Culture: a follow-up
A week or so ago I proposed the following question: what is the place for traditional culture in an industrializing society? And in particular, how is culture affecting Kenya’s progress? Kenyan Entrepreneur has pushed a bit further to claim that Africa has a culture of “non-progress” in which people fail to recognize or act on opportunities:
“I tend to agree with Brook’s commentary that culture has a lot to do with a country’s progress. I’ve said before that Africa’s poverty can be attributed to the fact that Africa does not have a culture of production. If something cannot be extracted from the ground (e.g. oil, gold, etc, etc) – we simply will not create or make it and this culture of non-production is the main cause of Africa’s poverty. That’s why foreign aid hasn’t worked. It’s because the do-gooder’s of the world have refused (out of fears of being labeled “racist” – have refused to confront this underlying question of culture).”
I think he’s right, but recognizing this fact is just one piece of the puzzle. Why is there such a culture of non-production? And what can be done to change it? For one, people are used to the idea that others (the government, NGOs, credit institutions) should swoop in and provide help. God knows they need it, but ingenuity can do a lot more than government can, trust me.
Second, the institutions that have meant to transition Kenya from a subsistence to a market economy have flat-out failed. The ideas for developing Kenya are there! The implementation has foundered time and time again due to corruption, politicking, and poor coordination by the government, parastatals, and privatized institutions.
Third, there is a reliance on imports: capital and consumer goods from abroad are viewed as a better (if not the only) option than building up capacity locally. Domestic products are seen as low quality, perhaps because people know how things are made locally and think the process is somehow better or more professional abroad. The country could use a “Buy Kenyan” campaign.
Lastly, there absolutely are people and institutions who are “progress oriented.” There are many of them and I’ve met them. For example, look how Dominic is making innovative use of the Fab Lab or how tirelessly countless entrepreneurs at the bottom of the pyramid are working to grow their businesses, like Daniel who has expanded from electronics repair to a cyber cafe in just one year and now wants to start a computer training school. I heard a retail shop owner in Kisumu (where even those in Nairobi say dreams go to die) tell me she submitted a business plan to a VC firm abroad and is hoping to receive an investment to open an eco-lodge. She doesn’t want charity, she wants business. Tell me that’s not progress-orientation!
These innovators need to be cultivated. I’ve heard too many stories of talented individuals who have been shot down for loans, intellectual property, or any kind of support (even emotional). The government and formal institutions have too little faith in the micro and small enterprise sector, but that’s where the drive and progress will—nay, must—come from! So make loans more accessible, promote the development of new technologies, make intellectual property a reality, and craft linkages between the formal and informal, e.g. sub-contracting and investment, so that capital can flow to the little guys.
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Making Do is an investigation into systems of innovation in Kenya's informal economy. Learn more and read the book online or in print here.
I'm Steve Daniels. I study the transformative impact of technology on individuals and societies. I am the founder of the Better World by Design conference at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design and Analogue Digital, a publisher of content related to global cultures of technology. Currently, I work at IBM Research, where I study mobile social computing in emerging markets.
I am particularly interested in how people create, adapt, and use technology in resource-constrained environments, which I have written about in Making Do: Innovation in Kenya's Informal Economy.
- Emerging Futures Lab
- Future Perfect
- Information Aesthetics
- Maker Faire Africa
- Smarter Planet
- Timbuktu Chronicles
- White African