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Made In Africa: Our Consumption And Reversing Vicious Cycles

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, an exhibition on the “Kongo: Power and Majesty” runs until January 3, 2016. Part of the exhibition is an installation of Mangaaka, figures commissioned by 19th century Kongo chiefs, to act as public works of art reinforcing the civic sovereignty of the Kongo civilization even as it faced increasing intrusion from European powers. Yes, public art, and it’s accompanying advantages, did constitute the political and religious life of early African civilizations.

It’s all so easy to forget. When our leaders defend mis-prioritized developmental policies in the name of attracting Foreign Direct Investments, when our communities lose all sense of agency even as they slide into complete dependency on foreign funded non-profits, when our popular culture and our lifestyles are only slightly influenced by home-grown artistic expressions or design, it is easy to forget the intellectual premise of some of Africa’s indigenous cultures.


The Dearth Of  Made In Africa

No industry report on mining of precious metals and stones would be complete without a mention of Africa’s role. The world’s largest reserves of platinum, gold, diamonds, chromite, manganese and vanadium are in Africa. Yet, market reports on the applications of these metals and stones either do not exist for Africa, or when they do, they are sufficient if they cover just South Africa. African societies bear the blunt of mining’s negative impacts, with little of the benefits.

We can blame this outcome on a number of factors. We can blame colonial powers for using generations of indigenous knowledge to establish extractive industries that had no ties to local communities. We can blame post-colonial governments that have for years been unable to reverse such extraction. We can blame Africa’s population for being unable to create mining entities that can competitively outbid foreign ones. We can blame any of the myriad of factors such as corruption that sustain this status quo.


Vicious Cycles

Yet this status quo is a cyclical problem. Building domestic mining entities that can outbid foreign ones would take an empowered domestic population, yet empowering such a population would take the existence of resources that can be redirected to their education and civic empowerment, yet such redirection would take accountable governance that can execute redirection plans, yet accountable governance can only be sustained by an empowered civilly-responsible population, yet such empowerment would. . . We are back at the beginning.


Your Part, My Part In Reversing Cycles

A couple of days ago, I had an extensive Whatsapp conversation on institutions and the power of entrepreneurship. I shared Ken’s, my friend’s, belief. We are so much better off with a generation of entrepreneurs working actively to solve Africa’s problems. To reference Ory Okolloh’s worry, however, the transformative reach of entrepreneurship is limited without governance solutions. As individuals, we can redirect our intellectual and activist foci to theorizing and protesting institutional and governance weaknesses, but we can also redirect our decisions towards those lifestyle and consumption choices that help alter vicious cycles.

I do think consumption is a great avenue for individuals to personally influence cycles. At Yakutti, we can’t make any audacious claims about our social impact, but we remain true to a vision of made in Africa. No customer is under obligation to purchase inferior products in the name of activism, but when the items made in Africa are of demonstrably high quality, what we must question are our perceptions.

A consumer report written by Deloitte last year confirms that at least for apparel and cosmetics, African consumers associate international brands with quality – and yes, perhaps they’ve been bitten in the past and their perceptions are warranted. I challenge you to search deeper, however. It is through conscious efforts at questioning beliefs, that were hitherto probably true, that we can play our part in reversing vicious cycles.

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