Running a small business is one thing, but scaling it up for large numbers of customers is quite another. This is also often reflected in our government-provided services. By Onyekachi Wambu
African politicians campaigning for votes are virtue signalling as usual, avoiding the critical issue of how to practically deliver services at scale to a rapidly growing population. This issue of scaling up is one of the key challenges facing African people globally.
Not that Zimbabwe’s opposition candidate, Nelson Chamisa, shares this opinion. Recently on the campaign trail, he made claims that the Rwandan President’s success in delivering ICT was based on suggestions he, Chamisa, had made in a presentation at a conference in Kigali. The Rwandan Government laughingly dismissed the claims, but it is clear from his comments that Chamisa lacks understanding or mastery of the complex processes needed to deliver large-scale transformation in the lives of millions.
He responds to the need we all have for greater investment, and improved modern services, but pretends that high-sounding words in a presentation will automatically produce change.
There is no discussion of the efficient systems, processes and management that the Rwandans have put in place to drive their economy. But politicians like Chamisa are not alone; let me illustrate with two examples.
Arriving early one morning at Douala Airport, in transit from Casablanca to Kigali, I watched the airport come alive. Airports are the first window into a country. First impressions count. It was strange watching staff wake up from the floor in the booths in which they would work, later that day. As the first flights began, I started counting how many flights were taking off from Cameroon’s busiest airport.
Between the very slow check-in and boarding, there were five moments when we were stopped for security checks, sometimes within eye-shot of the last official who stopped us.
By the time I boarded my plane to Kigali around 2pm, less than a dozen flights had taken off from the airport, with probably under 5,000 passengers. Despite this, it was clear that the staff were struggling to process these modest numbers. As I flew off, I wondered how Douala would cope with the eight million passengers that passed through Dubai Airport in January 2018 alone. Clearly, logistically Douala was not yet ready for the prime time.
Inefficient use of resources
The second illustration was in London. Many black British people have run successful small take-away restaurants, whether serving African or African-Caribbean food, but they have not been able to create successful branded chains based on these small-scale successes.
One such recent attempt to create a branded restaurant has struggled to deal with the large numbers of customers in its opening week. There were sufficient staff but they were badly coordinated. A very busy bar could not produce, quickly and sufficiently, the most requested fruit punch drink.
By 8 o’clock in the evening they had run out of the two most requested and standard menu items for a restaurant of that genre. As it was very crowded, take-away meals were ordered by many people who wanted to show goodwill and support for the business, but customers began to drift away after an hour of waiting, goodwill haemorrhaging in their wake. Despite the huge investment in the concept and setting, this business will not be scalable into a branded chain, if it does not address the need for a logistics/front of house manager who can provide leadership and deploy the resources in the most efficient manner.
At Douala Airport, there was no-one who had such a leadership role either.
Scaling is important, we can all run small businesses, but in Africa there is a challenge for delivering at scale. In Nigeria and many African countries where the state has taken a leadership role in areas such as the water and electricity supply, it has been unable to deliver at scale. Everybody in the country that wants regular water or electricity has had to turn themselves into a small water or electricity generating business.
Large-scale logistical businesses have generally been outsourced to foreign multinationals that have developed efficient systems for serving large numbers of people efficiently. The most successful African businessman, Aliko Dangote, has mastered the issue of logistics. Perhaps people like him, who understand how to deliver services to large groups of people, should be the ones running for political leadership positions. NA