Throughout December 2019, Boundless Minds, ran a crowdfunding campaign to build a digital work-readiness platform, to skill and mentor university and vocational students. It’s hard to find the right adjectives for the experience. While chatting with one of the donors, I asked, in awe, why she was donating so much money. Her response, “I firmly believe that we Africans (Ugandans) must hold each other and invest in our own change. We really have no other choice.”
If you are reading this, you have probably contributed, in some way, to a relative’s or friend’s medical bill, wedding, kwanjula, burial, whatever. Whether as black tax, or the fulfilment of social obligations, or just out of the goodness of your heart, what’s not in doubt is that philanthropy knits the fabric of Africa’s enduring spirit. So much so that even those who have left the continent cannot shake it off. The 2019 estimates for remittances to Africa are close to $40 billion. As you would expect, more than half of that went to Nigeria – which has Africa’s largest diaspora component. Remittances are so important for African economies to the extent that in countries like Liberia, Gambia, they make up more than 20 percent of the GDP.
The problem, studies show, is that remittances, like much of African philanthropy do not target specific socioeconomic problems. They are all over the place, which makes it hard to quantify their specific contribution to social transformation.
But what happens when philanthropy – or whatever effort – is organised and focused? Five years ago, Nigerian businessman, Tony Elumelu, pledged $100 million of his wealth towards an ambitious project. Every year, he would find 1,000 entrepreneurs on the continent and give each, $5,000 in seed funding – as long as you had an idea or business below 3 years. He calls this “Africapitalism”, a philosophy seeking to democratize luck and institutionalize opportunity, by encouraging Africa’s private sector to take leadership of the continent’s development agenda. The idea was to focus on unlocking the power of individuals to innovate and start enterprises, enable long-term investment through patient capital, and investment in strategic sectors, among others. Elumelu’s net worth is valued at $700 million, so maybe it makes sense that he has that much to give away. But let me tell you about people who are creating a difference with much less.
Towards the end of last year, I had the opportunity to attend the Tooro People’s Conference – no prizes for guessing the scope of discussions. I had been invited to facilitate a mentorship session with a group of high school and vocational students, sponsored by the forum. Over lunch, I was told that the school fees for those 18 students is collected off subscription to a WhatsApp group. Yeah! Basically, every member contributes an annual Shs60,000 or they will be evicted from the group. I suspect the opportunity of close-quarter networking with Tooro’s who-is-who is part of the incentive to pay your subscription. But, if you have 300 active members, that comes to Shs18 million – good enough to fulfil the educational dreams of 18 young people.
Elumelu’s story and what the Batooro are doing is the clearest pointer to what happens when people recognise their privilege and decide to put it to good use. It also a window into what could happen, if we organized and got intentional about our giving. Only a few weeks ago, we trooped out of the city in droves to celebrate the holidays with our folks upcountry. Would you remember what the village school looked like? Or had the chance to find out how many kids actually make it past Primary Seven. Children drop out for all manner of reasons, from hunger to lack of scholastics, sanitary pads, drab lessons and poor infrastructure, demotivation, whatever.
From West Nile to Acholi, Lango to Kigezi, from Bugisu to Bunyoro, Buganda, Busoga to Bukedi – imagine if we had WhatsApp groups of the more affluent homeboys and girls organizing and mobilising for scholarships, or whatever.
A little higher, imagine if corporate companies and individuals were investing in growing local enterprises that are creating (long term) value by solving social problems. Think indigenous innovation funds and enterprise development contributed to by big shots, sometimes without even asking “what’s in it for us?” That’s what the Batooro are doing. What Elumelu is doing. And what, I believe, my friend meant, as a challenge to the privileged. It works to create value for everyone in the long term.
By Benjamin Rukwengye
Founder, Boundless Minds