Reckless Warhorse Dishes: The "Africans Must be Taught to Repair"

war·horse  ˈwôrˌhôrs (noun) (in historical contexts) a large, powerful horse ridden in battle.
    • informala soldier, politician, or sports player who has fought many campaigns or contests.
    • informala musical, theatrical, or literary work that has been heard or performed repeatedly.
      "that old warhorse Liszt's “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.”"

I've got a messy blog here (apology for posting before editing, this is take 2).  I should write it up as a real article, though.  It parallels conversations I've had over beers with many colleagues in the ICT world over the decades.  And maybe it explains why I left multi-million dollar UN and WTO and IMF funded "AID Projects" and enjoy private investment outside the #charitableindustrialcomplex.  And the reason I should write it up more professionally is that it appears "WASTE AID" and "RECYCLING DEVELOPMENT AID" is about to go down the same learning curve, without a helmet as they rush to be first to submit projects for funding.

Inexperience, Bad People Management, Lack of Accounting Skills, Spotty Customer Service, Sub Par (food) Quality.  Let's compare the "5 frequent reasons" that restaurants in the USA and EU fail with the explanations offered by the Aid for Africa complex.  Does a 60% failure rate prove Africa's incapable? Or does Africa's enormous and steady growth demonstrate an unhealthy attraction of Western Aid workers to projects lacking business fundamentals?

"Reckless" Korean War warhorse honored by medal and statue @ National Museum of the Marine Corps, Quantico, Virginia

The myth is that "nothing is getting better".  I call this the "restaurant crisis".

The logic of AID and Enforcement in Africa seems built on "failure needs more help".  If 60% of new USA restaurants fail in the first year, and 80% fail in 5 years, then Governments should fund professional Restaurant Aid Workers to save Restaurateurs.  Charity needs to save the failing restaurants.  Compare that to the free market, which invests based on past success.

And beeeliiiiiieeevvee me, I could get you some restaurant worker photos that would send you skeedaddling from emerging market restaurants to burn wires in Agbogbloshie in a heartbeat (and genuine "child labor" to boot).   Maybe even some with FIRE pictures for the photojournalists.

If you have seen Awal M. Basit (2nd left) burn wire, you know this amount of gasoline flame is "shiny object for reporter"

Lessons from ICT Battlefield (Information Communications Technology) 

I ran across an ICT blog yesterday which brought me back to that battlefield. The tone is a bit "warhorsey", and I can relate to that. I started out, after Mass DEP, in the ICT realm.  The idea (like World Computer Exchange) was to take surplus computers and use them to develop school tech rooms and internet cafes in Africa.  Millions of WTO and UNGAID dollars were going to these countries to "connect them to the web", and thousands of western Aid Workers, volunteers, etc., were carpetbagging to Africa to play a positive role, and earn a living, saving Africa from darkness.  (Fair Trade Recycling's 2016 EWaste Trading program is derivative).

The author, @TimSchoffield2, an Accountant from the UK ran the WebERP project in Uganda with Victor Kagimu.  Like many of my pals in the development field, he paints a picture of an Africa which desperately needs repair and maintenance officials from the West.  I met him via Twitter, and found his blog.  His style is that of an old warhorse;  here are two I've read.

Sustainability and Corruption in donor funded projects

"International aid is not working, but it can. It needs a change of attitude from both the donors and the receivers of the aid."
Any donor funded project should be sustainable. That is it should continue to function when the donor leaves. Sounds obvious I know, but most people would be amazed at just how few do carry on working. Anybody who has like me, worked and traveled extensively in Africa will be able to recount stories of when this has failed. Here are just a few of mine:
- Water pumps that cannot be maintained when they break down because there are no spare parts, no money or means to get them, nobody trained to fit them if they were available.
- Fields full of farm machinery (Tractors, Canadian sized combine harvesters etc) rotting away. Why? No spare parts, and nobody trained to maintain them.
- I once visited a large hospital in East Africa which had a modern but non-functioning CT scanner. Again the reason given for its lack of functionality was that it had broken down and nobody could repair it... The hospital director told me that eventually somebody would donate a new one and the old one would be thrown away....
This is one of the reasons why billions of dollars in aid money floods into Africa but things never get better for its citizens.
The other reason is the corruption that follows these projects. I have over the years had conversations with people who have been found to have taken money from projects. The common theme is always that they do not see it as stealing, or as something wrong. The best analogy I have is that aid money is seen like a river flowing down the mountain, and if you divert a little to irrigate your own field, then the water doesn't stop flowing, and you get a better harvest. The flaw with this argument is that the supply of money is finite and the river does stop flowing. 
The best solution I have for this is closer and more rigorous scrutiny of the project by onsite managers who are appointed by the project donors to supervise the use of the money. Just the same as would be done with any commercial company when a budget is allocated to a project.
No spare parts, and no one trained the Africans to maintain the donated equipment.  Aparently, after 5 decades of Aid spending, white consultants can offer a solution.

