The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Edun, the company started by Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson, is now producing most of its products in China. Edun's mission is to "encourage trade with Africa" and "celebrate the possibilities and the people of the continent." Edun "celebrates" Africans by moving the supply chain to China?
Edun's high profile failure to produce goods in Africa is devastating to the brand of Africa. Our continent already has the worst brand of any region on earth. In a world in which almost no one believes that Africans are capable enough to create successful companies, Edun's failure will quietly confirm those bigotries.
As an African entrepreneur, when I meet with potential investors, the vast majority of them are afraid of investing in an African business because they envision war, disease, and lazy Africans who can't produce quality goods. But most of the stereotypes that people have of Africa - war, coups, heat, tropical diseases, etc. - are not true of my home country of Senegal. Although most people believe that Africans are lazy (whether or not they'll admit it) Senegal is known for its entrepreneurial diaspora (ask a black entrepreneur on the streets of Manhattan, Paris, or Milan where they are from and odds are they will be Senegalese). But that doesn't mean that it is easy to create a supply chain even in Senegal.
Clearly Edun did not do its homework on supply chain creation in Africa. I will be the first to acknowledge that it is difficult to create a world-class supply chain based in Africa. With my first company, Adina, when I began trying to buy hibiscus from women hibiscus growers in Senegal, their product cost twice as much as did organic hibiscus from China or Egypt, and was much lower quality. I flew back to Senegal several times to organize them into co-ops, then coach them in a no-nonsense manner about what they needed to do to produce to world-class quality standards. But after I firmly walked them through the implications of their existing quality standards several times, and showed them exactly what they were up against by showing them the Chinese and Egyptian products, they learned to produce to world-class standards, and are doing so to this day.
If I had not been Senegalese myself, it is unlikely that the women hibiscus growers would have improved their performance in response to my demand for quality. There is all too often a resentment against foreigners who tell us to work harder or that our work is not good enough. There is a deep and widespread inferiority complex that leads many of us to believe that we are not good enough, and will never be good enough. As a consequence, when we are harassed by white foreigners for not doing good enough, all too often we acquiesce in their presence and then go on doing things the same old way behind their backs. And, as a consequence, our products are inferior, business goes elsewhere, stereotypes are re-enforced, and we remain poor.
This inferiority complex will only be relieved when African entrepreneurs build companies that succeed in the developed world. Many Indian entrepreneurs acknowledge that the Indians also had a deep inferiority complex that prevented them from succeeding - until Infosys succeeded as a global brand, and showed them that Indians could create world class companies that could compete at the highest level. Now thousands of Indian entrepreneurs have created thousands of companies, many of which are competing globally, and there is a widespread stereotype of Indians as highly entrepreneurial and intelligent rather than being passive and stupid.
African audiences understand immediately the point I am making. As damaging as African poverty is, it will not be alleviated by well-intentioned rock stars creating African pity brands - and then producing the goods in China because they can't get Africans to produce adequate quality goods. Bono and Hewson are half right - entrepreneurial activity is the only long-term solution to Africa's problems. What they don't realize is that actions speak louder than words. And there is no way that they can "encourage trade with Africa" and "celebrate the possibilities and the people of the continent" by means of producing the more elegant goods in China and the ugly, amateurish t-shirts in Africa.
Most prospective investors in any African enterprise, hearing the Edun story, will think "Well if Bono couldn't do it with $20 million and the best contacts in the world, clearly it is not possible to manufacture in Africa. If Bono can't make it happen, who can?"
Hewson says of her husband that "he is unencumbered by practicalities." Thanks Bono, but no thanks. Unlike you, I am "encumbered by practicalities." You've just made my life as an African entrepreneur much, much more difficult.