Tragedy and Hope

David Tswamuno is both the tragedy and hope of Zimbabwe. Tragedy because he is not at home, putting his very considerable talents and energy to use for his country; hope because he is minted from the extraordinary human capital with which Zimbabwe is blessed and which could, in shorter order than many expect,  undo the damage done by the gangsters into whose hands his country fell.

Tswamuno is a 20-something financial analyst at UBS in New York.  His resemblance to the actor Presley Chweneyagae is striking; friends call him Tsotsi.   He is from Mutare. There he received an education better than almost anything he could have had at a public school in the US. He came away with four or five good A-Levels.  Mugabe may yet be saved from the bottom depths of hell by his decision to stick with the English system.

Tswamuno’s next stop, with help from the US embassy in Harare, was Middlebury College in Connecticut. It is a very competitive school. He was two years ahead of his class when he arrived. Writing skills taken for granted as a basic A-level requirement in Zimbabwe his American professors thought he could only have gained through special tutoring. So poor are US standards.

His real strengths, though, were economics and maths. That is as long as you don’t count the music he makes with the younger brother he is putting through high school in Greenwich, the hedge fund capital from which he commutes to Wall Street. Their band is The Good News Corporation.  All told, Tswamuno supports nine family members. The rest are back in Mutare.

For his undergraduate thesis, he assessed South Africa’s use of capital controls. His paper, “Financial Liberalization and Economic Growth: Lessons from the South African Experience“, was published last year in the International Journal of Applied Economics. He concluded Trevor Manuel got things largely right.  Wall Street beckoned.

I met him at the Harvard Business School’s Africa Business Conference last weekend. He was one of 1000 or so African entrepreneurs, bankers, investors and business leaders, present and future, who gather each year on the frozen banks of the Charles River to network and discuss the future. If they are Africa’s future, this may indeed be Africa’s century.

The conferees comprised a remarkable pool of talent, knowledge and connections, one from which the continent could benefit greatly. Will it? There are growing reasons for optimism, global economic turmoil notwithstanding.  In fact the, turmoil may help. The upside of the downturn, suggested Acha Leke and Mutsa Chironga, both of McKinsey and Co.’s Johannesburg office, was that the opportunities driving the brain drain were drying up.

The McKinsey men also saw the downturn having a positive impact on African governance, propelling further reforms, enforcing fiscal discipline and stepping up pressure on economies to diversify away from a corrupting dependence on resource exports.

This too could help bring back talent, especially if it accelerated the decoupling of Africa’s too long intertwined business and political cycles. So could the growing catalogue of African success stories like serial entrepreneur Jite Okoloko, now CEO of Notore which purchased a failed Nigerian parastatal to create the largest producer of fertilizer in Africa.

Tired of earning $40 000 a year selling alarm systems in New Jersey, Okoloko went back to Nigeria in 1994 and made his first fortune transporting petroleum products. There were plenty more fortune to be made – and honestly — he told the conference.  “Every market that is mature out here (in the US) is an opportunity in Africa.” The region was still rich in “low hanging fruit”.

Tswamuno is weighing an MBA at Harvard Business School. He is not ready to come home just yet.  As he says, he prefers living in a world where routine things, like putting petrol in your car, really are routine. He sees a future for himself in private equity, sponsoring mid-sized companies in Africa. He is fired both by ambition and a deep sense of obligation to his family to whom, right now, he is more useful where he is.

Would he consider bringing his talent to South Africa? Last year’s xenophobic attacks, he says, have made him hesitant.

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