Tim Schofield's previous post on 1/11/2014 offers that "Not all projects fail, there have been some outstanding successes but the failure rate is way too high."

ICT Aid projects in Africa - Why so many failures?

Failure of ICT projects is not an uncommon thing. Most statistics seem to show a failure rate of between 50% and 70%. So Africa is not on its own in having these failures. However from my observations I have noticed specific areas in donor funded projects that seem to make these projects more liable to failure:

  • "We are a donor funded organisation so we shouldn't use for-profit companies"... 
  • "The project should be staffed and managed by local people, and not by outsiders"...
  • Project employees are more interested in perpetuating the project than completing it... 
  • Projects encourage "cronyism"... 
  • Project aims are often too vague... 
My experience shows that projects should:
  • Be managed by an external person employed by the donor organisation charged with meeting targets...
  • Use the best resources available to them regardless of whether they are non-profit or for-profit...
  • Set definite targets at the start, both in timescale and project goals. The project manager should be the person held accountable...
  • Donor organisations should be firmer in their dealings on the ground. Too often I see donor organisations that take a far too "charitable" view of bad work....
So the ICT warhorses explain to us that the ICT projects repeatedly fail.  Yet Africa has, by all accounts, leapfrogged the rest of the world in hand-held cell phones, even developing currency exchanges with cell phone credit accounts, and has achieved a rate of growth in telecommunications many times the rate of USA in the 1990s.

People are well nourished, but the restaurants to aid them are failing?

Marcus Lemonis has heard ICT complaints before
I've done quite a bit of quoting here from the article, which is ironic since Mr. Schofield's next to final blog post accuses others involved in the WebERP Africa ICT project of (coding) plaigarism ("Unfortunately this seems to be typical of the recent dishonest behaviour of the leadership of the webERP project.").  I have had some experience with plagiarism in Africa, as have some Ph.D pals.  Anyway, the skirmish is notable because it looks like any restaurant episode of CNBC's "The Profit".

Here's where I agree with, and I split from, Schofield's type of diagnosis of how to better administer the #whitesaviorcomplex #charitableindustrialcomplex funding.  Keep donating, but involve experts who can spend it better?  Schofield is not alone, but he takes the market intervention (Aid, Interpol Enforcement, etc.) as an opportunity being wasted, rather than a waste looking for more opportunity to suck from.  And you arrive here by not finding the success and drawing conclusions from it (as I have done with the "e-waste" export field, but by starting with the funding and trying to find the success at the end of it.

Percentage of failure does not define success.  Success defines itself, and you try to recreate that which has succeeded, not to keep repairing that which regularly fails.


The slide show embedded above is something I consider a success.  It certainly shows that Africa is capable of repairing stuff without funding from western saviors.  But if you interview these entrepreneurs, they know something important - who in Africa is a waste of their time? If they don't get paid for the work, they don't go back.  That's an important lesson everywhere, from the restaurant business in New York to the coltan business in Tanzania.  If your ICT project is funding a hospital or a university that can't get repair guys to work for them, maybe them-repair-guys know something you don't (or won't) admit.

This restaurant owner, the one you are backing, can't find anyone to do the dishes? In AFRICA?

In fairness, a lot of ICT projects are aimed at very remote locations.  A big part of restaurants successes and failures comes from location.  If you open a 5 star restaurant in Ngaoundal, Cameroon, it may face the same issues of the internet cafe.  The free market says that restaurants succeed when they are a) well managed, and b) located where lots of people wanna eat.

The failure of recycling yards, or stormwater systems, or restaurants, or cars, or other "things that fall apart", attracts the western eye in Africa, the same as a broken down car slows the rubbernecking queue.  But there's nothing slowing you down in the fast lane except your own gaze.  In African cities, you are connected there to the internet. Even while standing in the "remote" field of Agblogbloshie, you can watch Manchester United (Awal's Qatar backed team) play (Samsung's) Chelsea on a smart phone as the Photojournalists photograph children perched like magpies on fridge housings.  You are surrounded by junk cars, which you reached via traffic jam of working cars.  Pictures of broken cars or non successful people do NOT demonstrate that "so much more funding is necessary" or that "nothing is getting better for African citizens".

In fact, emerging markets "adolescence" (pollution, corruption, crime, badly managed cafes) looks the same everywhere, if historically speaking.

What's needed are more people willing to do the dishes, reformat the hard drives, and take out the garbage.  The biggest pile of African garbage are managers (with family or political connections) who don't do any work, have no experience, manage people poorly (especially relatives) , lack accounting skills, provide poor client service, and fail to execute on deliverables.  But this isn't an "African" problem.  This is a list of problems which explain why 60% of USA restaurants fail in the first year.  The difference is a guilt-driven AID complex to provide "restaurant aid".

