Monday, October 31, 2011

The positive power of capital

"The positive power of capital" is the slogan of the giant emerging markets private equity firm Actis. For all the justifiable criticism of unfettered global capitalism, private sector investment remains the most effective means of driving economic growth.

Earlier this year, we were fortunate enough to have two wonderfully professional and hard-working volunteers, Paul Fletcher and Swarupa Pathakji, join us through a programme managed by the excellent Edinburgh-based organisation Challenges Worldwide. Paul's principal assignment was to study five original AAC investees from the date of investment, with a view to assessing their prospective financial returns and the impact that each investee has had on its stakeholders to date, and publish the findings.

The publication is available through the Pearl Capital website and is well worth a read, especially by anyone who doubts the positive power of capital to create wealth and opportunity.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Tabasco sauce

During last week's ANDE conference, I asked our waiter for some chilli sauce to spice up my dinner, but met with a blank look. I had forgotten that in the USA you don't ask for chilli sauce, you ask for Tabasco. What greater success is there for a brand, when its name replaces the name of the commodity itself?

To my surprise and delight, my neighbour at dinner told me that the manufacturer of Tabasco sauce was still an independent family-owned business. And, so it is. This is the 5th generation of the McIlhenny family business from Avery Island, Louisiana. Sometimes, it seems as if the whole world is controlled by faceless transnational corporations, but in fact family-owned businesses still employ many more people around the world than public companies and governments combined. And long may it continue!

Africa, in particular, has a disproportionate number of micro- small and medium-sized enterprises, generally individual or family-owned. The plethora of small local brands makes it quite difficult for internationally -recognised brands, like Tabasco, to gain a foothold on the continent. By way of illustration, I have long had my own favourite brands of hot sauce across East & Southern Africa. For a long time, my absolute favourite was the fiercely hot Nali, from Malawi, and whenever I am fortunate enough to be able to visit the "warm heart of Africa" I make sure to return with two or three bottles of Nali. Since taking up residence in Uganda, however, Nali has been supplanted in my affections by the consistent excellence of Pearl's Garlic and Chilli sauce, manufactured in Kasese by Reco Industries (though the Little Ritz - the diner across the road from our Kampala offices - offers a ferociously-hot unbranded chilli oil, said to originate from Rwanda, and well worth sampling in extreme moderation).

For chilli devotees, there is even an index - the Scoville Index - which officially measures the relative hotness of chilli varieties (as defined by their detectability to the human palate in parts per million). According to Wikipedia, the current accolade for the world's hottest chilli cultivar goes to the well-named Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper, though as far as I am aware, chilli sauce manufacturers are not yet obliged to provide an indication of their Scoville scores on their labels.

For my palate, however, no commercial preparation matches the flavour and aroma of my own very simple harissa, a simple blend of African birds eye chillis, garlic, mint and olive oil. Magnificent! Maybe it's time to start branding and bottling it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Still No Exit

KADS next production will be No Exit, to be staged at the shortly-to-be-opened reincarnation of the Latino Club in Kampala in early November.

I really hope that we get good audiences for this quite astonishingly brilliant and disturbing play. While its depiction of hell may be far less physically terrifying that the punishments meted out in Dante's nine circles of hell, the three traitors ruthlessly expose each other during the course of the play and at its end we are in no doubt that they are eternally frozen - not in Dante's ice - but in the timlessness of their claustrophobic room.

It's not for the faint-hearted, and all the better for that!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Empire of Illusion

I've been reading a fascinating book by Chris Hedges entitled The Empire of Illusion. Well-written, acute and scrupulous in quoting sources, it is an excellent addition to critical analysis of the modern United States of America. Its chapters include a rather-too-detailed description of modern pornography, which might suggest a degree of prurient interest if Hedges' revulsion was not so apparent, under the title the Illusion of Love, and a profoundly depressing analysis of the assault on education, in particular the liberal arts, entitled the Illusion of Knowledge, before culminating in the concluding chapter, the Illusion of America.

Heaven forbid, he even dares quote from the famously-impenetrable Adorno in his analysis of the role of popular culture , though I think Marx goes unmentioned - presumably Hedges' publishers drew the line at mentioning that particular spectre of the past. When Marx, and his magnificent historic insights, was still taken seriously, Adorno and his colleagues in the Frankfurt School in the 1960s tried to reinterpret Marx's theories in the context of the modern world. Adorno's interests were in the impact of mass media on consciousness and individualism. Just as in Huxley's futuristic fantasy Brave New World, Adorno argued that popular culture was designed to turn people into passive consumers, content even in the most miserable of economic circumstances, and that advanced capitalism had in effect subverted the possibility of rebeliion and revolution as foreseen by Marx.

The book finishes with a splendid analysis of the moral and political bankruptcy that ultimately destroys empires from within. In a paragraph eerily reminiscent of the collapse of the Libyan regime earlier this year, Hedges writes that empires fall because "they all were taken over by a corrupt elite. These elites, squandering resources and pillaging the state, are no longer able to muster internal allegiance and cohesiveness, and their empires died morally. Their leaders, in the final period of decay, had to rely on armed mercenaries because citizens would no longer serve the military. They descended into orgies of self-indulgence, surrendered their civic and emotional lives to glitter, excitement and spectacle of the arena, became politically apathetic, and collapsed."

In fact, the book doesn't quite end there. Even Hedges (or perhaps his publishers) cannot quite manage to resist the compulsory happy ending. Instead, he talks of the enduring power of love to transcend the forces of the establishment. A couple of years ago, I went to see the remarkable special-effects film Avatar, which was utterly spoilt by its ending, in which the noble savage, living in harmony with nature, triumphs over those who use technology to plunder her resources. A likely story: certainly not one that aboriginal communities in the Americas or Australasia would recognise. The truth is that when empires collapse from within, it takes generations for them to emerge from the chaos and dark ages that follow. So why can't film-makers and writers tell the truth? At least Hedges' book tells us why, even if it fails to remain true to itself.