Archive | November, 2011

The Rusesabagina product still stinks

22 Nov

Branding as everyone knows is a powerful marketing tool. In most people’s minds it is associated with attempts to sell a product by giving it an irresistible appeal. It matter less whether the product is needed or is of high quality.

Today, branding is used much more widely to market every conceivable thing, including selling individuals to a sceptical public. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, except when a thoroughly obnoxious individual is completely remade, packaged and hoisted on people as the very paragon of virtue.

This is what is happening to a certain insufferable Paul Rusesabagina. Here is a fellow with no other saving grace except a nose for money and an overriding desire to get it by whatever means – straight or crooked, but mostly crooked.

This otherwise nondescript character has been packaged and branded by non-Rwandans as a hero and the saviour of some one thousand Rwandans from the machetes of genocidal elements. He has lived by that brand for the better part of a decade. Now the brand is losing its market appeal. Or as happens in classical marketing strategy, a brand must always be refurbished to give the impression that the product is new and fresh.

So, our man is being rebranded – this time as a champion of human rights, a voice for the gagged, a brave man prepared to stare down the elected government of his homeland, a one-man political opposition. In short, a colossus of a man who treads where others do not dare.

Of course, all these attributes do not fit our manufactured hero. They are only the attractive wrapping and skilful packaging of a vain, scheming and lying man by his handlers. The latest of these is Katrina Lantos Swett of the US-based Lantos Foundation.

From the latest rebranding, it is clear whose hero our man is. He is not a hero for Rwandans – most will not touch him with a ten-metre pole. Ordinary Rwandans wouldn’t care less about what he does as long as he does not use them to sell himself – and sell himself he has, like Judas and others of similar ilk. 

Clearly this Paul is a creation of non-Rwandans with an agenda of their own. Like all creations, he is made in the image of his makers. He is, in this sense, their hero.

The curious question is: why is he being rebranded now?

I think there is a realisation that the saviour image won’t stick. There is simply too much evidence against such claims and too many people who know his human foibles very well. He could not have hidden everything from the prying eyes of foreign journalists, UN peace keepers and other expatriates, let alone the people he purportedly saved. The saviour image is in shreds.

And so, the saviour myth – for that’s what it is – cannot sell any more. The brand has lost its novelty and, of course, people have discovered that his is a contaminated product. Hence the need to rebrand to keep him in the market and make money for self, managers, image makers and a coterie of other profiteers.

You live a lie long enough and you begin to believe it. Fiction and fact become one. The fellow now foolishly believes in his crafted heroic and saviour image. Speaking at a ceremony during which the Lantos Foundation awarded him an award, he had the temerity to place himself in the same league as the Dalai Lama and Elie Weisel.

Said he, “I am an ordinary man” but feel greatly honoured to be held in the same light as “the towering figures” that the two men are. You would be excused to think this was straight from the mouth of Mark Antony, you know, the skilful disclaimer, “I have come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”

I am sure our man has no knowledge of such lines. They are the work of his managers. They should have been more honest and borrowed more from that famous speech and added: “The evil that men do lives after them…”

The vanity is clear. He is on the same moral stand as the “towering figures”. He shares the reverence and respect they inspire and yearns for the same influence they wield. But alas, despite all the imagination that has gone into creating a new brand image, he can never rise above the stature of a hybrid Shylock and Dracula.

Rusesabagina is not the only invention of clever, creative image makers. There are others like him whom we will not mention today. But they have another thing in common. They have all been fished from the same cesspool. And no matter how much colourful packaging and skilful marketing, the stench can never go away. We still have a stinking product.

