Technology can reverse economic hardship
More than 40 years ago, the father of lokshin drama, Bra Gibson Kente, wrote a musical called How Long, which was first produced in Soweto in December 1973.
When I saw it, I was too young to understand what was going on – there was lots of singing, an excited crowd and, because it was late at night, I was falling asleep in those uncomfortable chairs. Despite my age, the question remained in my mind.
Now I wonder how long African countries will be price-takers when they are major producers of precious commodities.
Even though we like to believe we have a sophisticated economy, we’ve failed to produce a local metal exchange where prices are not controlled by our former colonial rulers.
Although South Africa has been a major gold producer, we’ve failed to create international jewellery brands, making us permanent pricetakers.
Likewise, the Ivory Coast is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of cocoa beans, yet the country does not have a strong global brand of chocolate.
It’s also one of the top producers of coffee, but has no global brand for the beverage.
When weather conditions become hostile, the crop fails and the economy falters.
The situation in the world’s second-largest producer of cocoa, Ghana, is getting progressively worse.
According to Bloomberg, cocoa buyers are struggling to pay farmers because the country’s regulator – the Ghana Cocoa Board – is failing to pay them for the cocoa beans that have already been delivered.
This is the beginning of a downward spiral because, naturally, the farmers will fail to pay for their seeds, and there may be a shortfall for years to come.
Fortunately, technology is giving us a chance to correct the sins of our forebears.
First, it is disempowering the cartels that have had a stranglehold on distribution channels.
In the US, the heart of capitalism, the walls of malls are starting to crumble. For years now, high-rise buildings in Johannesburg have been hellholes run by mice and wild cats.
Even as new skyscrapers rise in Sandton, many office blocks stand empty. Landlords are reeling as the fundamentals of industrial-age capitalism start to decompose. Business is fast moving to the cloud.
Already, some savvy entrepreneurs have moved their business to social media, which reduces operational costs.
There’s no need for sophisticated and expensive e-commerce systems – you see the ad on Facebook or Instagram, make a deposit into a bank account and your purchase is dispatched and then delivered by a courier.
Some of these vendors do their business out of their flats. Their products are made to order, so they do not need to shoulder the cost of expensive office and warehouse space, nor deal with long-term leases.
Only a fool will laugh at a spark. While using social media may be rudimentary e-commerce, it is to be lauded because it is a start.
As these businesses make money, and as the cost of doing business on the cloud becomes more affordable, their owners will invest in better systems that will give them greater insight into their customers. They will know which products are better sellers and who their most valuable customers are. They will also know how to market their products better.
Technology is a great leveller. Do not rush off to sign on for government’s benevolent Black Industrialists Programme.
The world is changing rapidly, and buying a BEE stake could come back to sting you as white shareholders exit for greener, more profitable pastures, leaving you with long-term debt to be funded by companies that are going bankrupt.
Technology may well be the true vehicle for long-term economic empowerment.