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Mbilia Bel

Africa is a vast continent with diversity of cultures. Rather than see this as an impediment to development, the continent should take advantage of this rich cultural diversity in its quest for economic development and should change the attitudes of its people towards work, interpersonal trust, time, youth and women.

There are probably as many different definitions of culture as there are different cultures. According to Zimmermann (2015), “culture is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habitats, music and arts”. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO, 2016) has adopted a broad definition, stating that culture is "that complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, laws, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by [a human] as a member of society."

Some scholars maintain that culture is closely entwined with economic development, others fervently disagree, arguing that the effects of geography and climate are the most significant factors in shaping global economic development. This theory is supported by Jared Diamond (1999) in his book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, where he argues that geographical and environmental factors shaped the modern world.

This implies that the striking differences between the long-term histories of different people on different continents are due not to innate differences between the people themselves but to differences between their environments. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the exceptions to Diamond’s rule are too numerous for us to accept geography and natural resources as the only explanation for differences in history and culture. Take, for example, Russia, which occupies the same latitude as highly prosperous Northern Europe and Canada. Look at Singapore, which lies almost on the Equator and is most definitely in the tropics, along with many of the world’s poorest nations. Consider the world’s poorest country, Sierra Leone, which sits on some of the world’s largest diamond deposits.

In consequence, it is difficult to have a single, uniform definition of culture, in particular insofar as it relates to development, because the concept is so fluid and dynamic. This constraint notwithstanding, there are several examples of best cultural practices in development. An interesting case study of the role played by cultural values in development is provided by Japan and its history of economic success. In Japan, a combination of cultural values and practical business transformed a relatively backward economy into one of the most prosperous nations in the world in less than a century, with the majority of the gains being achieved in the last 50 years largely on the back of an aggressive export trade policy. In the aftermath of World War II, the emphasis on trade stemmed from Japan's lack of the natural resources needed to support its industrial economy, notably fossil fuels and most minerals; in addition, the limited amount of arable land forced the country to import much of its food needs. The values central to Japan's spectacular achievements and rapid elevation to the world's third largest economic power include, but are not limited to, its strong work ethic; entrenched sense of group responsibility; company loyalty; interpersonal trust; implicit contracts that bind individual conduct; and commitment to education and investment in young people.

Can we, as development planners, take lessons from the example of Japan? One thing is clear. We cannot take a set of cultural values from one country and hope to implant them in another society. Japan was successful because it built its economy on its own home-grown values. Looking specifically at the development trajectory of Africa, we are forced to conclude that, while there are many aspects of African culture that can be used positively for the development of the continent, some aspects of African culture have delayed progress.

In view of the above, this paper briefly examines some of the cultural factors that have had a negative impact on the economic development of African countries and thereafter considers some cultural assets and their potential held by the continent namely, African music, cultural tourism and films.

Strong work ethic

Africa has many cultural values and beliefs. Successful organizations believe in competition and rely on the hard work, commitment and loyalty of their employees. Interestingly, many African employees of major multinationals have worked hard and given exemplary service which has helped to make these companies profitable. Instructive examples of this are legion, including Lonrho in East Africa and mining companies in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia.

A typical example is the case of foreign mining companies in South Africa, such as De Beers, which traditionally were very keen to recruit Basotho workers and also nationals of other neighbouring countries to work in their mines because they were so dependable and hard working. Ironically, when these Basotho miners and those of other nationalities returned home in 1994, many of them failed to find work because they had no experience in areas outside the mining industry. Many former miners were unable to adjust easily and take on other, unrelated but available, jobs without upgrading their skills.

By and large, there are marked differences between the working attitudes and values of those Africans who have worked for foreign companies and those who have always worked for themselves. Specifically, those Africans who worked for foreign employers learned discipline and commitment to the companies for which they worked, and this helped them to manage their own businesses as individuals. Apart from these cases of individuals who worked for foreign firms, there are also African communities which are reputed to have great business acumen or entrepreneurial skills and whose members are versatile in various sectors of their economies. Examples of such peoples include the Chaga in Tanzania, the Serahule in the Gambia, the Fulas in Guinea, Mali, the Niger and other nearby countries, the Ibos and Hausas in Nigeria, and the Kikuyu in Kenya.

In the rural areas of Africa, Okafor (1974) noted that, in days gone by, when a job had to be done the whole community would turn out with supplies and music and proceed to sing and dance through to the successful conclusion of each particular chore. In those days, this generous solidarity brought the community together. This sense of solidarity, however, has declined over the last few decades.


According to the Japanese, interpersonal trust is an important cultural strength, especially in large corporations, and if a person loses this trust he or she brings shame to the entire family. There have even been occasions where people have been forced to commit suicide. In Africa, as a consequence of colonization, most of the traditional cultural values have been eroded or weakened, in particular, the concept of trust. In many African countries people do not trust their governments because they feel that they are not doing much to reduce unemployment and poverty or to combat corruption. In Japan, if a senior government official is accused of corruption, the official immediately resigns to face the law. In Africa, nobody resigns; if anything, they will fight back and claim that their detractors are on a witch-hunt.

