Ubuntu will boost your business
Irecently bumped into an executive who is in the food business. He was squinting as if the glare of death was hurting his eyes. Beer in hand, he spoke in tongues, spewing business gibberish, such as “core competency”, as if his company had just woken up from the deep slumber of core mediocrity.
“Times are tough,” he said to me, “and we expect the second half of the year to get tougher when inflation caused by the weakening of the rand starts to bite.
“Inflationary growth is not what we want, although retailers love it. We don’t want that kind of growth. But what can we do? We are in an environment of value consumption.”
His biggest worry, I found out as we continued to chat, was a Tanzanian milling company that has opened its doors on our shores. Yes, a JSE-listed business that employs hoards of graduates is quivering because of a company that was started by a man who left school at the age of 14 to sell potato mix.
Stories of uneducated people starting successful businesses are nothing new, but what makes this one different is that it was started by an African who is most comfortable in his own skin, culture and all things that make him who he is, Said Bakhresa.
He belongs to that exclusive band of entrepreneurs who started from humble beginnings, worked and watched their businesses grow. Such people have become a rare breed indeed, especially in these days of endless borrowing and the financial crises that follow.
Bakhresa started with a small restaurant in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and now turns over more than $800 million (R12.6 billion) a year.
Bakhresa Group, my executive friend complained, was a family business, and so was happy with a 2% or 3% growth margin. Listed companies enjoy no such luxury – the shareholders want 10 times that.
If he fails to deliver that consistently, he has to find alternative employment. It was all unfair, he said, as he rapidly uttered expletives and blamed his competitors for not being greedy.
Bakhresa’s mission is “to increase and sustain the living standards of people by providing them with essential products and services of global quality at affordable prices”.
Nowhere does it talk about the invisible shareholders who want profits, no matter what it takes. When this company talks about its values, it puts employees first.
“We treat our employees as our assets, not an expense item in a profit-and-loss account. We recognise that keeping the employee morale high is the key to achieving our success. Team spirit and synergy are the hallmarks of our work culture. Our employees have a sense of ownership in what they do.”
This is Harvard-speak for ubuntu, and it is at the foundation of our success as African people. Ignore it at your peril.
We have to infuse it in our businesses if they are to succeed, and discourage the rampant seeds of corruption, as well as greed and unbridled excesses, where people spend as if there is no tomorrow.
We have to learn from the structures of our organisations such as African churches and traditional organisations such as stokvels. They are all decentralised and the branches work as autonomous units. Central planning, whether by government or head office, does not work in Africa.
As a people, we are too rebellious for that. So it is imperative for the leaders of the organisation to give direction – the dream – and then leave it to the employees to make that a reality.
Companies can only do that if they trust their people, which is a different perspective from the usual policing mentality that most South Africans have grown up with.
Decentralisation has an added benefit – it creates future leaders for the organisation, which is important for the sustainability of the business.
There is something that we Africans do all the time at gatherings – we recognise someone: “Stand up, let them see you.”
Mass production has taken this away, and reduced work to a financial transaction. It’s no wonder employees are always on strike – demanding more money because there is nothing else for them.
Now that companies such as Bakhresa strike fear in the hearts of high-powered executives, it means the dreams of the founding fathers such as Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah are finally being realised, and it is up to us to fan the flames so that they spread throughout the continent.
Team spirit and synergy are the hallmarks of our work culture. Our employees have a sense of ownership in what they do