Jack Ma is an unashamed refreshing capitalist
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.
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.
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.