mitigate, constrain, humanize, reign in, and make capitalism more responsible and its profits more socially beneficial.’

WHAT DOES AFRICAPITALISM LOOK LIKE?

African economies do not conform with popularized understandings of capitalism. A defining trait of capitalism in popular literature is that of the exploitation of ‘formal’ wage labour, meanwhile 85 per cent of employment in Africa is in the informal economy. (Perhaps studying the exploitation of the consumer and of informal labour might tell us more about capitalism in Africa, but that’s for another day.) When we studied feudalism, socialism, capitalism and communism in secondary school Government classes, the take-home understanding was that those were concepts that really only applied to societies abroad. Yet, history suggests that ‘Africapitalism’ is only the latest in the long timeline of approaches of applying the economic theory of capitalism to understanding Africa. Capitalism is also African, and Africapitalists are now making that clear.

Though the concept of Africapitalism is rooted in the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF), home to the now-defunct Africapitalism Institute, Africapitalism transcends TEF. Whether or not other venture philanthropists and philanthro-capitalists across the continent, like Ali Mufuruki and Jonathan Oppenheimer, frame their work as Africapitalism, their entrepreneurial, business and investment decisions on the continent speak to the concept. While it is tenuous to claim that all entrepreneurs across Africa are Africapitalists, many do share the belief that it is the private sector’s responsibility to harness labour and financial capital to transform the continent.

For advocates of Africapitalism, the concept is a reinvention of capitalism that embodies a pan-African consciousness, and that places the interests of Africa and Africans at the centre of business decisions made on the continent. Africapitalists believe the concept inspires entrepreneurs with an emotive force and serves an economic need, while swimming along the current hegemony of global capitalism. Even talking about it, as this article does, is embedded in the hot global conversation of the day: what to do with capitalism.

As with all forms of capitalism, questions of inequality remain. A central problem of capitalism is how it concentrates wealth, and thus power, under the guise of a ‘free’ market. The farther away from its centre you are, the more Africans, women, people living with disabilities, low-income earning people and workers (as opposed to owners of means of production) you find. And of course, these identities exist within people in intersectional dimensions. The question here is: What is at stake when any one of these identity groups is prioritized above the other, as with women in #GirlBoss capitalism or the African identity in Africapitalism?

ACCESS TO CAPITAL AND JOB CREATION

Africapitalist entrepreneurship increases access to capital and creates jobs, but it is not a sustainable substitute for inclusive economic infrastructure. Poverty is a particularly gendered issue as at 70 per cent, young women experience the highest rates of poverty in Africa. Women founders of start-ups experience frustration seeking private investment and financial support from their governments. In 2019, less than five per cent of VC funding from private funds for African start-ups went to companies with women founders/co-founders.

One of the best-case scenarios is from the TEF Entrepreneurship Programme, launched in 2015. The programme has a $100 million commitment by Tony Elumelu to empower 10,000 African entrepreneurs equity-free (though the funds must be received through a bank account at UBA, which Tony Elumelu owns). So far, a third of TEF’s 9,038 funded entrepreneurs are women. Some of these entrepreneurs run social enterprises that further empower low-income earning women financially.

For low-income men and women alike, Africapitalism creates jobs and increases access to capital. For Africans of a higher socio-economic status, Africapitalism could be why they move from wishful thinking about making social impact while working in a cosy Fortune-500 company to actually running scalable businesses that solve problems experienced across socio-economic classes. Given the weakness and failures of African governments, entrepreneurship is more than beneficial, Africans know it is almost all we have

But that is not the entire picture. Africans stand to lose from Africapitalism’s fetish of personal responsibility in two main ways. First, entrepreneurship in itself does not mean that people will be free from job instability or indecent work, both of which have been touted as disadvantages of the informal sector over the formal. The current language of entrepreneurship in Africa which emphasizes DIY economic prosperity is nothing new; instead, it is a rebranding of work that Africans have been doing since our economies were colonized and labelled ‘informal’. And even before European colonization, the landscape of entrepreneurship in Africa was boundless as the 2018 essay collection, Entrepreneurship in Africa: A Historical Approach, and books by economic historians like Kenneth Dike, David Northrup, Ghislaine Lydon and Abdul Sheriff have shown. The functional difference between entrepreneurship as we know it now and informal work is that the latter is not declared to, or registered with, the authorities for tax, social security and/or labour law purposes. But the work and the initiative to fill gaps left by an inefficient government are present in both. While individual entrepreneurs can graft their way through the system, prosperity for all will require government intervention, to lower the costs of doing business, for example.

