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Dossier. Les entrepreneurs et leurs associations : ethnographies du secteur privé en Afrique

Business associations at work – working for whom?

Helmut Asche
p. 143-150

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1The contributions to this issue of Anthropologie & développement are testimony to a line of research on Business Associations (BA) or Business Membership Organizations (BMO) in Africa that first culminated in the 2000s. Important references from that time are quoted throughout the issue. Indirectly, this work contributed to a still earlier, and much broader, debate on the possibility of self-sustained forms of modern capitalism in Africa that are not entirely reliant on business opportunities offered by the state. In the then Kenya-Nigeria debate on the possible departure from state-driven businesses or outright crony capitalism, BMOs – as platforms on which entrepreneurs articulate their class interests vis-à-vis the state – played an essential role in the advancement from an objective social class (Klasse an sich) to constituting themselves as a self-conscious class (Klasse für sich), to use Marxist terminology. The autonomous constitution of African capitalist classes would also imply independence from foreign aid donors, although this condition had not yet been spelled out clearly in the Kenya-Nigeria debate. In a wider sense, the papers presented in this issue also add to the recent debate on the emergence of African middle classes (Kroeker et al., 2018; Lentz, 2015; Melber, 2015), although this latter discussion focuses more on consumption models and lifestyle than it does on production.

2The classic debate on African capitalism has had no proper equivalent in mainstream economics, which is not directly concerned with identifying the dominant mode(s) of production in – say – Africa, because, unlike economic anthropology, it presupposes the existence of capitalism. Undoubtedly, the classical Kenya-Nigeria debate of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which questioned whether a self-sustained capitalist mode of production had taken root in Africa, was not drawn from economic science. The closest it came to was a thread of research on the rent-seeking economy in developing countries at large, comprising corruption and protectionism, of which A. Krueger’s 1974 article is an example (Krueger, 1974). This work was written in association with the first critics of aid among economists, such as P.T. Bauer (1984), who early on described forms of aid dependence akin to the modern phenomena covered in this issue. We should recall, however, that genuine development economics barely existed as an established discipline from the 1960s to the 1980s. When P. Krugman (1994) described the situation in the early 1990s in his “Fall and Rise of Development Economics”, the rise had not yet been fully achieved.

3The closest companion to this issue’s topics in today’s development economics would be the new institutional economics (Douglass North, Joseph S. Nye, Robert Fogel, Avner Greif, Robert H. Bates, Jean Ensminger et al.) who emphasize, inter alia, the path-dependent role of “good” institutions in successful late development, using classic examples such as property rights (taken as institutions) or marketing boards. A more recent influential contribution has emphasized the role (white) settlers played in importing such institutions into developing regions. In trying to explain why some nations fail at institution-building and sustained growth, however, neo-institutionalists exaggerate institutional path-dependence to the detriment of a proper recognition of the role that unequal economic relations play in development (Acemoglu et al., 2001; Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012). A bold anthropological take on this manifestly problematic hypostasis of white settlers and “their” institutions depicted in H. Asche (2011) is still lacking a decade later. The original business associations such as chambers of commerce and industry in Africa are also classic cases of western, post-colonial institutions; however, the anthropological contributions to this issue paint a more differentiated picture than neo-institutionalist economics would have, in that they portray either indigenous institutional creativity or the ingenious ways in which local entrepreneurs appropriate institutions, including those that are the creatures of development aid. The addition of the role of Official Development Aid (ODA) to the ethnographic study of business associations is indeed new.

4How did ODA enter the history of African private business associations in the first place? When the debate on the emergence of capitalism in Africa withered away with the general economic crisis in the first half of the 1980s, Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) came to be the new paradigm and held sway until the end of the 1990s. After structural adjustment came under heavy fire from socio-economic critics, the mainstream split. In response to the criticism, one part of the new approaches took care of over-indebtedness and glaring social deficits in Africa, which had deepened with structural adjustment (debt relief and poverty reduction strategies), while the other part pursued the market-radical adjustment agenda under different names. This takes us to what the authors in this issue cover.

