Women weave baskets as part of a cooperative called Gahaya Links, started by Janet Nkubana, a survivor of the Rwanda civil war. Credit: Adam Bacher

“The path to change is an indigenous one, and it must be embraced by the people who will have the largest stake in it.”
—Brian Hooks

he quality-conscious shopper who buys a hand-woven basket in Macy’s or some other iconic U.S. store may well be purchasing an article crafted by Janet Nkubana, a single mother living in genocide-stricken Rwanda whose enterprise has made her an exemplar of African entrepreneurship. She is one of the case studies highlighted by Enterprise Africa!—a Templeton-funded project that is having a demonstrable impact on the hot debate over development on the African continent.
Enterprise Africa! won a $500,000 Templeton prize for research into enterprise-based solutions to poverty and is run by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, in partnership with the Free Market Foundation, located in South Africa, and the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs. It aims to reveal innovative solutions to poverty in Africa and to move towards entrepreneurial policies that help the world’s poor to improve their own lives.
The program is part of the Mercatus Center’s Global Prosperity Initiative and is led by Senior Research Fellow Karol Boudreaux who is doing field work in several countries in Africa, including Namibia, South Africa, Rwanda and Mauritius.
Boudreaux has been hugely impressed by the experiences she has encountered in Africa. Janet Nkubana, in Rwanda, who now works with more than 4,000 women, training them to become master weavers, began by setting up a small store in Kigali selling hand-made baskets. She survived the disastrous civil war to become a successful exporter of handicrafts. But she does not only teach other Rwandan women weaving skills. She also teaches them to improve their diet and hygiene and to know their legal rights, while bringing women from formerly hostile ethnic groups together in holistic collaboration.
Boudreaux also cites the even more inspiring story of Michael Jwambi, in South Africa, who has risen above serial personal tragedy that would have defeated most people. In the days of apartheid, he left his rural home for Cape Town where he became a bus driver, only to lose a leg in a road accident. With true resilience, he opened a shop, but during the violence of the early 1990s it was burned down and his family murdered. His response was to rebuild his store on a larger scale. He now owns several stores and a funeral business, employs more than 50 people and supports a local youth choir.
slug That is the human face of African enterprise that is largely ignored by the big, bureaucratic aid agencies. It is a milieu, insists Boudreaux, in which social capital is as important as financial capital. Boudreaux observes of Nkubana and Jwambi, “They’re just extraordinary individuals, both of them, and they’ve made a commitment, in each case, not only to grow effective and sustainable businesses, but they’ve also made strong personal commitments to supporting their local communities. I think they see their community as an extension of their families.” She adds, “They’re exemplars, but they’re not unique.”
Reviewing the progress of Enterprise Africa! to date, Mercatus Center Chief Operating Officer Brian Hooks explains it has both short term and long term goals. “In the short term, our efforts are aimed at improving the policy environment in Africa so that local people have greater scope for entrepreneurship and increased opportunities to flourish. In the long term, we hope to change the development discussion in the academy from one of aid and big-pushes to one of sustainable development through strong property rights and voluntary exchange.”
They have made some discernible progress. As a result of the program, Boudreaux has been appointed to the Property Rights Working Group of the United Nations Committee on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor, co-chaired by Madeline Albright and Hernando de Soto. She has also presented her findings to nearly 400 senior congressional staffers and several key members of Congress. The research has been well-received by members of Congress and officials at the United States Agency for International Development.
Providing information for key policy makers has always been a key objective of Enterprise Africa! Hooks observes, “To have broken through and gotten a seat at some of these very important tables in terms of the decisions that are being made in development policy has been extremely encouraging.”
Even more important, the project has scored successes in Africa. It has been a resource for Millennium Challenge Corporation staff on policy toward Namibia. It has helped put off South African government plans to introduce an effective cartel into the taxi business. And it has helped to protect the recently liberated Rwandan coffee industry from expropriation by the statist-dominated regulatory body.
There remain big questions to be answered. Hooks thinks the most important is, “Now that we know large-scale government aid projects don’t work, can we offer actionable alternatives that do?” For Boudreaux, the big question is, “What are the additional social benefits that flow from people having access to broader commercial opportunities, broader trading opportunities?”
Hooks proffers an answer, “The path to change is an indigenous one and it must be embraced by the people who will have the largest stake in it.”