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“You’re Going to Do WHAT in a Rural African Village?!?”
Why I Wanted to Manufacture Products in Africa
The following is an adapted excerpt from my book The Heart of a Cheetah: How We Have Been Lied to about African Poverty, and What That Means for Human Flourishing.
It’s available now in all formats, and the e-book is 99 cents this week only.
“You’re going to do what in a rural African village?!”
That’s what I heard from everyone—non-Africans working in Senegal, African people in the Diaspora, even the locals themselves—when I said I planned to set up a factory in Mékhé, Senegal.
The world is prejudiced against products “made in Africa.” It’s not fair, but it’s true.
But there are two major reasons I’ve made it my mission to manufacture products in Africa: first, because I’m very interested in creating jobs back home, especially for high-end products that prove we can break the thatched-roof ceiling. I have to say that even for all of my boldness, it took me a while to get comfortable manufacturing in Africa.
It wasn’t easy. I’ve often had to explain why we are doing it in Africa because most in the beauty industry have always seen Africa as a place for buying raw materials, not producing finished products. Yes, it drives me crazy sometimes. While I respect the traditions of indigenous African women, I cannot respect the West’s fascination and fetishism for those of us who have not had the opportunity to move up the economic ladder. The best we can do for your delight is to collect shea nuts and then dance around the pots? You don’t think we can do better than that?
We are doing better than that. Our workers have learned and put into practice world-class standards for producing quality products that can compete anywhere.
The products we make in Senegal have all the craft and elegance of handmade and hand-poured, but with the rigor of a modern lab. Four years ago the women who now produce these fine products could never have imagined they would one day hold down jobs. Instead, they were waiting for husbands. Capitalism is the best thing that ever happened to feminism. Women can escape poverty—and bad husbands too.
The second reason I wanted to manufacture products in Africa is admittedly more idealistic: if we don’t shout about the need of the African people for dignity, who will? If you and I don’t push for African prosperity, who will? Most African leaders are out to fill their own pockets. Most of those who are leading international aid organizations are unwilling to be full-throated advocates for African enterprise, independence, and self-respect. Even today the norm remains a condescending pity approach to Africans. We must be assertive and persistent leaders of this alternative movement.
I’m particularly hopeful we can get college students in America and elsewhere to participate, though I admit there is little evidence they will. They, too, are frequently caught up in the momentary enthusiasms—the preferred injustices of the day—and often cannot see beyond them.
But please: we’re talking about lifting more than a billion Africans out of poverty. Who can’t get enthused about that?
Let me share with you some words that I once heard from a young Senegalese woman named Nafi, whom I’d hired to work in my factory in Mékhé. I had just spoken with the team about what drove me to set up my business and told them that we were going to show the world what Africa was capable of. This young woman was in tears when she told me, “My whole life I have always seen people like me represented in movies, magazines, and such as poor, hopeless people other people need to help. So I must confess that by now, I have come to believe that maybe us Black African people must be inferior.”
Those words shattered my heart, but she continued. “I am crying because now I know that it is not true. I am not inferior. Black Africans...we are not inferior.”
She knows this now because each day she goes to a job where she is recognized as a valuable employee. She works in a spotless laboratory wearing spotless garments, including a gleaming white lab coat. She earns more money than she ever imagined possible doing a job she never believed she could have. She knows the products she makes are purchased by the coolest people in the coolest country in the world. And she knows they are willing to pay $8 for those little tubes—a decent day’s wage in Senegal!—because she, Nafi, makes sure it’s worth it.
As a Black African who routinely sees how we are disrespected around the world—and, yes, often regarded as inferior—the most important purpose of my life is to accelerate the small positive changes currently taking place in Africa so that in a few decades we can be respected as true equals, global co-creators of innovation and prosperity.
The Chinese and the Indians are well on their way to achieving such status thanks in large part to pro-capitalist reforms they made in the 1980s and ’90s. China has lifted itself from centuries of cursed poverty to serve as the only rival to the United States for world economic hegemony.
My most ardent hope is that we can finally agree that Africans deserve world-class business environments and world-class capitalist institutions, just like those enjoyed by the citizens of Denmark, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the United States.
I beg of you, if you truly care about Black Africans, if you truly care about us, join me in being a forthright advocate for economic freedom in Africa.
As a consequence of our efforts, I see Africa launching manufacturing to rival Shenzhen, tech innovation to rival Silicon Valley, culture to rival New York and Paris, all with a joie de vivre that is uniquely African.
This is the Africa I live in—in my head and in my heart. The vision is clear, and the path to it is solid. We know how to make such a radical transformation—a transformation all of us will be able to witness in our lifetime—because it takes only a few decades to take effect.
For more on manufacturing in Africa, see The Heart of a Cheetah.
I’d like to express my sincerest gratitude to everyone who has helped make this launch week so special. After working on The Heart of a Cheetah for eight years, it’s been a beautiful experience to usher it into the world with so much support.
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.