Perhaps more so than any other part of Africa, there is a popular notion in Rwanda that we must depart from a “donor mentality”. This new mandate has been poignantly communicated in books such as “Dead Aid”, a book which President Kagame handed out to every member of his administration. The thought that local problems can, or should, be solved by benevolent outsiders is perhaps one of the most crippling legacies of Africa’s colonial past.Government, NGO and philanthropic aid continues to pervade countries like Rwanda, and while these people and institutions often have truly noble intentions, Kagame and others are fearful they may stunt the Rwandan mindset required for truly sustainable development. Karisimbi Partners is committed to the market-based sustainability of its client companies, and we feel we can do this best by being profitable and sustainable ourselves. This approach makes us somewhat odd among the many Westerners here representing religious, political or non-profit organizations, but it has also made us popular among the local public and private sector leaders seeking an alternative to traditional aid. I have been struck this week by some of the interactions we have witnessed from this vantage point…
Exhibit A. Too often, Rwandans will wait for aid to come to the rescue rather than working to rescue themselves. For instance, we know of a village that refused to build proper latrines because the village next door had them donated and they thought it would be easier to wait until they received similar help. One of our client companies has recently received a significant investment from a European businessman. As Karisimbi Partners has been asked to evaluate the caliber of the existing management team and supplement where necessary, I have had the opportunity to interview 16 of the top employees in this agricultural processing company. I have asked each, “What changes would you make if you were the owner of the company?”.Almost without fail, the initial response has been a laugh or smile and a comment which indicates they had a) never considered the possibility of their being an ‘owner’, and b) have little reason to think such could be any more than a hypothetical exercise.
Exhibit B. I met with a leading Private Sector Development manager working for a European embassy this week. He has lived here for four years and personally overseen millions of Euros in aid via more than 13 initiatives led from his office. When I told him what Karisimbi Partners was doing, he thought it a refreshing new approach. When I told him mid-sized companies here are paying us such that we are getting closer to profitability every month, he almost fell out of his chair. Like the recipients of donations, those giving donations may also suffer from this mentality. It becomes difficult to believe it could be done differently when you become an expert at giving money to those who are incented to solicit it from you. The donor mentality can be debilitating on both sides of the transaction and fail to recognize the full dignity and equality deserved by each party.
Such experiences reinforce our belief: an “owner mentality” is the best antidote for those suffering from “donor mentality”.
Onward and upward,
As I was sitting at the funeral service for a dear friend’s father this last weekend, I was very aware that this was one of those distinctive differences between the place I grew up and the place I am now getting to know. Although I could not decipher many of the Kinyarwanda words spoken at the ceremony, it was clear that every word my friend spoke was full of emotion and meaning. In the seven months since we moved here, there have been at least four funerals among our immediate Rwandan friends and neighbors. Initially, I was simply struck by the importance of such events, as demonstrated by the time and priority given to gathering together and mourning for as much as a week after the death. As one Rwandan explained to Dano, “It is not about wallowing in the past, it is about honoring the dead”. It is not uncommon for businesses to close and much of “normal” life to be put on hold while the deceased is honored by hundreds of friends and family members. Today, however, I was struck by the frequency of such events. Indeed, it is one of the more painful indicators that in a country like Rwanda, life seemingly ‘happens to you’ more than life is ‘directed by you’. Unlike any other place I’ve lived, tragedy is expected here as a fact of life and such events are expected to be given their due respect.
On a happier note, weddings are also more visible and frequent events than anything I have ever seen before. One of our business colleagues had to leave the funeral we were at on Saturday in order to join a friend’s wedding party. I received my first wedding invitation last week, and while I could not attend, I look forward to a future opportunity. To deal with the sheer volume of wedding ceremonies here, some churches will ask four or more couples at a time to say their vows together. Wedding parties of extended family and friends gather in public locations for pictures, and some weekends you can compare the formal attire of as many as six wedding parties at one traffic roundabout (This many brides can certainly stop traffic!). I am fairly certain that as we develop more relationships here, it will be fairly easy to spend all weekend at weddings or funerals.
I am continually struck by the way people here share pain and joy en masse. There is a surprising (even refreshing) capacity of local Rwandans to drop whatever they are doing in order to participate in such events. Because it is understood that ‘life happens to you’, there is no presumption that one’s life, work or even today’s schedule is one’s own. I have a theory: Rwandan’s naturally respond to such events by praising or praying to God (Imana) because it is so apparent they could not have orchestrated such things by themselves. It is only when we convince ourselves that we are in control that we fail to acknowledge the existence or possibility of a Creator with a Master Plan.
Onward and upward,
The Private Sector Federation (PSF) serves as a representative of private sector institutions in Rwanda and liaison to the government ministries that attend to it.As such, PSF is an organization that sits somewhere between the ‘private’ and the ‘public’ spheres involved in the development of this economy. In recent years, Rwanda has earned the reputation as the safest and least corrupt African country, yet there is still much to be done to facilitate business and attract outside investors. PSF decided to champion an initiative to encourage better behavior as relates to key issues: transparency of financials, upholding of contracts, treatment of employees and quality production. The central point in this initiative was a small handbook on business ethics I learned last June was being published. Thinking my PhD in Entrepreneurial Ethics could come in handy here (I’m fairly certain I am the only one with such a credential in East Africa), I met with the organizer of the publication. As seems only possible in Rwanda, I was invited to contribute to the project on the spot. After just two days of work, I was able to contribute a great deal more than I would have thought possible to the final product. A small book called The Code of Business Ethics & Excellence was launched amid much fanfare and lofty speeches. In one of the keynote speeches I was proud to hear the CEO of the PSF quote one of the lines I had authored: “This book is NOT just about deterring the worst, it is also about encouraging and rewarding the best business behavior”. At the launch event, some organizations even signed a document signifying their organization’s commitment to the prescriptions laid out in “the code”. I am now part of a Business Ethics Committee responsible for maintaining some of the momentum generated at this event. The following newspaper article tells more about the event and the initiative: http://www.newtimes.co.rw/index.php?issue=14126&article=24355
After the book was launched, the ethical standard of Rwandan companies was immediately lifted. Ah, if only it were that easy! Like so many documents of this type, this is an important first step in stating ideals worth striving for, and ideas for reaching them. We have become painfully aware, however, that there is a critical shortage of qualified managers to understand and implement things handed to them in documents that describe a better future. This is partially because Rwandan culture is not a “reading” culture. Furthermore, reports are particularly ignored when the subject matter is as seemingly abstract and nebulous as business ethics.
Thankfully, lofty sentiments like integrity, honest and excellence are illustrated vividly in some of the practical business relationships we’ve forged here. Our actions certainly speak louder than any words we could write, so on our best days we and our Rwandan friends do our part to tangibly express our values and beliefs. I’m confident the decisions and interactions featured in our day-to-day relationships are easier for others to understand and emulate than anything we could put to paper. Thankfully, our business model accommodates the transfer of knowledge AND values, since we interact often, deeply, and long-term with many of the clients we serve. As a result, when feasible, we aspire to write fewer documents in order to spend more of our time living and implementing the words that may have died on the page.
Onward and upward,