Last week, I was invited to a ‘high-level’ dialogue with a top diplomat from a European country. The diplomat, who had come to strengthen trade ties between Uganda and their country, had asked to meet young people that are influential in their spheres and someone decided that I meet the criteria.
After many servings of groundnuts, juice and some unholy spirits, he asked for our views on what it is that Africa can trade to the European Union. There were, of course, many suggestions from my colleagues on how Africa, and in particular – Uganda – would need more trade than aid. The argument of the day was that institutions need strengthening. Our conclusion was that the most urgent matter was reforming the education system.
To take part in trade, one must have at least one of the four elements of economy; labour, capital, enterprise and land. In Africa, there is no doubt that labour and enterprise exist. Some of the world’s most entrepreneurial countries are in Africa, Uganda inclusive. There is also no doubt that labour exists; we graduate a combined total of over 60,000 people annually for a job market of 5000. So, it exists in high supply and as such can be gotten very cheaply. The problem with this kind of model though is that a major prerequisite for it to work is industry.
The 1920’s British education system that we inherited was to transform the colonial monarchy of mercantilism into a fast-moving industrial state. So they fashioned the education system to concentrate on those aspects. The reason we learnt, for example, the Canadian Prairies, is because they were an important cog of raw material in the wheel of Britain’s development. The reason we have European history on the Ottoman empire or Napoleon’s conquest drummed into us, is to create a mind-consciousness of the political and economic evolution of Europe and imagine how Britaln, would fit into it.
At the convergence of these mismatched aspirations is our pursuit of vocations; doctors, lawyers, chemists or even carpenters with the hope of serving an industrial society.
Alas, the joke, remains on us.
We still are – and will be for some time – an agrarian society. Much of what we produce is for subsistence consumption in the backyards of our homes. We are then encouraged to innovate around this; make fancy apps that solve the riddle of our lives however, these are apps that cannot be bought – not because they aren’t relevant, but that those who need them don’t have enough spending power to buy and sustain them.
So we wind up with discontentment, anger and fury – the easiest and most obvious result.
To fashion this away, I argue, a strongman must make the nation captive of his vision and retool its education and population to serve it or better yet, the nation must make many sets of leaders captive of their vision and work towards it.
The absence of either one of these two will mean that in the next 20 or so years, Africa will still be a cog of raw material in the industrial development of Europe providing with it cheap migrant labour but it will also remain entrepreneurial with many case examples of good businesses that failed because no purchasing power lay in the hands of their customers.
We must wake up!