In Africa, at the business level, the concept of trust is selective. For example, in fields such as law and medicine there are some professionals who share facilities but maintain separate and distinct accounts. In family-owned small and medium-sized enterprises, it often happens that family members find it difficult to get along together once the head of the family dies. In some cases, siblings and children start fighting, resulting in protracted legal suits.

In general, there is much suspicion and mistrust in many African societies, particularly in the area of business, leading business people to keep everything within the family rather than seek productive and forward-looking partnerships, as is the successful model in developed countries.

Extended family syndrome

Developing societies cannot afford the luxury of a social welfare system. As Okafor (1974) acknowledged, in African society everyone is accommodated through the extended family system. Consequently, if a family has one relatively successful member, that fortunate person is expected to provide school fees, medical care, clothing, housing, and even pocket money for many others. While this system has merits – it encourages a charitable disposition and fosters cohesive family loyalties – in some instances it is exploited and abused by members of the family. In this way, it can even create dependency instead of encouraging siblings to try to stand on their own two feet. Moreover, these siblings are rarely appreciative and they may even gang up on their beneficiary.

This is a narrative sometime employed in Nigerian films of the “Nollywood” genre, which explores how, when the big man dies, his kinsmen try to take his assets from his wife and children. In addition, the demands of the extended family may prevent the successful family leader from investing in a way that could permanently improve the living standards of the entire family. Furthermore, when poorer relatives become envious and want a share of the successful family member’s properties and assets, the successful family member becomes isolated and is discouraged from further helping the extended family.

Concept of time

It is often remarked, anecdotally, that the concept of time in Africa is somewhat flexible by comparison with that of developed countries. There seems to be some substance to this popular cliché, however. Several African scholars argue that, despite the importance of time-keeping in some traditional customs, Africans as a rule are not good at keeping time. In their traditional milieu, however, Africans were compelled by certain routines to strictly respect time. For instance, there were particular times when certain rituals had to take place, such as a sacrifice. That said, in post-colonial Africa, many things have changed, including the attitude to time-keeping. Those working in the private sector who must reach work on time are placed under particular pressure by this post-colonial lackadaisical attitude.

Those working for the public sector do not always observe the same constraints, however. Thus, if a good turnout is needed for planned meetings, constant reminders must be sent and follow-up is essential in all areas of interaction. In some African countries, participants in workshops or seminars have to be given incentives not only to attend but also to be on time. Unfortunately, most developed countries expect that activities be completed in a timely fashion. Consequently, many African business people find it difficult to compete on the global market and a number of them have lost their contracts because they have not met their deadlines.

Job discrimination

Until recently there were some jobs that Africans would not take. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s many Africans in major towns and cities had a tendency to avoid certain jobs because of cultural or sexual stereotypes. Men were reluctant to work as cleaners, cooks, janitors or waiters in hotels and, if they did, they would say that they were still looking for a proper job or were doing a temporary job while they looked for a permanent one. They were hoping to be clerks, soldiers, policemen and drivers. Given our weak economies, featuring high unemployment and poverty, all available vacancies or jobs should be highly competitive and should be filled by willing recruits without discrimination as to gender or cultural considerations.

Next steps

On the positive side, there are some areas where the African people display their cultural talents and are making very good progress, namely in music and cinema. To do this they have had to embrace the western norms of cooperation and partnership, as well as coordination, creativity, and innovation.

Cooperation and partnership

For example, during the fight against apartheid in South Africa, freedom fighters sought unity in their songs in the battle against their oppressors. Most of the former political prisoners on Robben Island, such as former President Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu acknowledge that liberation songs were not only a morale booster but also fueled and united them to continue fighting until they were free. Southern Africa abounds with talented musicians and dancers, and this asset has been harnessed in scaling up the country’s creative economy.

Moreover, it is a cultural tradition among Africans that, whenever a community assignment needs to be performed, community members will come forward with their musical instruments, including drums, and will play and sing to their kinfolk working on the task and encourage them to get the job done.

Another example of the valuable cultural capital inherent in African societies may be seen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), which continues to produce talented and gifted musicians, such as M’billia Bel, Koffi Olomide, and Papa Wemba . With the support of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, they were able to engage in cooperation and partnership amongst various Congolese music groups to spread their music all over Africa, and into Europe and North America. As part of this cultural revolution, their music became a source of pride and patriotism in their country – which had suffered brutal civil wars since independence in 1961.

According to SXSW Schedule (2012), over the last few decades the African music industry, both traditional and modern, has grown exponentially and has had a direct impact on African economies. There are now small-scale vendors who have established local laboratories to produce music for sale: despite the low market cost, music has the potential to create jobs, which in turn will reduce poverty.