5The new paradigmatic way of thinking started out from the sobering assessment that the private sector had not mushroomed in Africa as it had been expected to following the sweeping market-liberal reforms. Enterprise surveys, Investment Climate Assessments (ICA), and above all the World Bank’s Doing Business reports, prepared the field for Business Environment Reforms (BER) and the still broader arena of Private Sector Development (PSD), to which contributors to this issue refer. While “Doing Business” has been the focus of broad criticisms since the outset due to its ideological lop-sidedness, BER have not been altogether radical free-market undertakings. Although BER also focused largely on (further) deregulation, there is arguably a core of necessary reform measures to cut red tape, improve infrastructure, provide access to credit and introduce new rules of the game. PSD was therefore conceived to respond to a much larger range of concerns felt by entrepreneurs than deregulation alone. Since then, every major donor agency has “done” PSD, under a flurry of subheadings, such as Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) support, value chain support and cluster support: in fact, all sorts of “capacity building” that had formerly been focused on the public sector alone.

6One would, perhaps naively, have expected a vibrant private sector to emerge all across Africa, and there was vibrancy, in fact, but in a dual mode. Firstly, the established mode of resource extraction from agriculture and mining continued unabated, benefitting from the global resource boom until 2014. Secondly, in a truly innovative mode, creative industries (see Bud, this issue) emerged alongside the telecommunications revolution in Africa. At most, this dynamic benefitted from certain regulatory measures under BER, but otherwise, vibrancy in the producing sectors was not felt across the board. Why was that? Essentially, the answer is related to Africa’s unchanged economic role in globalization, which has left African producers with limited tasks within a restricted range of global value chains. To an extent, institutional failures in general and the associated shortcomings of donor-aided PSD are to blame as well. Loosely coordinated by the World Bank-driven Donor Committee on Enterprise Development (DCED), PSD has never belonged to the family of activist policy approaches. PSD projects invested hardly anything in the core business, and did not even provide real access to credit, despite the fact that it has regularly been identified as the most binding constraint. Rather, PSD has concentrated on a myriad of advisory functions and ubiquitous capacity-building, a finding that is corroborated by the analyses in this volume: A. Badou and T. Bierschenk place their analysis of the situation in Benin in the context of BER, DCED, PSD, etc. To paraphrase the results of their work, donor-driven PSD would not have created the pineapple value chain, so to speak, had the fruit not yet been around and on the market. PSD rather preferred to focus on multiple “capacity-building”. A. Manhiça recalls the similarly disappointing results of BER based on DCED blueprints, using Mozambique as an example. When explicit structuralist policies (re-)emerged a couple years later, above all activist industrial policy as successfully pursued by countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda and Botswana, in the footsteps of their East Asian predecessors, it was only reluctantly and belatedly that the DCED embraced the alien paradigm of targeted industrial policy.

7Because of this, mainstream PSD missed a number of policy essentials. Arguably, the most important of these is that this type of foreign aid treats systemic, regime-related political economy issues as technicalities, as A. Badou and T. Bierschenk remind us, thereby clearly ignoring what really holds up the emergence of sustainable entrepreneurship in much of Africa’s agriculture and industry. A part of the related technical assistance in the international field is support for trade facilitation, which includes most of the agenda of the West African “Union” of traders and transporters portrayed by S. Cissokho.

8Since its inception, donor support for institutions that allow entrepreneurs to self-organize and talk to power has been part and parcel of PSD, mostly under the heading of Public Private Dialogue (PPD), and rightly so in principle. Although they are economically the best endowed of the organizations in the private sector and civil society at large, business associations in Africa have remained relatively weak, or have even taken a serious blow during structural adjustment. The BA/BMO literature of the time summed up the characteristic weaknesses. It established in examples such as Ghana, Zambia or Zimbabwe that structural adjustment programmes, which were nominally designed to strengthen the private sector, in fact resulted in a reduction in the number of independent national entrepreneurs and by extension weakened the articulation of legitimate business interests (Kraus, 2002; Moore and Hamalai, 1993; Taylor, 2007 and 2012; Te Velde, 2010). It should be noted, however, that the picture in the 1990s and 2000s was not absolutely bleak, according to these sources. Some formal and informal BMOs managed to make their voices heard, and have continued to do so until today, for instance in trade policy negotiations, currently, for example, in the run-up to the African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA), in which a BMO such as the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) has played a major, albeit defensive, role.

