P005 – African Capitalisms
10 July, 14:00-15:30

Bierschenk Thomas / Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz


For some time the concept of capitalism has experienced a remarkable renaissance in public debate, as well as in the social sciences. With respect to Africa, however, the term is mostly used in the sense of a non-relationship or of an external, usually negatively connoted, force. As usual, investors and businessmen are well ahead of academics in this respect: for them the “African lions” constitute one of the last frontiers of capitalism. In contrast, in African Studies, capitalist actors such as entrepreneurs or institutions such as banks and stock markets are under-researched, and the question of indigenous African capitalisms seems to have been settled, in the negative sense, since the end of the Kenya debate. This panel will try to explore whether the notion of capitalism – understood here primarily as a mode of production — can be an inspiration for empirical research, or whether other theoretical models are more appropriate. The empirical focus in this panel will be on informal economies, the social embeddedness of entrepreneurship, and localized forms of innovation. The leading question is whether Africa is indeed the last frontier of capitalism, and in particular, whether the new spirit of network capitalism, based on mobility, disponibility, creativity, pluri-competence and virtuosity in the use of new media corresponds perhaps particularly well with local cultural practices in Africa.

Capitalismes africains

Depuis quelque temps, le concept de capitalisme a connu une renaissance remarquable autant dans le débat public que dans les sciences sociales. En ce qui concerne l’Afrique, cependant, le terme est surtout utilisé dans le sens d’une non-relation ou d’une force extérieure, généralement connoté négativement. Comme d’habitude, les investisseurs et les hommes d’affaires sont bien en avance sur les universitaires à cet égard : pour eux les «lions africains» constituent l’une des dernières frontières du capitalisme. En revanche, en études africaines, les acteurs capitalistes comme les entrepreneurs ou des institutions telles que les banques et les marchés boursiers sont sous-étudiées, et la question des capitalismes indigènes africains semble avoir été réglée, dans le sens négatif, depuis la fin du débat kenyan. Ce panel essayera de déterminer si la notion de capitalisme – entendu ici avant tout comme un mode de production – peut être une source d’inspiration pour la recherche empirique, ou si d’autres modèles théoriques sont plus appropriées. Le focus empirique dans ce panel sera sur les économies informelles, l’enchâssement social de l’entrepreneuriat, et les formes localisées de l’innovation. La question principale est de savoir si l’Afrique est en effet la dernière frontière du capitalisme, et en particulier si le nouvel esprit du capitalisme de réseau, basé sur la mobilité, la disponibilité, la créativité, la pluri-compétence et la virtuosité dans l’utilisation des nouveaux médias correspond peut-être particulièrement bien avec des pratiques culturelles locales en Afrique.

Paper 1

Meagher Kate / London School of Economics (LSE)

Deciphering African Informal Economies: Comparative Perspectives on Inclusive Capitalism and Economic Transformation in Africa

This paper explores the potential of the informal economy to contribute to capitalist development in contemporary Africa. New models of market development variously referred to as inclusive business or inclusive capitalism call for greater inclusion of informal economies in development processes, raising questions about the nature of African informality and its actual transformative potential. This paper takes up the task of deciphering the institutional character and potential contribution of the informal economy to economic development in various parts of Africa. Adopting a comparative perspective that explores the differences among informal economies in different regions of the continent, this paper examines how distinctive pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial histories have shaped distinctive paths of informal economic organization in East, West and Southern Africa. This has laid a foundation for varied responses to economic reform and globalization, triggering differenti al responses in terms of the size, entrepreneurial capacity, and labour composition within African informal economies. The paper will conclude with reflection on the varied potential of African informal economies to contribute to capitalist development and economic transformation, focusing on the institutional resources and political-economic tensions that shape distinctive institutional trajectories of resilience, vulnerability and dysfunction in various parts of the continent.

Paper 2

Pont Cháfer María José / École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris

“It is not the amount of land”: smallholders in capitalism

A prerequisite for capitalism is the dispossession of smallholders and the formation of a landless class. The advance of capitalism in agriculture seemed to mean large farms using wage labor, mechanization and inputs for increasing productivity and extracting a surplus. Most of the attempts to develop plantations during the colonial period and the decades after the Independence failed. Yet, Africa has been able to engage in primary-commodity production with the world for more than a century without land dispossession; even, in most cases, smallholders have worked better than plantations. In the last decades, two processes are at work that seem at least contradictory: on one hand, international and domestic investors are buying large pieces of land for food and biofuel production in what is known as a land grabbing; on the other hand, transnational companies have abandoned plantations and have turned to contract farming – where the farmer owns land and labor and the company supplies inputs. Some scholars regard the latter as a new form of exploitation by capitalism. In my fieldwork on production and marketing of yam in Ghana, I have found that smallholders engage in complex arrangements in order to increase profits, linking urban and rural areas and resorting to hired labor. Is Africa a last frontier for capitalist agriculture and smallholders are resisting it? Or are they part of it and we need to develop theoretical frameworks for capitalism beyond that of the exploitation

Paper 3

Nystrand Malin / School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg

Social and moral rationales for business owners’ informal resource redistribution in Uganda

Redistribution of resources within social networks, in particular within the extended family, is a widespread practice in Uganda (as in many other parts of the world). In the ‘Kenya debate’, i.e. the debate in the 80s on the supposed lack of indigenous capitalists in East Africa, this social practice was primarily seen as an obstacle for business development. The rise in the 90s of the social capital and social network research traditions meant a shift in focus, and social relations, networks and norms that were seen as contributions to and indeed necessary for business development were lifted forward. Although this was a welcome shift in focus it did not necessarily contradict the earlier viewpoint that there are social relations and norms that hinder business development. Furthermore, the motives or rationales for business owners to keep redistributing resources in spite of the supposedly negative effect on the business enterprise have not been sufficiently explored. This paper explores the extent of Ugandan business owners’ redistribution of resources within social networks, the social and moral rationales for them engaging in this social practice and their views on whether this practice is compatible with business development. It is based on extensive empirical data gathering in Uganda, including interviews with business owners and a household survey of patterns of resource redistribution.

Paper 4

Leliveld Andre / African Studies Centre, Leiden

Frugal innovation as a manifestation of African capitalism

To what extent is ‘frugal innovation’, as a new global phenomenon, relevant to our understanding of capitalist development in Africa? Frugal innovation might be defined as the stripping and/or redesign of products, systems or services to make them affordable for low-income customers, without sacrificing user value. Frugal innovation involves polycentric innovation, value sensitive design and new business models, which – different from established forms of top-down technological innovations – might lead to other forms of capitalism and more inclusive development. Focusing on entrepreneurship and innovation, with reference to the work of Joseph Schumpeter, the different steps in the innovation value chain will be explored and the distinctiveness of frugal innovation will be highlighted, building on recent empirical examples from across Africa. By exploring, from a theoretical perspective, the process of innovation, broader conclusions about capitalism in Africa can be drawn and
debates of ‘African exceptionalism’ can be addressed.

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