Two statements from Schofield's blog illustrate the fallacy that more #whitesavior managers are necessary where investments failed.  Africa has lots of wannabe Marcus Lemonis's with OPM (other peoples money), and lots of Anton Egos writing reviews via blog.

AGREE:  As Mr. Schofield correctly says above in the (1/11/2011) "Why So Many Failures" blog, "Failure of ICT projects is not an uncommon thing. Most statistics seem to show a failure rate of between 50% and 70%.

He's absolutely correct.  Most ICT projects in the USA failed at a rate similar to the failure of most restaurants and other small businesses.  In the USA, 60% of hospitality industries (e.g. restaurants) go under in one year, and 80% go under in 5 years (similar rate to African development worker blogs, I suspect).  Yet his reasons for failure in Africa seem to be a list of pet peeves with almost none of the reasons cited in the Business Insider interview with Restaurant Warhorse/Celebrity Chef Robert Irvine: Food Network Chef Robert Irvine Shares The Top 5 Reasons Restaurants Fail
1. Inexperience
2. Bad People Management
3. Lack of Accounting Skills
4. Spotty Customer Service
5. Sub Par (food) Quality and Execution.
These aren't a perfect list of failures for failure of Africa ICT projects, but it's a lot closer than Schofield's list of causes, IMHO.   And I like the title of the next Business Insider article linked below it -  "The CEO Of 'Wichcraft Only Hires People Who Are Willing To Take Out The Trash". 

Africa has a serious problem whenever it hires someone "not willing to take out the trash"... or more aptly, "willing to wash the dishes".  I believe China had the same problem in industries that were funded by the CCP (with similar or higher failure rates).  You don't train African restaurant owners to do the dishes.  You invest in African restaurants where they serve food on clean plates because they do the dishes.  That's VC 101.

And I suspect Tim Schofield would agree with me on both this, and my next point.


"billions of dollars in aid money floods into Africa but things never get better for its citizens."

The "things never get better" is common in the press - which wants to keep reporting the same story about Africa.  And it's common among AID organizations who are in this uncomfortable place of needing funding because "the problems still exist" but are uncomfortable with the free market thought that may follow (stop funding AID projects).

Things never get better for Africa's citizens???

That is patently false.  

The fact is that Africa's citizens are better off because Africa's Tech Sector imports used working and repairable electronics, cars, and other equipment with its own money and maintains it.  The solution is simple.  You invest in Africa the way you invest in a restaurant.

The African repairpeople KNOW already which Hospital Manager doesn't pay them for fixing the electronics.  They have been stood up.  And the people in Africa who are most successful at winning AID funding over and over again are the very people these Tech Sector workers stay away from.  The "black knights" know how the game is played.

Africa has NEARLY UNIVERSAL ICT in its cities.  There are rural distribution issues, as there are for water and electricity and paved roads.  But that's a normal pattern of development, even in the USA (see Hillbilly Highway blogs).

People who invest in restaurants know to follow people who are successful, not people who aren't, and to trust those peoples experience at what made them successful.  I have seen Tech Sector importers in Ghana forced to cut off their own home cities because the "cousins don't expect to be forced to pay debts" factor.   It's a difficult and painful decision for the African entrepreneur, but he has figured out the guy in the city who doesn't speak his mother tongue but who has paid him on a timely basis for every order is better skilled, meets all the same criteria that the Business Insider Restaurant article lists.

There is a link to small business, ICT, and recycling projects.

What I learned in Peace Corps was how to make a difference without OPM (Other Peoples Money) playing a huge role.

I've found friends in Africa and Asia and Latin America who did great things with me, and helped me build my company, creating sustainable projects.

And we used ordinary loans and mortgages, we never went down the VC or AID route.

Warhorses should be asking "Did we need more horses?  Or did we pick the right battles?"

Some of my favorite people are young Ph.D students/faculty who follow this blog because it breaks ranks with professional writings and provides new insights.  (I do appreciate it when I get cited, however, though only moderately disappointed when I don't.  I kind of assume once people get tenure they will pay tribute to the warhorse.)

~~~ postscript ~__~

Just saw this Humans of New York post, which quotes a young New Yorker from Gabon repeating the old saw that powerful and corrupt Africans selling natural resources to Colonizing powers is the reason for poverty in Africa.   The "curse of natural resources".  My issue with it is that the victimization stereotype also fails to note the success is built by "Tinkerers Blessing", the repair and refurbishers.

The liberals in the Colonizing powers feel guilt over the tying of resource extraction to poverty, and try to fix it by issuing MILLIONS of dollars in AID to the same governmenents in Africa who mismanaged the natural resources.

Things are definitely getting better in Africa, either from "trickle down" of Aid (ICT or otherwise), but it's the TINKERERS, the self made men of the repair sector, the very people AID blogs say are "missing".   They are smart people, valedictorians, who stay the hell away from African Government projects.  Duh.

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