I was 16 years old when my physics teacher bolted into class and asked,
“Do you know how to make a million dollars?”
My mind raced to a million places and my heart beat excitedly in anticipation. I expected that he perhaps had created a laser that could heal a disease we had never heard of or perhaps he devised a Nobel Prize worthy formula for the earth’s rotation. Before you condemn me as an overly excitable fellow, let me give you the context. This guy was an African Einstein. I can’t vouch for what went on in his head but he kept plenty of unkempt hair and a sporting mustache with a dusty lab coat completing the look. When you saw him he always looked like he was working out something. I always imagined that his head was like a projector beaming complicated calculus that only he could see. Clearly I can be forgiven for thinking that the look went together with some higher cognitive ability.
You can imagine my utter disappointment when he offered his answer,
“You plant a million cabbages and sell them at a dollar each.”
I was shattered. How could my Einstein be advocating for agriculture in this modern age. Short of prostitution, agriculture is as old as economic activity gets. Moreover, it’s as creative as shelf packing. A man who was meant to fill our minds with a desire to conquer the unknown wanted me to plant cabbages. Needless to say, now in my 30s, I am yet to forgive this man.
If you look at it closely it’s a very African way of thinking about economics and perhaps it’s the reason why our great continent is only advocating for beneficiation of natural resources 100 years after the West got to it. The example of my physics teacher illustrates just how conflicting our own thinking is. It’s the strangest oxymoron. The analogy basically gives us the understanding that we are in a position of knowledge. Being a part of the global economy, we know what we want. We know what we buy. We know that we would want more but we never venture out to search for that “more” ourselves. we even boast great education systems yet we seem afraid to encourage our young entrepreneurs to venture towards the unknown. instead, we tell them to plant cabbages. What we really should be doing is encouraging them to dream and make new things. We should be encouraging them to be a part of the creative economy.
It may be appropriate now to explain what I mean by the creative economy. The best definition I can think of is the set of socio-economic trade dealing in creativity, knowledge and information and the transformation of those into tangible problem solving economic entities and products. To even simplify it further, I see it as the ability to create something out of nothing or very little and the foresight to monetize it. Basically, to borrow the children’s game, to make a dollar out of 15 cents.
I’m sure the more perceptive of you have already realised that cabbages in my assessment go well beyond just cabbages or just agriculture but it illustrates the usual economy. Things that people have been known to do all along. It’s either you are a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer and so on. Oddly, it seems that if you can’t give it a name, it doesn’t exist. That’s the quandary that I have faced my whole life and it has taken me 3 decades to find an answer. Maybe I needed therapy, who knows. You see, I became part of the creative economy against all odds. For a long time I felt like a misfit. I’m the sort of guy who doesn’t fit into any conventional mould and I never have. For instance, I played soccer as a wingback, even though I was slow (running wise, that is), I played rugby even though I wasn’t very big, I’m a whizz at commercial business and organizational development even though I write poetry and humanities have always come easy for me. That’s just a tip of the iceberg. Now you can imagine my misery when I was asked what I wanted to be. Everyone else wanted to be doctors, lawyers, accountants and I knew that wasn’t for me. I was expected to give a name of a profession which had no name. I then became smart about it. I made stuff up. Sometimes I wanted to be a painting poet, a supermodel (in my defense, I won a modeling competition when I was 13), then a race car driver and once, to the dismay of those around me, I wanted to plant cabbages. Not be a farmer. Just cabbages.
The psychologist in me will tell you that it was more a cry for help and the pursuit for definition more than anything else. Whatever funny example I used was to illustrate that I desired to create and even more than that, the cabbages quip was a desire to make that million dollars. I guess I spent so much time trying to define myself in a world that boxed you according to a name and where a name didn’t exist, I was lost. That for me is the saddest thing. How many young creative minds have we killed because we have convinced them that they belong to pocket and they should stay in their lane? I can literally see the brain cells committing suicide. So, because you are an accountant or engineer, you can’t like Hamlet or you can’t dream. Have you ever thought that the much revered Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. These things don’t fit together nowadays and it led me to realize that Africa could embrace a creative economy and build creative entrepreneurs just by understanding that the world need not stand on convention. People need not be pigeon-holed. We must encourage our entrepreneurs and children to open their minds and explore possibilities. Only then do we build more fulfilling enterprises and create new things for the world to admire and hopefully buy from us. In case you are wondering, I have now found my definition. If someone asks me what I do, I simply tell them that I create value.
The problem from a macro economic level goes much deeper than just our thinking. We can’t ignore the role that policies and institutions play. I believe that our governments should have an unwritten contract with their citizens. Governments should say that if you create something viable and new, and it works, we will help you protect it and we will ensure that you will earn handsomely from it. This understanding is often created by enabling policies and institutions that support people who are bold enough to venture outside conventional comfort zones. Unfortunately in Africa, God giveth and the government taketh away. As an example, about 20 years ago, in a Southern African country far far away, a 15 year old student made a working rifle for a science fair. He was told that what he had done was dangerous and illegal and he must never do it again. He now works for a top arms company in the United States. In another incident, an engineer made a helicopter at home. He was told that if that contraption rose 10cm from the ground, he would be arrested. Now he consults for an aircraft company in Germany. Yet in another African country, a 17 year old boy made a radio using card board, wood, wires and Coca Cola bottle tops. He is now a lab technician in an underfunded hospital. Allow me a moment to wipe the tears from my eyes. It’s hard to understand why we stifle progress and creativity. The oddest thing is that we actively and vigorously stifle this creativity. Why we threaten those who create yet we have policies and institutions to support traders, cabbage planters and people who dig up stuff. Can we not understand that by embracing creativity we can be so much more? Creativity is an equalizer in that a single idea can leapfrog a business or an economy 20 or 30 years ahead.
We are happy to tinker on Facebook or Google but we don’t stop to think that not so long ago these were ideas that may not even have seemed plausible. They were created by the crazy imagination of people not so different from you and I. Knowing some of our governments as we do, had the concepts of Facebook and Google been mooted on this continent, they would never have seen the light of day. I can imagine how many privacy laws they would have broken and heck, if the government felt adequately threatened, jail time may have been the end result. But it shouldn’t be the case, let’s learn from the examples we have and encourage ourselves to become so much more.
I wrote this piece to encourage and in support of the misfit which I firmly believe I am too. Against the odds of alienating nomenclature where we belong nowhere because where our minds take us has no name and against economic circumstances that work against you, we have stories of victory. Yet we need more of those. We need to harness the potential of creative economies because there we can begin to compete with the advanced world instantly. We can create creative economies because that is the way of the 21st century and we ought to be modern people. We must open our minds to new things and new possibilities. To boldly go, where no man has gone before (I had to). So forget cabbages and forget labels. Let’s open our minds to creating something out of nothing or out of very little. Or at the very least, if we can’t live it ourselves, lets have the mental fortitude to encourage those coming after us to make a dollar out of 15 cents.