Commercialising Africa: Money, Values and Neoliberalism

We bring together five researchers who are speaking at the European Conference on African Studies in Edinburgh, Scotland, to discuss capitalism, money and commercialisation on the continent. Marine Al Dahdah explains that sub-Saharan Africa has been at the epicentre of mobile money and an experimental terrain for the mobile economy. Adam Rodgers Johns argues that the entry of capital into Tanzanian football has been embraced by local actors as a positive move towards greater professionalisation and legitimacy, but all is not as it seems. Olivier Graefe and Antje Schlottmann look at the complexity of commercialisation of wildlife in Namibia and the implications for humans, nature, and animals. Fatimah Kelleher argues that consumerist interpretations of market access as a panacea for African women’s income inequality present ethical concerns that need an urgent feminist response. All authors look at the commercialisation of previously-less-commercialised sectors as  key developments in neoliberal Africa (the five contributors spoke on a panel convened by Jörg Wiegratz and Catherine Dolan on ‘Commercialising Africa: money, values, visions, dissonances’). 


‘Top up your health access’: when a mobile phone delivers health coverage to sub-Saharan Africa.

By Marine Al Dahdah

Ann has just arrived at a clinic in Kibera (Kenya) – the largest slum in Africa – this is the first time she has not given birth at home. She showed her mobile phone to get to the workroom without spending money, a revolution in her country where from transportation to birth certificate, women have to pay to deliver a baby. But to get free health insurance, Ann has to use a specific mobile app. Indeed, generous donors in exchange of health data collected by the app are paying for Ann’s health coverage. Our research is focusing on mobile-based projects that promise to improve financial accessibility of healthcare. It compares different programs, like this one, deployed by Telcos in Africa in the past years to finance access to healthcare through mobile money services.

Mobile phones are the world most used information and communication device. During the last five years, many health actors as well as mobile phone operators have promoted the potential benefits of mHealth and launched numerous mobile digital projects throughout the world. According to their promoters, mobile technologies offer tremendous improvements in the health sector. Presented as a cost effective technology, it will rationalise and even reduce health expenditures, it will simplify payments and avoid unpaid bills and irrecoverable entitlements for health institutions. By avoiding unnecessary hospitalisations, over-consumption of health products or costly treatment interruption, mHealth will be a source of significant savings. In developing countries where banking enrolment is lower, mHealth is matched with mobile banking services – called mMoney or mBanking – mobile services that allow individuals to pay or cover their health expenses via their mobile money: a service in which the mobile phone is used to access financial services.

For the past years, sub-Saharan Africa has been the fastest growing market for mMoney both in terms of registered as well as active accounts, hosting more than half of them. Across sub-Saharan Africa, one in three mobile connections is linked to a mobile money account. Of all sub-regions, East Africa recorded the highest level of mobile money penetration (55%), which is more than twice the level of smartphone penetration (19.4%). Kenya showing the highest level of mMoney penetration rate in the world with 58% of adults using mMoney and the vast majority of them through the Safaricom M-PESA wallet. Nineteen Sub-Saharan countries had more mobile money accounts than bank accounts in 2015. Thus, sub-Saharan Africa has been the epicentre of mobile money and an experimental terrain for many stakeholders of the mobile economy.

The conjunction of mHealth and mMoney is giving birth to a new form of health coverage recently flourishing in sub-Saharan Africa. Mobile money for health advocates offer to improve access to healthcare, through creating public-private partnerships (PPP) and interoperability across systems, such as between businesses offering micro-insurance products and public institutions like the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) in Kenya. According to them, mobile money will help to perform faster, more transparent and targeted health payments through health e-vouchers and dedicated mobile health savings wallets but also to process insurance claims, allowing healthcare consumers and providers to interact more efficiently. I analyse two different programs deployed in Kenya launched by the two most prominent mobile operators: Safaricom the Kenyan subsidiary of Vodafone (UK), and Bharti Airtel the Indian mobile operator.

