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[connecting the dots] The real reason why Africa struggles with eCommerce and Airlines

Well said Patrick

From: kictanet <kictanet-bounces+info=elvisjonyo.co.ke@lists.kictanet.or.ke> On Behalf Of Patrick A. M. Maina via kictanet
Sent: Thursday, March 7, 2019 11:10 AM
To: info@elvisjonyo.co.ke
Cc: Patrick A. M. Maina <pmaina2000@yahoo.com>
Subject: [kictanet] [connecting the dots] The real reason why Africa struggles with eCommerce and Airlines

Dear Listers,

Whenever we have a spectacular failure in industry, we rush to attribute it to one or many of the five factors below:

1. Management competence (e.g. manifests through “culture” and/or lack of responsiveness to new/non-standard challenges; lack of awareness that competence is situational)

2. Failed Strategy (e.g. markets respond better to competitors or are already locked-in. Strategy can fail even where the management is highly competent.)

3. Corruption / conflicts of interest (includes nepotism, procurement challenges e.g. unethical vendor practices or blatant theft)

4. External factors (e.g. global economic / geopolitical dynamics)

5. Force Majeure (sudden unforeseeable calamities – whether natural or man-made)

I’d like to put forward one reason, unique to Africa, that is seldom raised or addressed, yet it in many cases could be the primary reason why many African businesses struggle to remain viable despite adopting business models that succeed in other countries: The biggest obstacle for most African businesses is the structural operating environment. Simply put, Africa doesn’t scale.

* Scale is the reason that KQ’s economic doom was sealed in 1977 when East African Airways was dissolved.

* Scale (not trust or delivery infrastructure) is the reason eCommerce simply can’t and won’t work in Africa (yet works in India) under the current circumstances.

Certain types of businesses are simply not viable without scale. It doesn’t matter what strategy, caliber of management or whatever else is used. Without scale, you have to swim upstream and perform miracles. No wonder we tell tourists that Kenya / Africa is “Magical”. Only a magician can do certain businesses in Africa – under current circumstances.

For example KQ earns >Ksh. 100Billion annually. Where does the money go? Do you know who really benefits from African Airlines failure to leverage scale? Here’s my list:

1. International Vendors (Equipment / Systems / Fuel)

2. International Hedge funds (e.g. Price / Currency hedges)

3. International Insurance.

4. Prioritized creditors (most likely international)

5. International Airports.

The only country that doesn’t get paid is Kenya. Due to lack of scale, we end up literally giving financial aid to rich countries. This is not a smart thing for a poor country to do.

Scale benefits are (in part) what makes Delta Airlines, for example, operate with double digit margins, earn Ksh. 4.4 Trillion in a year (enough to run our country for almost 2 years without borrowing) which translates to Ksh. 1.3 Billion DAILY PBT (profits before tax). Yes, a daily profit of Ksh. 1.3 Billion. That kind of performance is not magical – it’s just smart application of basic economics and intelligent (strategically meaningful) politics + policies.

eCommerce? USPS (et. al) operation at scale is what made Amazon possible at scale. Prosperity is not just about efficiency – the size of market matters. It matters a lot!

Africa combined is the 8th largest economy in the world yet as individual countries we barely register on the global radar. Individual African countries are simply not viable. No amount of aid or borrowing will fix scale deficiencies – in fact, the lack of scale is what makes our current national debts worrisome and risky!

The idea of “national pride” carriers is ancient and obsolete. We need Pan-African Champion Airlines (where countries buy shares in not more than three Pan-African Airlines – North, Central and South). This would immediately dissolve the perceived (delusional) national advantage of self-imposed barriers to open skies and regional trade.

The current heavy reliance on international markets is not smart at all (we are highly exposed to global shocks and geopolitics); it should be supplemented by sensible and massive intra-Africa trade.

Pan-Africanism is not a sentimental idea, it is a rational and intelligent economic strategy. It is the only way to create a common and unified mindset that will unlock scale in Africa.

Thankfully a good number of African leaders and technocrats are recognizing these challenges, hence the AfCFTA (African Continental Free Trade Area) initiative, which requires ratification of the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM), the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons, and the African Passport, as part of the integration process.

As business people it is in our interest to support these initiatives as much as we can – but also to be vigilant of powerful (foreign state-backed) resource-extraction MNCs that would want to hijack or sabotage Africa’s integration because it spoils their centuries-long plunder party.

How does my argument hold, in view of success stories like Equity and/or Safaricom? In science, we disprove arguments by looking for a ‘black swan” (just a single instance of contradiction) – are they not the Black Swans? Nope! Equity and Safaricom have certain common business model aspects which allow them to operate “successfully” with limited scale. The most obvious being network effects – but there are other non-obvious factors which are out of scope of this article. Still these are still tiny and fragile operations relative to their scale-leveraged counterparts which earn tens of billions of shillings in revenues daily (and trillions annually). Our culture of mediocrity is what makes us celebrate our (relative) minions. Failure to think in terms of scale is dangerous.. it leads to (or encourages) predatory corporate behavior, comfort zones, mediocrity and other mental barriers.

Thanks for reading. I welcome your thoughts on the above.

Good day & Brgds,

Patrick A. M. Maina

[Cross Domain Innovator | Independent Public Policy Analyst – Indigenous Innovations]

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