The story never gets old.

The Uber man from Osu.

I recently took a short break and visited Accra the land of the Ashanti people. As fate would have it, it was a hot and humid stay. I, however, enjoyed taking trips around the city eyeing the breathtaking historical sights( ghana has plenty of these). The feeling of being lost in the crowded streets of Accra and being jostled around by the busy women carrying merchandise for trade at the Makola market got me burned out and longing for a peaceful ride back to my apartment. This ride is how I met Alfred!

Alfred was born and raised in Accra amongst the Twi speaking Ashanti people and works as an uber driver. I know you are wondering what this has to do with companies, boardrooms, and policy(as most of my articles are) but you will be surprised how meeting Alfred changed my point of view. I consider myself a dark-tourist, a word that until early last year I didn’t know has a much deeper meaning than the simplistic context I use it here, and I enjoy traveling to places that are littered with culture and practices that have influenced the natives. The Cape and Elmina castle at Cape Coast the cornerstones of the transatlantic trade in Africa provided me this rare opportunity. Oh goodness, I digress…

I spoke to Alfred about my country, its people and our peculiar mannerisms( because Kenyas are) and my observations about the similarities between Ghanaians and Kenyans. He told me of the Uber experience in Ghana and how it had shaped the local mindset and freed many families from the grip of poverty. I wondered why he had called it the uber experience prompting me to ask about the local taxi-hailing companies such as Enshika, Bolt, and Fameko, how they were started and why they were successful in taking over a concept that was imported into Africa by an American entrepreneur.

Alfred mentioned that though Africa was forced into the capitalistic ways of the west, its people were still held hostage by their cultural practices and communal way of life. Among the Ashanti, property inheritance and rights were determined by the Mothers. This means that the Ashanti are matrilineal where the line of descent is traced through the female. This fact disagreed with every factory settings of my Central Kenya brain, I turned blank! We were now driving past the black star square where most of the historical Ghanaian encounters had taken place. I could visualize J. J Rawlings in his famous call for the formation of the workers’ defense committees, I visualized an elated Ghana people ushering in John Agyekum Kufuor as their president… I couldn’t help but wonder how events shaped nations and their people and sealing fates for others. Alfred took a turn into Amantra Street and startled me out of my mooning. He pointed at a parked sedan ensuring that I got a glimpse of the female-driven Enshika ride-sharing cab.

Yams are grown in containers and only transplanted outside when they are ready for the external environmental conditions, he continued. I feel that to fairly answer your question on why the local hailing companies are thriving, you must understand the curse of the yam analogy. Now parking the car outside Osu mall where I caught a glimpse of flashy boutiques stocking high-end Woodin and Kente outfits, he told me that western entrepreneurs had successfully incubated their ideas in the western market but transplanted them into Africa with little or no care of the prevailing business environment. It is for this reason that the same ideas when implemented by natives, prosperity was easy to come by. He, reminding me of the female-driven Enshika cab, pointed that amongst the Ashanti, the female figure is an important one and local companies had perfected the art of amplifying it in their business and many people were therefore drawn to their services.

The validity of this argument was so crisp that for a moment, the hot air that gushed into the cab as the door opened from the busy Osu Mall seemed breezy. Dramatically, my mind seemed to have raced through the many corporate strategy meetings I had sat in and the many generic strategies we had developed with boards and how this simple idea had often been overlooked.

Board policies and corporate strategies are influenced by the external environment which the company has no control over. However, as a counterbalance, strategy provides reprieve for the board and its directors in the internal environment where they have absolute discretion on resource allocation and product differentiation. Often, companies fail to localize their interaction with the knowledge that the external environment provides and end up allocating resources to areas of low competitive advantage. This is what Alfred called the curse of the yam analogy. I hopped out of the Taxi and awed by the knowledge this native son of the Ashanti had, I insisted he joined me for lunch. We spoke at length as I enjoyed being introduced to the taste of Banku and the very hot shito.

On my flight back, I reflected on how a simple concept such as the yam analogy had escaped many companies and the dear price they had paid under its curse. I saw how multinationals such as Deacons and Choppies had shut down operations in Kenya blaming among other factors high operations and internal trouble. I wondered how a company would blame high operations cost whereas some other companies were thriving in the same environment. Maybe these companies were aware of the yam analogy but did not appreciate its practicability. As the aircraft cleared the last clouds and Nairobi was at sight, I felt a renewed sense of responsibility in my strategy consultancies. I was still a dark tourist but I had seen the light of African potential in Accra. I felt humbled by the 1 hour MBA lesson I got from the Uber man from Osu!


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