9Against this backdrop, targeted donor support for private sector organizations to foster political dialogue would have come in as handy, as much as aid to Civil Society Organizations (CSO). Since that time, foreign PPD support has ranged from the long-defunct “President’s Investor Councils” to helping the more down-to-earth BAs or BMOs, exactly the kind of capacity building which ODA favours. Unfortunately, the whole range of the usual ODA problems in general, and of PSD in particular, reproduces itself here. Among the general issues is donor coordination, which perhaps represents the greatest institutional paradox of ODA: although most agencies are “official”, and thus public, the dominant mode of operation is competition, and not coordination. As a consequence, different donors offer support to the same or different organizations, however active they may be in the same business.

10The contributions to this issue go a great deal further in their conclusions, and economists should take note. While many observations of BA analysis at the time still hold true, this issue of Anthropologie & développement confirms that BAs are not simply scattered and relatively weak. It would seem from the case studies on Benin, Cameroon, Mozambique and Togo that business associations represent a new articulation of (neo-)patrimonialism – a still more organized way of accessing government favours. The BMOs do not stand in opposition to a state machinery that seeks to overpower them; they are the platform for rent-seeking behaviour in a close relationship with state officials. The bottom line of the analyses in this issue appears to be that in the first place, these associations cement (pre-)existing clientelistic state-business relations, and that it is only in the second place that they provide an arena for a confident articulation of business interests vis-à-vis an oppressive state bureaucracy.

11In A. Manhiça’s analysis of Mozambique, the apex Confederation of Business Associations (CTA) and its membership structures basically consolidate a small socio-economic class of entrepreneur-brokers, arranging juicy contacts with power while they themselves are excluded from the high ranks of political decision-makers. For ODA, his blunt conclusion that “CTA has remained largely a donor-sponsored project that mainly benefits the personal interests of its leaders” gives us food for thought, to put it mildly. The case study of the association of women heads of enterprises in Togo by C. Vampo corroborates the analysis of a BA’s brokerage function in collusion with power, while also showing how the developmental agenda of women’s empowerment is exploited for the purpose.

12Economists and aid officials may read the other contributions in the same vein, going by the products and value chains at the centre of the respective economic efforts. Indeed, single products – consumer articles – are often iconic examples of the economic dilemmas of African countries.

13This is the case with imported frozen chicken parts from Europe or the US, which have been forced upon African countries from Senegal to South Africa. They have been a decades-long bone of contention in trade policy, as they depress local economic development in the poultry industry. G. Amougou reports on Cameroon in this issue and its government’s aspirations for a planned economic emergence. While the official referral to the developmental state as a role model for Cameroon has largely remained an empty term, the author finds that leading entrepreneurs have occasionally forced the hand of the government in trade and industrial policy for the better, including by the prohibition of frozen chicken imports, although the BAs played an ambiguous role. Insofar, the Cameroonian case is encouraging as an example for the partial successes organized business interests can achieve in the interests of general economic development. Elsewhere in Africa, frozen chicken or milk powder imports and cotton export problems have offered similarly representative cases, albeit with a negative turn.

14Then there is the pineapple. Based on the example of Benin, pineapple production will henceforth be an emblematic example of the problem of fragmented business associations. A. Badou and T. Bierschenk have counted no less than 14 pineapple-related BMOs, many of them ODA-supported but none solving the problem of how to make the in-country value chain longer (by further transformation steps) or ensuring export markets for the pineapple. Rather, it is a game of thrones: in contrast to the small number of well-established medium-size firms, an absurdly large number of business associations is supported or – as A. Badou and T. Bierschenk have it – even created by development aid efforts, allowing big men to be little kings in their domain. Modern innovative entrepreneurship does not benefit from this institutional model.

