God-Inspired Solutions To Systemic Problems

This is a summary of a panel discussion at the 2021 Ziwani launch, hosted by Karabo Che Mokoape from the Ubambo Group in South Africa. His panellists were Onyeka Akumah from FarmCrowdy in Nigeria, Anthony Farr from Allan & Gill Gray Philanthropy in Rwanda, and Jun Shiomitsu from the Avoda Group in Uganda. You can watch the full video here or listen to the podcast here.

 

KM: Good morning, Jambo to all of you across Africa. I would like to set the stage for talking about how we rebuild broken things through the medium of entrepreneurship. For many reasons, the identity of God as Redeemer is for me the most powerful identity that God carries, among His many identities. He redeems all things for those who love Him and are called to His purposes (Rom. 8:28).

Our Kingdom worldview is posited fundamentally on the concept of sacrificial love. Yet we live in a world in which the dominant worldview is posited on the concept of self-interest above all else. We live in Africa, a continent beset with strife, conflict, hunger, poverty, and all manner of difficulties, and much of it is the consequence of self-interest run amok. So our challenge is to bring the Kingdom into our spheres of influence, as we try and rebuild broken things. How do we as believers allow God to redeem this capitalist system that we are part of? We are all entrepreneurs; we are all trying to find a way to bring God into the world of commerce.

I would like to ask each one of you how your journey started, and what brought you into this line of work – this difficult, dirty, challenging, painful thing called entrepreneurship.

JS: I worked in investment banking in Japan, the UK and Switzerland. When I was 26, I went on vacation to Ghana. A driver met me with this shiny, Volkswagen sedan, and I commented, “The hotel really has a lot of trust in you, that they would give you this beautiful car to drive around.” He responded, “No, it is mine. But 12 years ago I was selling coconuts by the roadside.” And then told me his story, “I learned to save what little money I made from coconuts. Then I bought something that I knew everybody here would love, and that was ping pong tables. I put the ping pong tables in the middle of the marketplace, and I started to charge a small amount per game, and it became a smash hit. Then I started introducing things like air hockey.” He continued, “You know what, this is my first car. I am starting a taxi company, and in five years I am going to have four cars. I am going to have a company that drives people around.” I promised him that when that happens, I would come to Africa and I would start something too. Two years later he emailed me, “Here is my second car. Where are you, Mr Jun?”

His story was a big inspiration to me, and so I did go back, to teach a one-week course on entrepreneurship for Christians in Uganda. The course ended with a mock investment pitch, and I realised just how many of the ideas were actually ‘investable’, from my perspective as an investment banker. That was the turning point that saw me leave my finance career and start the African Business Institute in Uganda six years ago, and the Avoda Group in Japan and Africa last year.

Anthony Farr: I had qualified as a Chartered Accountant and a Chartered Financial Analyst, and was convinced that that was part of the solution for the future, but yet I had forgotten about the importance of relationship. God is a God of relationship, and unless we have a fundamental understanding of the importance of people, we start to go wrong. My moment came over 20 years ago, when I visited an orphanage in downtown Johannesburg. There I met a young girl called Patricia, and at the end of that afternoon, I had no more excuses for not getting involved.

We started the Starfish Foundation, which was named after the well-known parable that says, “It made a difference to that one.” But in the wisdom of God, as the journey has unfolded, it has taken me full circle back to understanding the importance of finance and enterprise, and how business is at the centre of so much of God’s plans for the continent.

KM: It is amazing how God reaches our hearts, and how He uses people to move us to action. I lived in Nigeria, and it is a place unlike any other – so full of opportunity, with so many people teeming with ideas, but also beset with perils. To find a way to live and operate in Nigeria as an entrepreneur, particularly a Kingdom-called entrepreneur, is a real challenge.

OA: I learned from my parents. My dad was a pastor who planted a couple of churches in Nigeria, and he also had his own medical practice. My mom told us kids about the Garden of Eden, about how the four streams watered the garden to make it a nourishing place of richness for Adam and Eve (Gen. 2:10). She said, “If you want to be successful, you need four streams of income. Working 9-to-5 is one stream, but you need three other streams.”

That stayed with me, even as I started my career working for Deloitte, the British Council, and Guaranty Trust Bank in Nigeria. Then I found out that it was predicted that Nigeria would add about 200 million people to its current population estimate (of 198 million) by 2050 (PwC 2019). I thought to myself, “What will they eat? Where will they sleep? How will they move around?” So I decided to pick these three streams of income: agriculture, real estate and transportation. I started paying attention to these sectors and gradually found opportunities to create businesses.

KM: We are living through a time of incredible economic inequality. The global economic output has more than doubled over the last 40 years, but so much of that growth in wealth and value has gone to an ever-decreasing percentage of economic actors. This is a global trend, and what I call ‘the apartheid of our times’. Jun, what are your thoughts on redemptive entrepreneurship, particularly in the current economic climate?

JS: We need to know what we are redeeming from. We have to redeem this world from Adam’s curse. So if we replace the word ‘redemptive’ with ‘curse-reversing’, that puts it into the right Biblical context. A redemptive entrepreneur is an entrepreneur who uses his or her business to redeem his or her sector, community, or nation for Jesus Christ, by ‘reversing the curse’. In the Garden of Eden, there was work to be done – work was not part of the curse. Adam had to name all the animals, and look after the garden. But after he sinned, it became hard work – work by the sweat of his brow, back-breaking work (Gen. 3:17–19).

How do you reverse the curse?