In one of the most ‘uninsured’ parts of the world, these programs constitute a commercial response to a burning international public health issue: universal health coverage. Shedding light on the lack of a welfare state, these services promise their first health coverage to Africans that fall into debt to cover medical costs. Because mobile markets in Africa are dominated by prepaid users – 90% of customers buy credit as they go and repeatedly switch operators – mobile based health insurances are strongly related to the construction of sustainable and profitable mobile markets in a competitive and unstable African context. Indeed, health coverage comes here as a ‘stickiness’ program; a bonus for loyal customers and a way to keep them. Our research analyses strategies, and resistances that characterize these programs and highlight the market implications. Based on qualitative research, I analyse strategies, achievements, failures and detours that characterise these mHealth programs.

Marine Al Dahdah is a sociologist, an IFRIS fellow at Cermes3, Paris, France, and a research associate at CSH-Delhi, India. She holds a PhD in Sociology from Paris Descartes University. She has been working on the use of mobile phones and digital tools to improve health in Asia and Africa.


Commercialisation of Football in Tanzania

By Adam Rodgers Johns

In the social science literature on commercialisation in Africa, we see commercialisation portrayed as a negative force: transnational corporations coming in from the outside, appropriating the local and controlling the local economic environment. Similarly, the literature on football portrays commercialisation of the ‘beautiful game’ as a negative force, profit making, privatisation and rising ticket prices leading to the sanitisation of the atmosphere in stadiums. However, in the context of football in Tanzania, we see a very different story of commercialisation.

Instead of the portrayal of capital as curse, the entry of capital is embraced by local actors as a positive move towards greater professionalisation and legitimacy. There is very little anti-corporate sentiment among supporters, who believe that success is only possible through increasing commercialisation and the investment of capital.

Football in Tanzania has long been synonymous with the national rivalry between Simba and Yanga, support which roughly divides the nation in half. These teams originally operated a supporter owned model, relying on membership for donations, however they are currently transitioning to a privately owned model: selling shares and becoming companies. The privatisation of these supporter owned clubs is embraced by fans as a move towards economic self-reliance and independence, away from a dependence on contributions.

There is irony in the fact that these clubs are depending on private investors in the hope of being independent in the future. This begs the question, although private investors are enabling the team in the present, will they ever be truly self-reliant?

The concept of self-reliance – ‘kujitegemea’ in Kiswahili – is deeply embedded in Tanzanian history. Julius Nyerere’s postcolonial socialist state called for the ‘self-reliance’ of the nation from European powers. Furthermore, the self-reliance of the individual is central to neoliberal ideology. It’s clear that there are different types of self-reliance which must be considered in conversation on the commercialisation of football in Tanzania.

The limitations of commercialisation have been brought to the fore recently with the takeover of Simba by Mohammed “Mo” Gulamabbas Dewji, CEO of MeTL Group, one of Tanzania’s largest companies. His investment led to an initial period of success, as Simba reached the quarter final of the African champions league for the first time in 20 years. He has the support of the majority of the fan-base, who believe his love of the club and desire for it to succeed are genuine. However, there are also suggestions that he wants the club to remain reliant on his capital and to be unable to function without him.

Moreover there are significant political limitations to commercialisation: the protection of political interests which are threatened by these developments. For example, it is widely known that the ruling party CCM is heavily invested in the rivalry between Simba and Yanga: for decades it has served them as a means of influencing the masses for their own political agenda. Many believe Simba and Yanga are unable to be self-reliant because they are too deeply embedded in domestic politics. This is perhaps most evident in the case of Yanga, who more so than Simba are considered the ‘team of the people’and inherently political. In the build up to independence, the Yanga clubhouse was used as a safe space for the revolutionary TANU party to hold covert political meetings. They are also wear the same green as the ruling party. The club recently held elections and there was an outspoken desire for a move towards privatisation – from an ‘amateur’ to a ‘professional’ system – however there are reservations about whether this will be possible.

The supporters desire increasing commercialisation, and the professionalisation and economic independence this promises, but in reality interested parties do not want to lose their influence. Those in charge at Simba and Yanga are intimately connected to national politics and are reluctant to relinquish their authority over the nation’s most loved institutions. Furthermore private investors are able to utilise their investment as a means to improve their own self-interests, in the form of government contracts and national prestige.

The transition from supporter owned to privately owned football clubs is a clear example of the commercialisation of a previously ’national’ sector. The supporters themselves embrace the process of commercialisation as a positive move towards financial independence and ultimately success. However, there are emerging dynamics – such as the political limitations to commercialisation and the importance of understanding local histories – within which these developments must be understood.

