A Tanzanian Perspective: Does Culture Acts a Catalyst Shaping Society or Barrier?

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Culture plays a fundamental role in the outcomes of any society. The famous quote about society getting what it celebrates masks a lot of meaning from the first reading, but upon reflection, it gives deeper meanings which are not immediately obvious. Our culture does not tolerate failure. This means that many first-generation risk-takers will only attempt to do things on the edge of commonality. The view culture constrains the vector of possibilities of failure.

The most ambitious pursuits in terms of scale often encircle farming (Agribusiness) is a catchy phrase adopted to sanitize agriculture; however, it embodies all the past processes and is void of any new technology apart from drones for taking pictures and water sprinklers which are as old as agriculture itself. The expectation is that it should not have been very hard to disprove the agriculture thesis as an economic pathway to prosperity.

If science is any guidance, Karl Popper’s thought experiment should apply. Popper argued that “empirical truth cannot be known with absolute certainty, and even scientific theories can’t be verified beyond a shadow of doubt. They can only be falsified by testing” He also insisted that one only needs one failed test to falsify a claim. Still, no amount of conforming instances is sufficient to verify. From his point of view, Tanzania’s agriculture does not pass the Popperian test. However, it survives the conformist experiment.

The idea that the technology of ambition explains what happens in certain societies is well exemplified in our society. The confirmed high IQ generation, be by the higher learning institutions or otherwise, spends their marginally earned capital investing in short-term (less risk) activities such as poultry and other consumables (the meme economy). You will struggle to find high-risk investment areas; the feedback is 10 or 25 years.

Even the previous national development plan entail ideas which are so obvious you would not need someone to hire a committee for them. The riskless portfolio often includes agriculture and its complements and nothing on the unknown orthogonal. Yet we all agree that the future is unknown and must be treated with a multidimensional plan.

Our culture also lacks technical accomplishments from our universities and high-learning institutions financed by our financial system. The 10% lending rates afforded to farmers or maintained their fancy name agriprenuers the Bank of Tanzania is a sign that we are the ultimate conformist with single consensus. Any such deviation won’t be tolerated. Both the financial sector and government policies do not reward outside the traditional perimeter. It is dangerous for any generation to dream outside their culture in terms of productivity matrix.

Even our financial system engages more in casino behaviour between each other than financing productivity. It is not such an outlandish stand to claim that Vikoba (stockvels) finance a large part of productivity in Tanzania compared to the financial sector. We go back to the type of risk and reward matrix that exists within our culture.

To reinforce this, in Tanzania, we have approximately 50 banks, yet their footprint is scant, and the largest financial highway is from telecommunication operators, which have created countless mini ATMs across the country as the last mile banking, charging margins from each transaction.

Technicians of these highways call themselves fintech startups and hold conferences to discuss the 5th industrial revolution and AI. One would have thought that an institution that hires north of 1000 people and pays billions of salary shillings would have produced something bigger than what 100 people in a start-up would build.

The central bank, out of shame of looking irrelevant, finds new frontiers to regulate, and that is a vikoba of women located in areas the bank has never set foot in its entire existence. So, the most productive financial sector now has to follow regulations designed by an institution which could not innovate in the first place. If you ask me, one would have expected that the bank leave things which are working and making it look like it is doing a great job on it is mandated conviction of fighting inflation.

I suppose one will opine on the bad actors in vikoba and the need for regulation, however how has it been regulating itself? Second, what is the delta of, say, BoT regulations in Vikoba performance? What could be the returns of such effort if placed in other areas besides Vikoba? If BoT, as a regulator, failed to control bad actors in “Halmashauri” loans, which are taxpayers’ money, what would make us trust that they can do in a new area?

The interesting thing about Vivoba is that anyone can be a member of that community, and then the rules of that community apply to you as well, in contrast to the legacy financial sector, which creates tranches of KYC for different participants. The only critique of the Vivoba ecosystem will be its non-scalability.

