How Business Hustling Helps Outwit Corruption In Africa

How Business Hustling Helps Outwit Corruption In Africa


“Kanju” is the Yoruba word for hustling — a rule-breaking spirit that makes modern Africa work against a backdrop of corrupt bureaucracies, according to a new book by Dayo Olopade, a first-generation Nigerian-American journalist.

Reuters columnist Martin Hutchinson reviewed Olopade’s book, “The Bright Continent.” For anyone who wants to understand how the African economy really works, this book is a good place to start, Hutchinson said.

Kanju is about striving and rule-breaking, and it explains how the “invisible hand” outwits the “dead hand of corrupt bureaucracy” in much of the continent, Hutchinson said. Sadly, kanju also makes most African countries tough places to do formal business, according to the Reuters book review.

Olopade compares Africa’s formal and informal sectors. Large-scale projects and formal businesses are often promoted, she says, by aid agencies with non-African agendas or by corrupt local governments. In contrast, individual Africans with limited resources are successfully innovating one industry after another, often working around or simply thumbing their noses at the authorities’ restrictions.

Olopade divides most of the book into five “maps,” each reflecting a way in which African
economic life differs from “fat” Western economies, according to Hutchinson. These five maps include family, technology, commerce, resources and Africa’s youthful


Birthrates are falling in most of Africa, but families are typically still large. Extended family networks are crucial to business development. It’s not just about wanting to work with
relatives. Institutions that support trust among strangers in developed economies are
largely lacking in Africa. It’s safer to work with people you know can be expected to
behave well.

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Technology, especially mobile communications, has revolutionized African possibilities. Olopade begins the book with a reference to the “Yahoo Boys,” the Nigerian scammers
of the late 1990s who used the newly available Internet and their native kanju to
get rich.

The author’s praise is, however, limited, Hutchinson said. Kanju doesn’t go far enough to build a stable, wealthy society. The term Yahoo Boys is a reference to the cruel Yahoos of Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.” Modern prosperity, by comparison, relies on people governed by reason who have high standards of integrity.


Olopade devotes considerable detail to how Africans do business. They rely heavily on improvisation. Financing remains scare despite aid and numerous microfinancing schemes, in the medium-sized sector — the part of the economy that should be leading the way to development. Perhaps some more formal organization would help.


Africa’s natural riches are badly exploited and Olopade argues for more local innovations to tap them effectively. These include improving crop yields without relying on inefficient state-controlled agriculture extension services. She also urges local entrepreneurs to provide electricity in off-grid areas not reached by state systems.

Youthful demographics

In the book, Olopade says Africa’s youthful demographics need new approaches to education but give hope for further progress as Africa’s youth circumvent “the rent-seeking blocks created by the elderly ‘hippos’ of the existing power structure.”

The book is less a defense of free markets than an ode to the virtues of the small in
economics, Hutchinson said. “She rejoices in successful cooperatives and well-designed aid programs but generally rejects large-scale entities, whether states, global aid
institutions or multinational corporations.”

With a multitude of examples and details, her case is persuasive, according to the review.
As Africa grows richer, reforming its formal organizations is becoming at least as important
as creating informal ones.

On the “The Bright Continent” website, Olopade wrote about what it took to make this book (Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 4, 2014): It “represents three years of shoe-leather reporting across 18 countries, a lifetime of intuition, and a lot of conversation with dozens of generous, talented people.”

Yoruba is one of the four official languages of Nigeria and is a member of the Volta-Niger branch of the Niger-Congo family of languages. It is spoken by about 22 million people in Southwest Nigeria, Benin, Togo, the UK, Brazil and the U.S.