Improv

South Africans are master improvisers.  Give them a challenge, and they will, as the saying goes, make a plan.  It’s a great strength. One sometimes worries, though, that this strength may be the artifact of an underlying weakness. Maybe South Africans would not be such terrific problem solvers if they did not so often make things so difficult for themselves to begin with.

This past week, Washington, largely unbeknownst to itself, was host to a delegation of some 15 South African entrepreneurs, designers and artists, mostly from the Johannesburg area. They came to exhibit their wares at the 39th annual Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference at the Washington Convention Centre, with support from the Department of Trade and Industry, the city of Johannesburg, the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Gauteng Economic Development Agency.

Much of what the exhibitors brought with them constituted splendid examples of South Africans inventively turning not much into quite a lot. There were Maevis Taole’s striking amulets woven from aluminium soft drink cans and Bethuel Mapheto’s brooches based on plastic bottle tops. Nina Sedumedi offered necklaces made from discarded fabric remnants by women in Orange Farm. Erika Tempel and Lizelle Steenkamp came with one-of-a-kind papier mache statues of Nelson Mandela sculpted by a former security guard, Victor Nkuna, in Potgeitersrus, along with jewelry created by women in Limpopo with beads and metalwork collected from around the continent.

At a more practical level, Chiboni Evans, CEO of Maritraq, showed off her company’s low-cost system for tracking artisanal fishermen and protecting their fisheries against poachers. Annelise Grobler, CEO of Aqua Salveo, attracted considerable interest with her taste-free silver/copper/zinc-based water disinfectant — three drops will make a litre of otherwise lethal water potable – and, perfectly timed for the swine flu epidemic, her long-lasting hand sanitiser.

For the record, all the exhibitors, at least almost all, declared themselves well pleased. Between noon Thursday when the exhibition hall opened to foot traffic from conference-goers and noon Saturday when everything had to be put back its boxes for shipment home , useful connections had been made, possible partnerships identified and some orders taken.

Behind the scenes, though, things were a lot more fraught than they should have been. For reasons that had very little to do with the exhibitors themselves, the mission was on and then it was off and then it was on, by which time everything had to be done in a great rush which meant not as well as it might have been. The great South African improvisation gene once again proved its value but it could not rescue everything and opportunities were lost.

However striking in its component parts, the overall presentation was inevitably somewhat ad hoc with a medley of branding and nothing to suggest a unifying idea or message. To the extent that the exercise had a name it was: “City of Joburg Small Business Exporters in Conjunction with the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry Exhibition.” Not the catchiest or most illuminating of titles, but one that had a lot to do with the unfortunate back story.

This in my experience has become pretty routine. We often seem to be better at generating learnings (from which we all too seldom learn) than we are at scoring outright wins. A big part of the problem is that we do not play together as well as we ought. We operate in our own silos. We are highly protective of our own turf. We are terrified that someone else is going to get credit. And one reason we may so often find ourselves having to “make a plan” is, ironically, that we have lost the ability to distinguish between planning and implementation.

What’s needed when South Africans present or exhibit abroad, especially when public funds are involved, is a basic template that all can (and will want) to use backed by readily available tools to comply with it. These would include a checklist of what exhibitors and presenters need to do, and when, in order to make the greatest possible splash in any given market. It is futile, for example, to try and get media coverage in major markets like the US on a day’s notice and without sufficient information to make a credible pitch to producers and editors.

Regardless of who ends up synthesizing and administering  the template, the custodian has to command top-level  buy-in and respect,  and be in a position to deliver the goods in a way that tells the universal South African story not just the bits related to, say, the country as a travel destination or the glories of a particular province. With proper systems in place, the platoon of South African exhibitors vying for attention in the Washington convention centre last week could have done the work of a brigade at no little or no extra cost.  Marketing a country is not, to use the lingo of the stand-up comedy business, improv.

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