Second, when entrepreneurs step in to develop products for low-income earners, their efforts are usually geared at changing what the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ looks like, with little consideration for reducing the inequality gap. This only shifts economic responsibility for basic services from the state to individuals and creates new forms of vulnerability. The fixation on personal responsibility will not be sufficient. Proponents of Africapitalism insist that the principle is about ‘a hand up and not a hand out [like aid]’, but Africapitalism does not address the structural issues that necessitate aid either.

UNDERVALUING AND EXPLOITING LABOUR

Like other variants of capitalism, Africapitalism proposes we think of value in terms of shareholders instead of stakeholders. Leftist thinkers remind us that shareholders are not the biggest (or only) risk takers. In all economic production, the government, workers, and consumers take risks and create value as well and yet they, workers/employees especially, are largely absent in Africapitalists’ narrative, just as in the global capitalist narrative.

A 2019 study done at TEF with Stanford University recommends that women entrepreneurs can build sustainable businesses that will drive prosperity by adopting an ‘organizational mindset’. Such a mindset values employees as resources to be managed and contrasts an ‘exchange mindset’ where employees’ opinions are valued, and relationships nurtured. The study’s advice is to become more like the ‘male entrepreneur’ whose motivations revolve around profit and growth. Yes, entrepreneurs will create jobs but we must ask what value is made if the profit-making priority of the businesses comes at often fatal costs to workers. Stories abound of African youth being pushed to extremes in the name of being gainfully employed. These extremes are even bleaker for women due to prevalent misogyny and sexual abuse reported in workplaces. African workers will not find salvation in their labour laws when the statistics on labour inspection are poor. Africapitalism says in other words: from each according to their benevolence, and to each according to their capacity and desire to exploit labour for private profit. 

Uniquely to women, all variants of capitalism depend on the devaluation and exploitation of domestic labour which is critical to livelihood, and which women still perform almost exclusively in Africa. Across the publications, reports and studies by proponents of Africapitalism, domestic labour is hardly mentioned, talk less valued. After all, domestic labour is not a business, cannot yet be scaled and does not directly contribute to the GDP of countries as is currently calculated.

DO WE HAVE AN ALTERNATIVE?

While many have argued that ‘we simply do not know of any alternative to capitalist sweatshops,’ we, as a society, simply must keep asking ourselves for alternatives. Changing who is at the helm of exploitation to an African would make the African capitalist feel good, but Africanization is not decolonization. Africanization will not prevent bitter labour conflicts or the suffering of precarious informal workers. Within and without the framework of labour and management, labour exploitation prevails under Africapitalism. And for groups whose labour have historically been undervalued in global economic networks: Africans, women, people with low purchasing power, people with disabilities, the after-thought status given to labour welfare under all variants of capitalism does not bode well.

As Africans develop roadmaps towards economic prosperity, African entrepreneurship needs to be liberated from the profit/worker-welfare binary. Additionally, the innovative force of African entrepreneurship needs to be directed towards narrowing the inequality gap. As it works now, capital flows where capital already flows and for whom much has already been given, even more, is earned. It is not ridiculous to imagine and hope that entrepreneurial energy can be invested in reimagining how to redistribute wealth in society. As climate change makes clearer the finitude of earth’s resources, perhaps this is not merely a ‘can’ matter, but a matter of necessity.

A long-standing, yet imperfect, solution for creating shared value prosperity is taxation. Corruption aside, Africa needs a home-grown tax system as informality mutes the efficiency of our current tax systems and multi-national corporations rob African countries of billions of dollars in tax abuse yearly.

Other solutions lie in African countries’ dynamic and diverse histories of reimagining their political economy. In Nigeria, the vigour that animated the left in the late twentieth century is being reignited in protests, academic conferences, WhatsApp group chats and Twitter spaces. North Africans continue to debate capitalist reproduction as it pertains to unpaid labour by women and anticolonial legacies. The same goes for South and East Africa. The search for progressive and holistic forms of social protection policies in the African context is far from finished and is well underway.

Africapitalists seem to understand this need to address the shortcomings of capitalism itself and the institutions like TEF promote critiques of the concept as much as they promote its praise. But their current approaches are neither inevitable nor the only option. For African workers, you and I, Africapitalism as it is might be too costly an ideology for development.

Now is the time, as it has always been, for us to imagine and demand more alternatives to our underlying power structures that amplify inequality and precarity. We do not have to accept the binary of private-sector investments or international aid. Neither do we have to rely on personal, rather than collective, responsibility as our only development path. Catching up with ‘developed’ capitalist economies by exploiting labour and creating jobs with no regard for the quality of jobs is no way to benefit society. It will only perpetuate labour injustice, widen the inequality gap, and enthrone an autocracy of the rich—all being roads to dystopic social, economic and political futures

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