Last week I was speaking to someone who works for an international organisation with headquarters in the United States. She recalled how her colleagues at HQ were oscillating between various stages of fear, angst and utter despondency at the ongoing George Floyd anti-racism protests that had resulted in looting and curfews in multiple American cities. Her American colleagues were shaken to the core and struggling to find answers to how the country’s society was seemingly unravelling fast.
The lady chuckled, recalling how during the Kenyan post-election tensions in 2017, her American colleagues were fairly reticent in their direction, guiding the Kenyan office to just work from home, but continue working. The social tensions in a far off remote corner of the globe were distant and incomprehensible. But now the same kind of tensions, laying to bare existential questions on the equality of citizenry and police brutality, pulled at the tenuous strings of the peaceful American societal fabric.
As a large consumer of American literature, movies and academic case studies, last week’s protests coupled with the never ending squabbles between the federal government and state governors on the appropriate response to the Covid-19 pandemic threw me for a loop.
How could a country that has for decades lectured the rest of the world on human rights and democracy and upended various regimes in the Middle East fail to provide basic personal protective equipment to frontline health workers? How could a country, whose movies the whole world has consumed, including those that fictionally promised they would save the world in the event of an alien invasion or hurtling asteroid – cue Independence Day and Armageddon – be reduced to political grandstanding in the distribution of life saving ventilators to states that were led by Republic governors? I have so many questions.
In the academic space locally, we have for years drawn on many case studies of American companies that have brilliantly succeeded or spectacularly failed in business. The reason local academia has relied heavily on these American case studies, in my limited experience, is because there exists in America an abundance of academic writing skills as well as troves of published financial data, analyst reports produced after numerous detailed investor briefings and, most importantly, unbridled willingness on the part of current and former management to tell their side of the story.
But for many of my East African corporate governance students consisting of directors in both the public and private sectors, the stories ring hollow to their seasoned ears. For years, consistent feedback has been that they want more local stories based on local circumstances as the directors are well aware that what happens in Western climes is based on an extremely different socio-economic and political context.
Very few academic case studies exist for local companies and a handful have been written by American universities who’ve managed to crack open tightly sealed corporate lips. The challenge has largely been around the fact that our closely knit society whether in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda or Rwanda ensures that it is difficult to get data from existing management that may indict former management or vice versa.
Further, there isn’t the same amount of corporate information symmetry as exists in developed markets for unlisted companies. I once used a local case study in class, based on data collected anecdotally and from the media and was embarrassed to find one participant avoid the class altogether as he was related to the shareholders and couldn’t bear to listen to the class dissect the decisions and internal politics that were causing the company to decline.
The upshot of this is that recent events in the American socio-political milieu, as well as the global disruption of supply chains will lead local consumers to become more discerning of, and demanding for local content and products.
The benefits of this era will definitely be a deeper sense of Afrocentricity and looking for local solutions to local problems and needs.
Watching developed nations struggle with managing this public health crisis and the resultant recessive economic impact is a stark wake up call for Africans to realise that not all answers come from the West. And for those of us in local academia, now more than ever is the time to establish a body of local case studies particularly of companies that will have successfully or unsuccessfully navigated this period. Our problems are our own to solve.
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