Adam Rodgers Johns is a freelance writer and postgraduate student in African Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.


The commercialisation of wildlife in Namibia: selling nature to save it

By Olivier Graefe  and Antje Schlottmann

It is estimated that 80 % of the wildlife in Namibia is now in possession of private game farmers and private parks. But here is good news. The number of elephants have tripled since independence in 1990 and Namibia now has the biggest national population of Black Rhinos while the species was nearing extinction in the 1980s. Hence, the devolution of rights over wildlife to private landowners and custodians since the mid-1960 is unmistakably a success in terms of wildlife conservation and growth of the animal population.

So, what’s biting? At the same time, wildlife conservation has turned into a source of profit and attracts many actors like private entrepreneurs and  companies but also nature conservation NGOs. Competition is fierce. The trade for animals developed immensely not only in form of auctions for hunting concessions, trophies and live animals for breeding, but also for wildlife tourism in private game reserves. In short, there is a new complexity of commercialisation of wildlife going on with yet unidentified implications for humans, nature, and their relationships.

Our purpose is to understand the potential as well as the implications of the commercialisation of wildlife from a political-ecological perspective. Therefore, as a complement to use and exchange value, we employ the concept of ‘encounter value’ introduced by Donna Haraway. The relationship in form of an encounter between humans and animals becomes a commodity, of which the value depends on the behavioural dispositions and (co-)performances of humans and animals.

As a first thought, understanding encounter-value means to consider that the value of animal behaviors, visual appearances and performances respond to very selective imaginations of wildlife. In this context certain animals with a particular appeal are better off, at least as regards consumer demand. In the long term, the question arises to what extent such imaginations shape future wildlife populations, their survival and possible extinction. As some advocates of the marketisation of wildlife conservation put it, the higher value species like rhinos, elephants and buffaloes, the better it will be for the future of wildlife conservation. However, this framework might have fatal consequences on the choices of species protected and the definition of what species is worth protection.

Seen from a socio-ecological perspective, another implication comes into focus. The commercialisation and increasing privatisation of wildlife conservation have repercussions on the accessibility of ‘encounters’. Many private game parks aim for the upper market segment and wildlife hunting counts among the most lucrative business today. Who is and will be entitled to hold, hunt or even experience wildlife, in particular certain wildlife species, today and in the near future?

A further consequence of the increasing encounter value of wildlife is the reproduction of the inherited land tenure systems from the apartheid period with very little possibilities to engage with a substantial land redistribution of commercial farms. Game farming is widely seen as the only sustainable alternative to livestock farming, especially cattle farming, in the age of climate change. However, using the willing seller, willing buyer principle for the redistribution of commercial farmland, the success of game farming and private wildlife conservation parks limits the number of farms available for redistribution in favour of the historically disadvantaged people.

Last but not least, from a post-colonial perspective, the ‘encounter value’ largely prioritises the Western gaze over the value of animals given by the local communities. Conflicts especially with elephants and big carnivores show the underlying conflicts of interests. The local population, however, is often presented as uninformed and in need of education in order to understand wildlife protection issues.

In conclusion, wildlife is recovering in Namibia, but the type of wildlife produced follows the logics of commercialisation.  Encounter value is a key concept for understanding the problematic transformations in human-animal relationships. Game farming and private wildlife conservation parks resemble increasingly big zoos, with all the ethical, social and political implications such institutions entail.

Antje Schlottmann is professor of geography at the University of Frankfurt and is doing research on visual geography and nature-society relationships. Olivier Graefe is professor of human geography at the University of Fribourg and is doing research on the political ecology of natural resources, especially water and nature conservation.


Women, gender targets and purchasing power: a feminist position on ethical concerns surrounding market systems programming

By Fatimah Kelleher

Market systems programming is playing a significant role in Africa’s donor-driven private sector development landscape.  Known previously and more widely as markets for the poor (M4P), it aims to promote ‘market linkages’ by focusing on the ‘changing the structure and characteristics of markets to increase participation by the poor on terms that are of benefit to them’.  In practice this means investing programme funds in private companies through interventions that will help reach a wider consumer base, including those on the lowest incomes. Identifying and restructuring market blockages that prevent consumer engagement are part of this facilitation approach.  For example, in the agricultural sector one of the most successful M4P interventions has been support to agro-input companies to repackage fertiliser into smaller, more affordable bags that allow poorer farmers to access the product. A successful ‘market linkage’ is therefore also reliant on the successful sale of goods and services, and a sustained increase in demand and supply.  Expectation that ‘beneficiaries’ – poor or otherwise – spend money in order to engage with the market is intrinsic to the model.

