Jack Ma is an unashamed re­fresh­ing cap­i­tal­ist

The Star Early Edition - - BUSINESS - Andile Ma­suku

IT IS ALL too easy to un­der­es­ti­mate the sig­nif­i­cance of Alibaba chief ex­ec­u­tive Jack Ma’s re­cent 2-day visit to East Africa. Af­ter all, I too have come to be fa­tigued by the hol­low ap­peal of the African PR sa­faris or­gan­ised for men and women (mostly men) of global po­lit­i­cal and com­mer­cial im­por­tance in re­cent years.

Many of us felt that Mark Zucker­berg’s “sur­prise visit” to Nige­ria and Kenya some months ago was an af­fir­ma­tion of the con­ti­nent’s im­por­tance as a valu­able source of un­der-utilised tech tal­ent, and as a hot­bed of homegrown in­no­va­tion. While some felt that Zucker­berg’s im­pec­ca­bly-or­ches­trated walk-about was a pre­cur­sor to a mas­sive for­eign in­vest­ment flow into the con­ti­nent’s tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try, others couldn’t help sens­ing the Face­book founder’s tena­cious profit motive in spite of his pur­ported de­sire to do his bit for Africa via Face­book’s Con­nect­ing Africa ini­tia­tive.

The pro­gramme is no doubt a huge pri­or­ity for Face­book, given the steady growth of the con­ti­nent’s mid­dle class, the avail­abil­ity of rel­a­tively cheap labour, and the hun­dreds of mil­lions of im­pov­er­ished Africans who are primed for “up­lift­ment by in­ter­net ac­cess” – read mon­eti­sa­tion.

Now, while some ques­tion the gen­uine­ness of Zucker­berg’s al­tru­is­tic rhetoric, I stop short of to­tally dis­card­ing the no­tion that the man might well have a soft heart for hu­man­ity.

What I do find frus­trat­ing is his con­sis­tent ef­fort to min­imise the ob­vi­ous prob­lem­atic com­mer­cial self-in­ter­est at play when­ever Face­book, or in­deed he, set out to “make the world a bet­ter place”.

I got no such vibes from Jack Ma, China’s wealth­i­est man (with a for­tune of nearly $30 bil­lion – R390.4bn), who opted to roll up on the con­ti­nent last week with a posse 38 peo­ple – fel­low Chi­nese bil­lion­aires, who pre­sum­ably did not make their for­tunes hold­ing hands and singing Kum­baya around a camp­fire.

Ma has sent a clear cap­i­tal­ist sig­nal to the global in­vest­ment com­mu­nity that when it comes to Africa, he and at least 38 other pow­er­ful Chi­nese mag­nates are all about the busi­ness.

Jack Ma’s visit ap­pears to be rather metic­u­lously timed. It comes in the wake of the suc­cess­ful de­ploy­ment of $3.2bn worth of Chi­nese for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment in Kenya to fund The Stan­dard Gauge Rail­way – the East African na­tion’s largest in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment project since it was de­clared an in­de­pen­dent repub­lic in 1964.

More re­cently, Uganda’s Pres­i­dent Yow­eri Mu­sev­eni ap­proved a loan worth ap­prox­i­mately $2.9bn – granted by the state­funded China Exim Bank – to fi­nance a rail­way link be­tween the cap­i­tal, Kampala, and neigh­bour­ing Kenya. In­ter­est­ingly, Ma’s call on East Africa has also con­ve­niently steered clear of the po­lit­i­cal hub­bub that’s ex­pected to con­tinue to in­ten­sify in the lead-up to Kenya’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion next month. Mean­while, there are those in two of sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa’s largest economies who are smart­ing from be­ing snubbed by Ma.

What with the “Gup­ta­gate” de­ba­cle dog­ging Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma’s pres­i­dency in South Africa, the un­cer­tain­ties sur­round­ing Pres­i­dent Muham­madu Buhari’s health and the un­set­tling re­ces­sion­ary eco­nomic cli­mates pre­vail­ing in both coun­tries, let’s face it, nei­ther na­tion is in any po­si­tion to of­fer such a high-pro­file in­vest­ment out­fit much by way of favourable pub­lic­ity op­por­tu­ni­ties.

In­spired

From a PR per­spec­tive, Kenya and Rwanda cer­tainly made far more sen­si­ble tour stops for Ma and Co.

It is hard not to be im­pressed or even in­spired by Jack Ma’s charis­matic Con­fu­cius-es­que takes on why he be­lieves in Africa’s lim­it­less po­ten­tial. He reck­ons that rel­a­tive to Europe and North Amer­ica, Africa has the op­por­tu­nity to take on in­no­va­tive risks with an un­in­hib­ited at­ti­tude that West­ern na­tions can’t af­ford to adopt be­cause, ap­par­ently, they have far too much to lose.

