Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Our children will learn to walk if we allow them to stumble

I hold no brief for All Kasi. I don’t know the people who own the company. I only happen to admire their ingenuity and tenacity at a time when the popular refrain is that Batswana are not innovative enough, not hardworking enough, not imbued with entrepreneurial spirit, sleeping through an economic boom, and that is why they get to miss out on the lucrative opportunities their country offers, which is a big lie that must be exposed for what it is.

Over the past week, there has been a frenzied media feed and denigrating public comments about the ostensible failure of the Zebras’ technical sponsor to deliver enough replica jerseys of the National Football Team, which resulted in many fans and corporate bodies being unable to buy the shirts as they would have wished. The Monitor’s lead headline declared in bold letters: ALL KASI SHAME.

Perhaps I have been looking in the wrong places, but I haven’t seen anything shameful on the part of All Kasi. What I have seen are laudable efforts of young Batswana entrepreneurs who, without bankable surnames and in the face of much negativity and doubt, have ensured that for the first time ever the Zebras are well-kitted (I know because I began my professional life as a sportswriter). If the national team had gone to the AFCON finals without adequate kit, perhaps I, too, would join the stone-throwing crowd; for that would be a real disgrace. But here we are; with a team that is not only well-dressed, but turning out in one of the most enthralling outfits at the tournament.

There is a beautiful story about the Zebras at AFCON, which unfortunately seems to have escaped a lot of people. We are represented at Africa’s biggest sporting show, which is beamed to audiences across the world, by a homegrown team, made largely of players who play in the domestic league, led by a homegrown coach, and dressed in a homegrown label. It is this country’s best advertisement in a long time. It’s a story that says there are great possibilities for Batswana entrepreneurs, if only we could, for once, believe in our own people. Unfortunately, many of us have been exposed for too long to the lie that we can never be first, or second, or even third, but are only good as fourth best, that we refuse to see the good in our own people, even when it is so obvious.

I know that the so-called international brands are standing by the touchline, salivating, punching calculators, and beating themselves for missing out on this opportunity for a financial windfall. Suddenly we hear of swarming offers of all kinds from “reputable” and “international” brands who want to edge out All Kasi. We have been there before. Some of us are old enough to remember how these “international” brands used to arrive with fanfare and drums beating, promising the moon and the sun, only to later leave our national team in the dark, without even a courtesy to say, “good night”. We remember the insults that constituted their forms of technical sponsorship: a set or two of low quality factory rejects that were not even in our national colours. These are the facts that we will tell our children so that they also inherit the anger inside us that gave rise to our pride. And that even when we have gone to our graves, they will not be hoodwinked.

It was not profitable to be a technical sponsor of a team that appeared to have no international ambition. A team that does not show promise of challenging for top honours does not attract a large enough fan base that translates into a captive market for replica jerseys. So the “international” brands left because Zebras-mania was a distant dream, and there was no market for replica jerseys. We were dismissed as non-hopers.

Now we hear that they want to come back. Let them tell that to the birds. The missionaries must know that when they retreated to preach to the hip crowd elsewhere, the natives learnt to read and interpret the Bible. We are now really doing OK, thank you. They can’t just rock up at dinner time. Bomatladikgakgatlha! Ga ba swabe? I mean, really! Who tilled the land, tended the crop, made the fire, fetched the water ÔÇô and kept hope alive all these years when the Zebras were not a brand worthy to associate with? All Kasi, of course!

We should be vigilant not to be duped by fair weather friends. Unfortunately, some among us seem only too willing to be faithful purveyors of the storyline that seeks to portray Batswana as incapable of pulling off something as significant as dressing a national team that is at continental finals. The paper even tells us, with confidence, that it “established” that the shortage of replicas would not have happened had All Kasi “accepted an offer of assistance from an experienced South African company to produce the replica jerseys”. Really? What were the terms that came with the “offer” of such “assistance”? So local businesses are now required to accept every fancy proposal that comes from across the border? God help us.

Listen to what a store manager who lacks the courage to give his/her name has to say about the management of All Kasi, again courtesy of The Monitor: “I think they are confused…..”. What cheek! What an inflated sense of self-importance! And you tell me that All Kasi were wrong to snub people who have the impudence to ridicule potential partners in the press? By the way, since when did these merchants develop this deep love for the Zebras? Those who shunned us when we were down and out cannot now profess this rather exaggerated ardour for us at so late an hour. It’s so, so creepy.

By the way, the Zebras were the first team to qualify for AFCON finals. The new kit was launched last year. Why is All Kasi only being overrun with orders in the week of kick-off? It is quite probable that in the months leading to the finals, All Kasi had looked at the low appetite in the market for the merchandise and decided, rightfully so, that the demand would further decline after the finals. In such a scenario, you do what all sensible businesspeople do: limit your output to manageable levels. I know the line that says the company should have anticipated an upsurge in demand as the tournament approached. Well, maybe they should have. But tell you what? Sound business decisions are based on consumer patterns, not hope. Even newspapers have a cap on their print run, which is dictated by demand (or lack of it).

With all the shortcomings of the past few weeks, we have to hand-walk All Kasi for the simple reason that the company gambled and believed in our national team when busybodies spurned us because we were not the hottest item in town! For once, let bana ba Batswana reap the reward of their innovation. Let a homegrown company, conceived and run by Batswana ba sekei, taste the fruit of Botswana’s economic opportunity. I say Batswana ba sekei deliberately because this is a broader issue of economic empowerment, and when the citizen economic empowerment debate proper starts, we will start where all meaningful debates start ÔÇô with definition of terms; and when we do that, we will have to define the Motswana who has been disempowered, and therefore needs to be empowered.

Come March, these young people should be given a five-year renewable contract to dress the Zebras. We need to go further and make it a requirement that all national teams should be dressed by local brands. The only way our companies will grow and become “international brands” is when we allow them to stumble and fall over and over again, and learn from their mistakes. As Bob Marley says, the biggest man you’ve ever seen was once just a baby. Without doubt, All Kasi has drawn valuable lessons from this experience ÔÇô and hopefully these lapses won’t be repeated. Let these guys grow super-rich out of their innovation and in the process restore confidence that the wealth of this country is not the preserve of the settler community amongst us.

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The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.