More recently, women have started being more explicitly targeted as part of a wider donor response to the gender equality agenda.  However, simplified frameworks that boil-down women’s economic empowerment to women’s increased production and consumption of products dominate.  Target numbers are often extremely high as the ability to scale interventions is a critical part of the market systems blueprint.  As such, genuine gender transformations within the economy are not part of the mandate, as tackling patriarchal, systemic economic inequalities and negative social norms that inhibit women’s economic empowerment and justice require layered approaches that cannot be rushed or easily scaled without investment in socially transformative practices that challenge those inequalities.  These often fall outside of private sector needs.

But women face greater social and economic constraints on their access to resources and economic opportunities compared to men. This inequality unjustly limits returns for their productive capacities, and also makes them economically more vulnerable, particularly among the poorest. That vulnerability extends to their role as consumers within markets. Many women that fall within the lowest income brackets in Africa are engaged in horizontal, cash-based, survivalist enterprises, or small-scale subsistence farming that’s disproportionately less secure than men due to land and resource inequalities. This also makes them often more vulnerable to economic shocks.

And as market systems also seek to move into more volatile humanitarian environments concerns around programming that promotes increased commercialisation and requires women’s expenditure – whether an agricultural input, milling services, or a financial product such as micro-credit – need serious interrogation.

Women’s experiences from conflict-affected North East Nigeria, where market recovery has become a recent focus, and more broadly from across rural northern Nigeria, indicate that ethical concerns regarding women’s fiscal vulnerabilities in relation to purchasing power need an urgent spotlight. The North East of the country has experienced violence, community displacement, loss of livelihoods, and food insecurity, all resulting in a cashless credit economy following the flight of the financial sector.  Women – disproportionately without the resources to weather spoilage  and defaulting customers – have also found themselves subsequently carrying a disproportionate burden within this failed economic context.

These gendered realities are often fall under the market systems radar, firstly because power dynamics and possible consequences of women’s consumer/purchasing engagement is rarely fully understood.  Secondly, with many programmes focusing on indicators such as increased yields/sales/income increase, pushing further productivity within such a context could very easily exacerbate women’s risk burden.

But even non-humanitarian contexts are a cause for ethical concern, as women with the lowest incomes across northern Nigeria and Africa more broadly find themselves dealing with fiscal fragility and risk burdens within value chains being pushed towards commercialisation. The proliferation of commercialised agro products is another case in point.  While some women may indeed need improved links to agro companies (having already engaged their farming practices with commercial products previously), most women currently farming are using agro-ecological practices and have yet to tie-in their (often small plots of) land to the repeat purchases necessary once virgin soil is sown with commercial products. Even more pressing are challenges to women’s seed sovereignty as commercial hybrid ‘super seeds’ are aggressively promoted instead of locally owned seed bank initiatives.

Ultimately, whilst improved market access is widely viewed as a panacea to women’s economic inequalities, presumptions that access simply confers power within market engagement is flawed. Women’s engagement with the market varies greatly on contextual power relationships (both inside and outside of the market) that – broadly – market systems programming is not investigating, or is simply uninterested in at worst.  Lack of power and economic injustices can manifest differently depending on whether women sell or buy, and for the latter ‘women’s purchasing power’ has become a popular mantra within commercial expansion, likely to lead to even further consumer targeting by private sector programs. The implications of this across other commercialising sectors in Africa, such as health, where products such as insurance are being actively promoted, are significant. African women’s increasing exposure to commercialisation and consumer culture within donor programming has never been in more need of a feminist and ethical focus.

Fatimah Kelleher is a women’s rights technical adviser and strategist working primarily in the areas of women’s economic empowerment and justice, and education.  Her work covers Africa, with a specialist focus on Nigeria.

Featured Photograph: Mobile banking in Uganda (12 March, 2011).



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