They came to Rwanda, saw and believed

15 Nov

It is amazing, nay shocking, the level of ignorance people have about other countries. They remain insular, disconnected and bigoted in a world that has been shrunk and is increasingly connected by modern technology. The irony is that almost everyone has a prejudiced view of the other.
Take this report from the Times of India of Sunday, 13th November 2011 in which the author wonders how poor African can look after their women better than India does. The incredulity is apparently a result of the image of Africa the Indian middle class harbour. It is one of starvation and voodoo.
Now, there is no denying that famine strikes in parts of Africa from time to time. But to take that as representative image of Africa is stretching it too far. As for voodoo, many Africans wouldn’t know what that is.
The Africa posting consistent economic growth rates of more than six percent annually, of gleaming high rise buildings, modern infrastructure and world-class leaders in a variety of fields is unknown to the readers of the Times of India. Or some choose not to know it.
In a similarly ignorant manner, the enduring image of India among many Africans is that of the self-immolation of unhappy wives, or girls jumping to their death because of a tiff with a boyfriend. Other lingering images are those popularised by Mother Theresa – of starving, homeless, dying people littering the narrow streets of Calcutta waiting to be taken in by the sisters to be fed or to die in compassionate arms.
The other India – of international steel moguls, cutting edge information technology centres and high finance – is often forgotten. That India is an emerging economy on the same level with China and threatening the dominance of traditional Western economies remains only in the minds of pundits, international economists and business people, and in development discourse.
Some of these obviously incorrect views are a result of wilful ignorance. Others are a product of genuine lack of knowledge or laziness. None is excusable.
Again, take the case of Rwanda. In the last seventeen years, the country has made tremendous advances. Yet there remains a stubborn refusal in some quarters to acknowledge that Rwanda has made progress. The image of Rwanda that lingers, often out of choice, is of a country irreparably torn apart by war and genocide.
The consistent economic growth backed by figures and attested to by reputable international organisations does not seem to count. Advances in education and health are not real. The physical evidence of development may well be non-existent. Above all, the common decency of Rwandans is actually no such. It can only be timidity imposed by an ever watchful state.
And so, all the good things Rwandans have done are dismissed as empty propaganda by the government or as the praise songs of those who have been seduced and fallen in love with Rwanda for unexplained reasons. Or else the progress is explained away as only possible because of massive infusions of foreign aid.
The reasons for dismissal boil down to a desire to wish away a fact because it does not fit into a preconceived picture of what a developing country should be.
It was therefore a wonderful break from this predictable and studied disbelief last week when there was genuine appreciation of Rwanda’s progress. Participants from across the world attending a conference on peace building in Kigali were bowled over by what they saw in the country. Clearly, it was different from what they had heard or imagined.
You may attribute the gasps of eyes newly opened to what was thought impossible to a long tradition of not believing until you have seen. It did not start with Thomas. But it did not end with him either. People must still see the scars and put their hands into the hole in the side in order to believe, figuratively speaking.
But seeing and feeling makes for complete conversion and turns one into an ardent disciple. Indians from the State of Kerala can testify to the ardour of St Thomas.
The most positive remarks about Rwanda being where it is came from a very unlikely source – donors, who are often critical of national policies and diplomats well-known for their careful, non-committal utterances. This time they reeled off a long list of positives – Rwanda has come this far because it has committed leaders, designs and owns its own development strategies, the people are accountable and they use aid effectively.
Rwandans are not in the habit of chest-thumping. But I am sure they did not mind other people doing it on their behalf and for once getting the world to look at Rwanda without blinkers.
At the end of the conference I heard Rwandans express differing views about Rwanda’s progress. Some did not notice it because they took it for granted. Others were excited that outsiders had seen it too and approved. One could detect in this latter group another tendency close to Thomas’ doubt. Sometimes people won’t believe in their own abilities until they get approval from outside. Lack of confidence is as bad as prejudice.

Why it makes sense to invest in agriculture

1 Nov

Those of us who went to school a few decades ago were brought up on knowledge that agriculture was the backbone of African economies. That understanding sort of marked Africa apart from the industrialized world whose mainstay was manufacturing. It was even implied that Africa was doomed to remain that way.
Yes, there were suggestions of inferiority – no doubt because of the backward implements of African agriculture, the taxing physical labour and the deliberately cultivated contrasting comfort of non-agricultural work.
Understandably not many people saw their future in agriculture.
The last few years have changed that perception. Heavy manufacturing is in decline. Its place has been taken by information technology companies that thrive on lots of brains and not much brawn, on some hitherto unfashionable light minerals, and on limitless possibilities of application.
Whereas manufacturing might become the dinosaurs of industry, information technology is so adaptable, and even mutative, that it will surely survive industrial evolution.
Agriculture, too, will survive and become highly profitable, even without government subsidies as happens in the West. It will not be so much because of its evolutionary adaptability as the fact that we have not found a substitute for organic food. Genetically Modified Food has not quite caught on yet and will probably take a while to do that.
Agricultural profitability is ensured by the phenomenal growth in the world’s population. Yesterday we hit the seven billion mark. With all those mouths to feed, the smart money is in agriculture.
There are several other reasons why agriculture remains crucial.
One, as we have noted, has to do with the survival of the species on this earth. Despite many years of trying and trillions of dollars in the bargain, we have not yet found life supporting conditions anywhere else in our solar system.
Two, there is the angle of profit to the whole business of survival: there is money to be made from the very necessity for our continued existence.
Rwandans who are smart enough to have recognised this business opportunity are indeed minting money.
Of course they are cashing in on favourable agricultural policies. In Rwanda we have made food self-sufficiency a priority and we have largely succeeded. This has been mainly due to innovative use of available land such as crop intensification, better use of marshlands for maximum yields and irrigation. Then there are improved seeds, harvest management and better marketing systems.
We are not there yet. But still, there are many good things going for agriculture.
For one, farmers have learnt that the benefits of agriculture go beyond simply food self-sufficiency. They realise that there is money to be made from a growing population and an increasing urbanisation in Africa, both of which ensure that there will always be demand. Africa has the fastest growing population and urbanisation rates.
Secondly, the current high food prices are good for farmers. The World Bank reports that in the last two years food prices went up 505 and that while this hurt the middle class, it benefited the farmers. The bank also projects that the high prices will hold for the next twenty years or more.
And thirdly, modern technology is changing the image and fortunes of farmers.
The African farmer of the future will not be the rough, barefoot, illiterate, hoe-wielding peasant. He is more likely to be a smart, technology savvy person, clutching an I-pad (or whatever the latest fad in information technology will be), checking the weather forecasts and market trends. He will use the most up to date technology to follow the latest in agricultural research and technology, and the advanced farming methods and inputs. All of which will multiply output several-fold.
Sounds futuristic and overly optimistic? Not exactly. It is already happening. It may have taken long coming to Africa, but it sure will. That is another reason for singing the praises of modern information technology. It is pervasive and easy to use.
In any case when we start imagining what the future will look like, that us an indication that it is already with us. And the optimism is what keeps us going. It feeds our search for answers to various challenges and helps move us forward.
And so, as there are mouths to be fed – and there are no indications of a slowdown in population growth – there is still money to be made from tilling the land.