Survival of the fittest

Msafiri’s new business columnist, Nkem Ifejika, believes that adaptability leads to good problem-solving skills

SurvivalFittestOne of my favourite experiments is the Duncker’s candle problem. The participant gets a box of drawing pins, a candle and a book of matches on a table. They’re then asked to attach the lit candle to a cork board wall without the wax dripping onto the surface below. Researchers at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management in Chicago found that MBA students who had lived abroad were more likely to solve the problem than those who hadn’t.

The researchers explained that living somewhere else meant getting used to a different environment, and having to come up with creative ways to solve new challenges.

I have two stories that illustrate why young Africans would be well equipped to solve the candle conundrum.

Growing up in Lagos, friends would gather on a multi-purpose piece of red earth on our street. It served as a football pitch, after-school classroom, venue for parties and much else. We’d go there to fly kites we’d made from old newspapers, broomsticks, and thread borrowed on hundred-year leases from our parents’ sewing machines. We even glued our kites with eba (like ugali only stickier). They didn’t sell kites in our neighbourhood convenience store, so we adapted.

The second story is about Monica. I met her in Malawi. She works for the AYISE Bangwe youth centre, just outside Blantyre. As with (too) much in Malawi, it’s funded by several international aid organisations. Monica lost her father at age nine, a difficult trauma for anyone to deal with, let alone a family of little means. Sadly such stories are told a million times across Africa. As her family couldn’t afford to send her to school, she began hawking on the streets.

Where Monica’s mates might have been consigned to destitution, she knew she had to go back to school, and began saving the money she made from selling biscuits and sweets. Everything she made was kept in milk tins under her bed. She did this for two years until she could afford to return to school. Through the work of the youth centre she now helps young people who are trapped in similar situations.

Evolution is based on survival of the fittest. Just as people have to adapt or die, so does business. What matters is what works. If they’re not buying it, you’re either selling the wrong thing or selling it wrong. Tech entrepreneurs talk about the ‘pivot’ – being able to switch from one idea to another very quickly, in keeping with trends and demand.

African business, it turns out, is also full of adaptation. There’s the well-told history of mobile money in Kenya. People used the value of mobile phone credit in lieu of currency. Safaricom adapted to this unusual version of its service by creating M-Pesa, and now thrives; a pivot which added financial transactions to the competencies of a mobile phone company.

It’s recently been announced that M-Pesa is expanding into Eastern Europe. The potential now exists for it to become a truly global African brand. And all from the African knack for adapting to circumstances.

So, how did you get on with the candle problem? And remember, no googling!