A few key business concepts come into play, and the first is efficiency. How do you produce more with less? How do you make hard work easier? For example by using technology, or decreasing the cost performance ratio. The amount of work or money you put into something to produce a little profit or a little result – how do we change that multiplier and make it produce more? So capitalism is not bad, it is crony capitalism that is bad.

Excellence is the second one. When we look at the parable of the talents, of the three servants serving a master who travels abroad, we tend to focus on how the third servant was not a good servant in contrast with the other two. But he actually obeyed his master’s command to the letter. His sin was that he did not try to do better, he did not try to excel. He only did what was expected of him, and I think that is a culture that permeates a lot of the world today. In a redemptive business, you cannot only do what you are expected to do. You have to do better, you have to push the boundaries of your industry. You have to challenge the definition of excellence and good quality – moving the world forward, making it a better place.

A third one is cooperation. We can redeem the brokenness of human community by learning to work together with other Christian entrepreneurs. The Chinese people are a very good example – they not only work together in the current generation, they also build into the next generation. And their children would get to know the other companies well, and have ideas their fathers did not have, and find new ways of working together. So when it comes to redemptive entrepreneurship, the same concepts that we talk about in business school still apply – but they apply in a curse-reversing context.

AF: It may be helpful to share the story of a young man called Siya Xuza, who was enthralled by the power and possibility of science when for the first time he saw aeroplanes flying over his township in South Africa. They happened to be dropping leaflets for the 1994 elections, but he was not interested in the elections – he was just fascinated by science, and eventually he received a scholarship and studied Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard.

All the time he was thinking about solving the energy crisis of Africa, and he started doing experiments, looking at solar technologies, and at micro-fuel cells that would be able to power cellular phones by themselves, without being connected to the electricity grid. He worked incredibly hard, because there was this kind of transcendent purpose in what he was doing – this was not about self-interest, this was because of a bigger redemptive purpose. He failed over a 100 times in his attempts to get this micro-fuel cell to power a cellular phone, but eventually he succeeded.

You would think that after he solved the problem, and had his patent, everything would happen from there, but sure enough, that was just the beginning of a whole new journey. He came back to South Africa wanting to bring a different dynamic to the energy sector, but we understand some of the realities of being caught up in the complexities of government, particularly in this country. In fact, because of his profile, he was being tempted in other directions – he was offered opportunities in coal energy, for example, which is completely against his vision of clean energy. So the only way for him to access an opportunity to bring this energy to parts of South Africa, would have been to pay a ‘commission’ to someone in government, otherwise the whole project would be blocked. He chose to walk away, because of his commitment to being ethical. Recently he launched Galactic Energy Ventures, which is basically a market for buying and selling energy, or trading energy, across the continent.

The point is that we have to be driven by the redemptive purpose of solving the problem, or we are going to look for shortcuts, we are going to do what is convenient. But if we understand what redemption is about, we will stick with the problem until we get to the answer, which might look very different from where we started.

OA: One of the biggest issues is sin, because sin separates you from God. If you are going to build a redemptive business, it has to be one where God is first in everything. You have to give Him the honour, and ask Him for direction and favour.

But you cannot substitute ignorance with spirituality. Many people do not have the knowledge to capitalise on opportunities, to make strategic decisions to improve their business, but they want to be entrepreneurs. When someone asks me, “How do you scale a business across the continent? How do you export out of Africa?” The first thing I ask them is, “How much do you know about the standardisation of your product? Does it meet international requirements?” You cannot operate a business based only on raw talent and prayer.

There also comes a time to make a decision and take action. Results only come when actions are taken. Yet you find most people just want to talk about the situation, about the problems, about the challenges. Very few people want to take action, because they are lazy, or they have a fear of failure.

KM: Jun, what preconceptions did you have to ‘leave behind’ when you made the transition from working in banking in Asia and Europe, into the African context?

JS: When you live in Japan, Switzerland, or the UK, the keyword is ‘scale’. You can scale easily because there is a market for every need, with enough people willing to pay for it. But in coming to Uganda, I realised that scaling is not just about how much you can produce – it is difficult to scale in an environment where there is so much need, but very little market. There is a lot of need, but not enough people are able to pay for it. We are trying to deal with this situation through offshoring, and outsourcing businesses. You cannot have a business in Africa that is trying to scale only in Africa, because you are not going to generate enough revenue or profit. But if you can get work in the US, or Switzerland, or Tokyo, and train people in Africa to serve these needs, then you can scale.

KM: Anthony, what is the interrelationship between redemption and repentance? Can we achieve true redemption without applying ourselves to the process of repentance for the sins of the past, that have produced the current state of Africa?

Anthony: I think there is a pretence of redemption if we have not fully acknowledged and embraced repentance. Essentially, the entrepreneurial spirit is the human spirit – there is something within all of us that wants to create, that wants to pursue enterprise. We are made in God’s image, so there is incredible power in enterprise – and that is what stirs the level of greed and abuse that comes from the system, because it is unmediated in terms of the fallen world.

Unless we take the extraordinary power of enterprise and submit it fully to the truth of God, it will have the consequences that we have seen, that have ravaged the continent. These are tough questions, but I do think we have to acknowledge the sins of the past, and look at how we can address them in a meaningful way. Then we are going to see a way of doing business that is truly different to what the world has seen before, and we are going to see the fullness of the genius of God.

Unfortunately Karabo Che Mokoape passed away shortly after this panel discussion due to COVID-related complications. He was a true gentleman and an inspiration, and his wisdom and legacy will live on.

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Onyeka Akumah, Anthony Farr, Jun Shiomitsu, Karabo Che Mokoape