In this connection, African governments should take advantage of this huge asset and support African music, both traditional and modern, as part of their cultural reforms. If Africa is to reap the considerable potential benefits of this great asset, however, it will need not only to strengthen its copyright laws in order to prevent piracy, but also to enhance its partnership and cooperation with the private sector to scale up this sector.

Creativity, innovation and teamwork

Another cultural manifestation which merits closer consideration is African cinema. According to Koichiro Matsuura, the former UNESCO Director-General, “films and video production are shining examples of how cultural industries, as vehicles of identity, values and meanings, can open the door to dialogue and understanding between peoples, but also to economic growth and development” (UNESCO, 2009). Thus, African cinema is an expression of the continent’s cultural identity, and demonstrates its endeavour to overcome foreign influences and develop its own voice. Moreover, African films have enabled many people to gain insights in Africa’s creativity, innovation and talents.

Despite a number of challenges that the film industry is facing in Africa, including financial constraints, piracy, problems in distributing films to the market, and the lack of a proper regulatory framework, Moudio (2013) confirms that African film is not only an entertainment industry, it is an important  money-maker. This is certainly the case with the Nigerian film industry, which currently employs over 1 million people, making it the country’s largest employer after agriculture (Moudio, 2013). In addition, the output of the Nigerian film industry– known as “Nollywood”– has a massive following in Africa and among the African diaspora around the world. The former Nigerian president  Goodluck Jonathan, who was a great supporter of Nollywood, proclaimed it as the country’s shining light and insisted that every effort be made to ensure that this light continued to shine.

Apart from Nigeria, the film industry has continued to grow in many African countries such as South Africa, Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Egypt, Morocco, and Angola. South Africa has seen a steady rise in both the quality and reputation of its films. A South African film – Tsotsi – won the 2006 Academy award for the best foreign language film. Because of its favourable weather, South Africa has provided locations for a number of major blockbusters, such as Mad Max: Fury Road, Blood Diamond (starring Leonardo Di Caprio), and Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood.

These are all positive signs that the African Industry is breaking its traditional cultural boundaries. What the industry needs now are cultural ambassadors, strong political support and will, and financial support from the continent’s private sector and its development partners. The support extended by Goodluck Jonathan to Nollywood is particularly instructive in this regard. There can be no doubt that if African leaders encourage and promote African films the benefits will be immeasurable. Across its many countries, the continent represents an enormous market of over I billion people. This offers an unprecedented opportunity for Africa, which it should not neglect. It offers prospects for reducing unemployment, in particular among young graduates, and this, in turn, will reduce poverty and raise living standards in the countries concerned. With small budgets, the African film industry has been able to embrace some of its cultural talents such as teamwork, creativity and innovation.


Culture is indeed a vital factor to be taken into consideration when discussing or contemplating action in development. Africa is a vast continent with a huge diversity of cultural norms and practices. There are great variations among its regions, countries and ethnic groups and this needs to be recognized. Rather than see this as an impediment to development, the continent should take advantage of this rich cultural diversity in its quest for economic development and should change its attitude towards work, interpersonal trust, time, youth and women. Successes in Botswana (Hanson, 2008), Mauritius (Zafar, 2011) and other countries prove that Africans can be punctual, innovative, entrepreneurial and forward-looking. In addition, much greater use should be made of the creative talents available in the continent, of its drama, films and music as effective tools for raising awareness among the African people of the need for education and for a change in their negative attitudes and values to boost their economic development.

At the same time, we must accept that the attributes which underpinned the rapid success of countries like Japan and other developed countries will take time to take root in Africa.  To improve its economies, the culture of good governance cannot be seen as a distant luxury, to be aspired to but avoided in practice: to boost economic development all important cultural values must be in place and must be governed by transparency, accountability, trustworthiness and empowerment. Like Japan, each individual African country should build its own economy based on its home-grown cultural values. The successes of African films (Nollywood) and African music are instructive.

* Ambassador Dr. John O. Kakonge is a sustainable development consultant and adviser.


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Moudio, R. (2013). “Nigeria’ film industry: a potential gold mine?” Africa Renewal. Available at:

Okafor F. C (1974) Africa at Crossroads, New York, P.22

Shah, V. (2015). “The role of music in human culture”. Available at: the- role-of-music-in-human-culture 

SXSW Schedule (2012). “Banking beats: Africa’s music economy”. Available at:

UNESCO (2009). “Nollywood rivals Bollywood in film/video production”. Available at

UNESCO (2016). “Learning to Live Together”. Available at: http: // New/en/social-and-human-sciences/themes/international.

Zafar A. (2011): “Mauritius: an economic success story” in: Yes Africa Can. Success Stories from a Dynamic Continent. Eds. Punam Chuhan-Pole and Manka Angwafo. World Bank, Washington DC, 2011.Available at:  Zimmermann, K. A. (2015). “Definition of culture”. Available at:



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