Ryan Baebler

The Difference Between Entrepreneurship and a Lack Thereof in Rural South Africa

sewale 2I recently spent three weeks in South Africa, primarily in the rural Limpopo Province bordering Mozambique, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. While the Republic of South Africa is the 25th richest country in the world, I was struck by the extent to which first-world lifestyles co-exist with endemic poverty. For instance, I stayed in Sewale with a former ANC councilor named Patricia who owned a pickup truck, two televisions and a surround sound system. Around the councilor’s home, in all directions, were mud huts.

In my opinion, the fundamental difference between the elite movers and shakers of this rural community and those who had resigned themselves to charity was empowerment. At first, I thought that this empowerment was derived from exposure to the wider world. But after having read Francisco’s blog post this morning, I can see the conspicuous applicability of the Bee Sting Effect.At the heart of business is the principle of reciprocity, which is differentiated from gift giving proper by its a priori motivation. In other words, reciprocity is a gift exchange made in trust that neither party will try to take advantage of the other. But as fundamental as reciprocity is to any social interaction, I found it conspicuously absent from much of my conversations with local community members.

sewaleAlmost everyone whom I spoke to in Sewale wanted to know “what are you going to do for us?” We met with the village headman who wanted my four colleagues and me to build a village meeting house. When we met with the chief’s cabinet, they told us that they were “ready to be developed.” But we had not introduced ourselves as a development organization; we had introduced ourselves as students.

Meeting with people who were supposed to be the community’s leaders stressed – to me – how pervasive the Bee Sting mentality was in this community. While there were definitely individuals in the community who were destitute, most people were not, as they mistakenly believed, powerless charity cases.

The community as a whole certainly was not a charity case. So why did so many people that I talked with feel that as long as they did not have charitable help from outside of the community, successful “development” was not possible? As can be inferred from Francisco’s post, there is a significant difference between some poverty and a lot of poverty which manifests itself in the psyche of the individual. When one sees the world as being full of problems, it is only a human tendency to become overwhelmed and inert.

To make matters worse, this community had been habituated into accepting government and aid handouts. There would not have been anything wrong with the question of “What can you do for us?” if it had been prefaced with “This is what we have to offer.” Their feeling overwhelmed coupled with the consistent aid from outside of the community had led many of them to the conclusion that they could not realistically help themselves. This disempowered mindset had proven to be cancerous as even in situations where the community had the capacity to help themselves if they worked together–some would not lift a finger because as Francisco pointed out, “a person with multiple bee stings does not have much incentive to get one sting treated, because the others will still throb.”

It simply did not seem worth it to them. Much of the time, success breeds success. Because of this snowballing, synergistic property, the Bee Sting logic is flawed. Even a modest business success in this rural environment is worth while because it allows further attempts at upward mobility. But many of the people that I encountered were simply overwhelmed by their situation and by what they did not understand about the outside world. Many thought that they cannot be effective without outside help; the idea often ends up being a self fulfilling prophesy. This point was made by the simple fact that some people in the community had in fact succeeded in becoming socially mobile.

At the risk of sounding like a Horatio Alger story: Patricia had grown up in Sewale in a single parent home. For much of her life, she had lived in one of the traditional huts that sit next to her house–in fact, in the very same one in which her mother still lives. Her family was poor. Her mother derived her livelihood by making pots out of the clay she found behind her house.

Patricia’s mother would barter these pots for various other items that people had within the town like grain, chickens, or whatever they had to give. She then would turn these goods into cash by selling a bag of grain one cup at a time to people who could not afford to buy an entire bag at once from the store. By this method, Patricia’s mother made enough money to send Patricia to school. There, Patricia did well enough to go on to get a Master’s degree in textiles after which she received two additional diplomas in Water Purification and Disaster Management.

Patricia is a businesswoman. When we arrived, she had just finished getting the school that she runs accredited as a certificate program. She had built a factory for her mother’s traditional pottery cooperative, had identified and was addressing the local ecological and water issues, and was refining plans to build a bed and breakfast that would use the area’s scenic geography and tradition as a lure for eco- and ethno-tourists.

She was very well off in an area where most people were living on less than a dollar per day. The salaries of the teachers I talked to were about R200 per month, which comes out to be about $US 25. And many of them were buying food for their parentless students.

As always, it takes money to make money. Patricia worked in the government for fifteen years. When I asked her about capital disbursement and government sponsored business loan programs (because I had talked to numerous people who told me that they were ineffective) she insisted that those people simply did not have a strategy.

She understood how the bureaucracy works. She understood that the provincial Ministry of Finance is given a budget once every six months and that at the end of that six month period, any money left over is usurped again by the national government. So, Patricia said, she waits until about a week before the end of each six month cycle to send in her application. Any money not already spoken for would go to her. Naturally, she explained, that if she sent in her application earlier, there was less of a chance that she would get funding because the ministry would be much shrewder.

Many within this community felt overwhelmed and had been treated as if they were incapable of a reciprocal relationship by government and aid agencies, so they had not identified what they had to offer. The tribal officials I spoke with simply asked us for handouts in the form of buildings. However, the more effective individuals within the community focused their efforts on building reciprocal relationships with the outside world.

Of course, the issue of empowerment is not endemic to rural communities in the developing world. But the difference in the welfare of the people who had proactively taken responsibility for their own community development and and the welfare of those those who sat idle awaiting intervention was very stark. The single most outstanding lesson that I gleaned from my time in Sewale was that the drive, perspective, and ownership that lead to empowerment matter most in communities that are chronically stung. In environments in which entrepreneurial spirit is scarce, just a little bit of it goes a long way. Thoughts? Comments?