On risk, the member’s network is similar to insurance use of the law of large numbers to minimize risk and the loan return cycle makes vikoba NPL (lowest non-performing loan) I know. This does not exclude those blown-out events of imprudence from the intellectual class-designed scams and appropriate others of their hard-earned cash.

The second strand of risk is the intolerance of first-generational success. Our culture does not tolerate or even celebrate first-generational success. Visibly, the common conversation one hear about successful people are associated with wild attributes such as witchcraft (easily falsifiable), or other odd convenient, simple and varying explanations (not that credible and hard truth does not vary). The implication of this is that many first-generation successes are often the mirror image of past success (not new), not ambitious-just matching the past.

The young generation’s aspiration to build things that transform key aspects of our society is not only a technological challenge but also a cultural challenge. There is agreement on what problems we are going to solve and which ones we are not going to solve.

As a young person, you need to achieve all these accepted success metrics quickly to move on to do other things outside this agreed matrix. However, to do this, one will need to ignore the status quo and accelerate on how to get out of the consensus cycle. Understand that you can take many risks, provided that none of them is fatal.

You can build many things that initially seem impossible and are not within the reach of your abilities. You can also leverage dead talent to build on whatever you want to build. But initially solve the lowest denominator first, then leverage it to scale up.

This year I spend time reading a lot about complexity economics, and my lesson has been, that wherever you can find the complex product, you are likely to have greater per capita GDP. It is also true that wherever you find ubiquitous, non-complex products, destitution is also high. So, one will probably do well in increasing the production of various complex products over time. Interestingly, even the lack of variation in the products from the high-density resource in a place also signals sclerosis in technology.

An example is one can have maize, but when you count products out of maize as an input, you find very little besides the common old set. A phenomenon like this calls into question all the investments made per sector countrywide.

Suppose the government invests X amount into research and development, and at the same time, year after year, no commercially produced product is on the market’s shelves locally or globally. Why can’t it do a self-analysis and change the path? The innovation winter in our country has to change. Young people will be rewarded immensely if they put their energies into building(innovating) solutions which create markets.

In 2022, Nyerere would have been 100 years old. If you are Tanzanian and happen to travel across the country, you are guaranteed to find his sculptures in many cities as a national hero-deservingly so. Yet Nyerere sculpture should also inspire other questions: where are the sculptures equivalent in science, technology, etc.? What does the absence of other heroes’ sculptures tell of the malaise of our culture? Surely the long arrows of history did not start in 1922 and end in 1961.

It is obviously in everyone’s best interest to do something that has a proportionally high risk but also a huge upside if it works. Maybe invest both time and money in building a product that, in 10 years, if it works, makes all other achievements footnotes. Preferably, that is a desirable culture and probably needs to be tolerated and encouraged often. Have a minimal budgetary allocation on risk areas which long feedback loops.

Regarding leadership risk, CMM leadership behaviour has exhibited a stable, narrow distribution in the past. This did help in informing investment decisions of the private sector. As the say goes capital goes where it is well come and stay where it is well respected. If FDI data are any guidance, the past 60 years show that Tanzania has been risky for capital investment. Looking in the future, the ballot is still out. Will the party leadership management’s narrow distribution on the negative side change? Hard to tell.

Just as anything else, reform start from the part and never the whole. Thus, as a society, we owe to do a continuous auditing of our culture in terms of science, traditions and even religions. As a society, we need to work hard to increase the risk spectrum and variance of things we can do with more risk. However, most cultures have to see risks differently. The state has a big role to play in shaping culture and tradition. To assume otherwise is tantamount to making a grave mistake.

“Man creates culture and through culture creates himself” Pope John Paul II

Ezekiel Lengaram is a Researcher in Economics at Wits University. My teaching and research focus are on the theory of Macroeconomics, Computational Economics and Applied Computational Mathematics

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