This per­spec­tive af­firms the no­tion that Africa should em­brace its po­si­tion as the PHOTO: REUTERS world’s cra­dle for the truest form of in­no­va­tion – the kind of in­no­va­tion driven by ac­tual need and a sur­vival­ist spirit.

To do that, how­ever, we as Africans have to over­come the neg­a­tive so­cial stigma as­so­ci­ated with fail­ure that many of us, my­self in­cluded, have had drilled into us from a ten­der age. Ac­cord­ing to Ma, “You have to get used to fail­ure. If you can’t, then how can you win?” Gold.

Ma also high­lighted the com­pro­mised en­vi­ron­men­tal state of his home­land China – a coun­try he de­scribed as “the kitchen of the world”. China has in­fa­mously hacked na­tional eco­nomic progress by pro­mot­ing pol­lu­tive – though ad­mit­tedly pro­duc­tive – in­dus­trial prac­tices.

His ad­vice for Africa is that we should re­sist the urge to copy and paste Chi­nese suc­cess and rather com­mit to defin­ing and im­ple­ment­ing African best prac­tice in or­der to sus­tain­ably ex­ploit our nat­u­ral re­sources, suc­cess­fully lever­age the con­ti­nent’s hu­man cap­i­tal re­sources to de­liver a world-class stan­dard of liv­ing for Africa’s ci­ti­zens.

Ma is an out­spo­ken pro­po­nent of global trade, and dur­ing a key note ad­dress he made to 500 as­pir­ing en­trepreneurs and busi­ness lead­ers at the Univer­sity of Nairobi, he en­cour­aged them to har­ness the bor­der­less po­ten­tial of e-com­merce in or­der to help Africa par­tic­i­pate more mean­ing­fully in the new dig­i­tal econ­omy.

He cited Kenya’s world-lead­ing mo­bile in­no­va­tions, go­ing as far as ped­dling the half-baked no­tion that Africa might do well to ride the mo­bile adop­tion wave to leapfrog in other tech­nolo­gies.

Then, while in Rwanda for the Youth Con­nekt Africa Sum­mit, which was co-hosted by the UN Con­fer­ence on Trade and De­vel­op­ment (Unc­tad) and the Gov­ern­ment of Rwanda, Ma an­nounced his plan to per­son­ally back a $10 mil­lion in­vest­ment ve­hi­cle, dubbed the African Young En­trepreneurs Fund.

Tech fund

The man doesn’t seem con­tent to ap­proach his role as spe­cial ad­viser to Unc­tad for Youth En­trepreneur­ship and Small Busi­ness as merely a cer­e­mo­nial ap­point­ment and ap­pears quite will­ing to put his money where his mouth is.

The new tech fund, which Ma said is poised to hire staff and launch op­er­a­tions in 2018, will specif­i­cally sup­port African on­line busi­nesses. He said: “The money is set. This is my money, so I don’t have to get any­body’s ap­proval.” In­deed, what’s not to love? Ap­par­ently, Ma will also be part­ner­ing with the Unc­tad to of­fer 200 bud­ding African busi­ness peo­ple hands-on ex­pe­ri­en­tial learn­ing at Alibaba’s Chi­nese head­quar­ters.

So, as Kenya basks in the af­ter­glow of the Obama era and Rwanda con­tin­ues to garner global ad­mi­ra­tion for its so­cial pro­gres­sive­ness and the coun­try’s grow­ing pen­chant for com­mer­cial and tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion, both na­tions must be quite pleased with the valu­able pub­lic­ity that they’ve landed thanks to Jack Ma’s East African leg-stretch.

There’s lit­tle doubt that if Ernst & Young’s 2016 Africa at­trac­tive­ness pro­gramme is any­thing to go by, East Africa is cur­rently the world’s African in­vest­ment des­ti­na­tion of choice.

Andile Ma­suku is an en­tre­pre­neur and broad­caster based in Jo­han­nes­burg. He is the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer at AfricanTechRoundup.com. Fol­low Andile on Twit­ter @Ma­sukuAndile and the African Tech Round-up @african­roundup

Founder and ex­ec­u­tive chair­per­son of Alibaba Group Jack Ma at the World In­ter­net Con­fer­ence in Ji­ax­ing, Zhe­jiang prov­ince, China last year. Ma was on a visit to East Africa re­cently, and has pledged to fund the African Young En­trepreneurs Fund.

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