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Magatte Wade Headshot

Beyond the Romance of Microfinance to a Love of Manufacturing

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by Magatte Wade, with Michael Strong

In the course of starting a business based in Africa, I was referred to a former Silicon Valley CFO who had made enough money and now devoted his life to helping the world's poor. As I began to explain my project to him, which involved setting up manufacturing plants in Senegal, he kept encouraging me to buy crafts from local artisans rather than setting up manufacturing plants. Despite the fact that he had become wealthy through a capitalist world and lived a comfortable lifestyle that depended on tens of thousands of factories around the world, his vision of helping the poor was strictly limited to microfinance and local crafts. My vision of manufacturing in Africa was frankly repulsive to him.

The do-gooders of the world love to campaign on behalf of foreign aid to help the poor, and more recently they have discovered and come to love microfinance, giving small loans to women around the world. Kiva.org allows people in the developed world to invest small amounts of money ($25) in micro-entrepreneurs around the world. Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank, leaders in microfinance, won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. It is estimated that since Yunus and others launched the microfinance movement in the 1970s, approximately 110 million people, mostly women, have received microloans.

Yes, microfinance is a good thing, especially in those parts of the world that lack industry. And yes, industries that pollute and that violate human rights, as take place all too often in China, are a bad thing. That said, as an African it is important to me that Africa develops a manufacturing base that allows Africans to become respected members of the global community who can live comfortable lives and engage in the co-creation of global culture as peers rather than as objects of pity.

A vision of Africa that is limited to tribal villages and rural agriculture is not inspiring to me, even if the tribal villages are "assisted" by the millions of dollars worth of scientific expertise that Jeff Sachs is providing them. Quite aside from the presumption of well-funded scientific experts teaching rural Africans how to farm, I am offended by the implicit notion that Sachs and company have as their highest aspiration for us that we remain cute little tribal peoples growing our crops and producing our crafts. Africa: the eternal land of National Geographic articles complete with charming natives. Why is it that black Africans are not allowed to be full participants in global society?

Barack Obama may have relatives in Kenyan villages, but he did not become president of the U.S. by means of living a village life. And although his excellent education at Punahou in Hawaii, at Columbia, and at Harvard were clearly keys to his success, even if he had had an equivalent education in an African village (which is, of course, impossible), he could not have become president had he not lived a life in contemporary society, with computers, refrigerators, cars, consumer brands and marketing, business schools, consultants, etc. Success in the modern world, respect in the modern world, is deeply tied up with familiarity with the products and institutions of the modern world. People who do not know how to use a fork or who do not know what laundry detergent is will never be respected in the world at large. While some of you may think that it is cute to look at us as quaint objects, indigenous fantasies to soothe your stressed out lives, we would prefer to be peers, thank you very much. Maybe we are tired of being your anthropological wet dream.

As an African business woman in the U.S., I often feel caught in between a world of selfish, self-indulgent business men here who don't care about anything but profit, on the one hand, and an altruistic but similarly self-indulgent cohort of people who "care" about Africa and Africans, but who care strictly on their terms. And their terms are, for the most part, implicitly condescending. The more they care, the more they like the idea of helping pathetic Africans and bragging about how they are helping the pathetic Africans -- which sometimes comes dangerously close to bragging about how pathetic their Africans are. "My Africans are more pathetic than your Africans" is altruist speak for "My yacht is bigger than your yacht." I know it is well-intentioned, but it is time to have a higher vision for Africa.

Because we have been so programmed to believe that manufacturing is necessarily dirty and harsh, most of us can't envision a comfortable, humane manufacturing workplace. But given the environments in which most Africans are currently working, which are often very dangerous and polluted, it is quite easy to create a factory that is far cleaner and safer. Right now on the streets of Dakar there are probably more than a million people, many of them children, working on streets where cars, buses and trucks puffing out diesel fumes dart chaotically by the human beings, occasionally hitting one. Raw sewage periodically floods this or that street, flowing into the stalls of street vendors and street manufacturers. The tiny manufacturers that line the streets and do woodwork, metal work, tire repair, sewing, etc. are often in dark, dilapidated shacks that are hardly safe or comfortable. Yes, they run their own businesses, but none of their businesses would come close to meeting ILO (International Labor Organization) standards. Yet if I create a factory and create hundreds of jobs, I'm perceived as a creator of sweatshops?

The cost of putting up a clean, simple, well-ventilated building is very low in Senegal. I can create a cost-effective factory that provides my employees with a cleaner, healthier environment during the work day than they will encounter anywhere else in their lives. I can give them a reliable income that will allow them to plan for a future, unlike the uncertain existence that most of them experience day by day. I will give them experience with technologies ranging from hand soap to computers. And I will identify and cultivate talent, so that my products continue to be better designed, better made, and more competitive in the global marketplace.

My vision for Africa is one in which it becomes the first region of the world to create a socially and environmentally responsible manufacturing base. But key to that vision is that Africa does create a manufacturing base. Because we will never be helped by those Americans who are strictly selfish and self-indulgent, I am appealing to those Americans who want to help to transcend their romance with foreign aid and microfinance, and begin to take seriously investing in African manufacturing and purchasing products made in Africa. Yes, pay attention to the kind of manufacturing that produces the goods you buy. But also remember that we Africans deserve the same respect and quality of life that you have. Microfinance and arts and crafts alone will not get us there.