15Development economics hardly provides any kind of analysis like this, and yet, both development aid and economics now have to acknowledge the risk associated with the fact that certain states reinforce their mainmise (G. Amougou) over the private sector by means of BAs, instead of letting independent associations emerge. Conversely, the search for autonomous entrepreneurship and the minimum conditions under which it can emerge appear to be an ever more urgent issue for successful PSD.

  • 1 The East African Business Council represents the private sector in the East African Community (EAC) (...)

16The “Union” of traders and transporters depicted in S. Cissokho’s analysis represents a particular type of BMO in that it is regional. Regional BMOs are not in short supply in Africa, although they are not as abundant as national ones. The best-known cases are general associations of the regional private sector such as the East African Business Council, the COMESA Business Council or the SADC Business Council.1 S. Cissokho’s case study deals with a sectoral association of transporters and traders in West Africa. The main concern is general, however, and also characteristic of African regional economic communities as such: as a result of an entrenched logic of exceptions from what has been officially agreed to be free trade in the African interior, most economic communities are still not entirely what they are declared to be – free trade areas, customs unions or single market areas, as this author has recently shown in detail (H. Asche, 2021). Trade theory as applied to Africa can learn from S. Cissokho’s ethnographic work how organized business reflects the imperfections of regional integration itself. In fact, the West African business association he portrays has a contradictory role in the process – businesspeople often use the shadowy corridors of their regional BMO meetings to negotiate individual exceptions in their favour, but basically they remain one of the groups that suffer most from the multiple levies at the borders, the interminable roadblocks, etc. In the face of these difficulties, S. Cissokho shows how the ambiguous role of BMOs vis-à-vis the state is reproduced at the regional level of ECOWAS and UEMOA: the business associations try to push through further trade reforms while at the same time making a living by arranging themselves with customs officials, in a trade environment that remains marked by pervasive irregularities. This explains the dual agenda the “Union” has created – an official part and a hidden, informal one. As this West African business association is an offspring of USAID and is now supported by German technical aid, the outcome of development aid is also highly ambiguous.

17As we summarize the innovative ethnographical pieces on Benin, Cameroon, Mozambique, Togo and West Africa as a region, we see that private sector development as an important branch of the official development aid delivered to Africa has more problems than have previously been disclosed. In a word: PSD does not achieve much PSD. Where it is centred on national or regional BMOs, PSD has the additional problem of destabilizing the fledgling private sector by supporting a flurry of overlapping representations. The important addition this volume makes to the literature is therefore its identification of the perverse effects of aid in certain instances, effectively weakening the private sector by fragmenting its political and societal representation(s). This is a devastating account of development aid, and one that conventional evaluations have not established.

18There is one apparent outlier among the contributions to this issue – the description of “Squandermania” as the combined efforts of Nigeria’s film, hospitality and construction industries by A. Bud. It has little to do with business associations, and strictly speaking nothing to do with foreign aid, but on closer inspection, it is less distant from the other contributions to this issue than it may appear. In general terms, it describes peculiar entrepreneurial dynamics in Africa. Reviewing a country in which core manufacturing growth and innovation remain severely constrained, the article discusses the interplay among three sectors that have expanded massively or have even been newly developed (in Africa) – the hospitality, construction and film industries – with cultural entrepreneurs at the helm of the resulting economic dynamic (Röschenthaler and Schulz, 2016). The article presents an important exception to the rule of ongoing state domination by showing the route taken by truly autonomous entrepreneurs in the “creative” industries who have also proven to be creative in the way they have built a planet of activities far away from the usual state interference. Compared to the barely evolving clientelistic business model, it arguably represents a better escape route from an industrial environment that otherwise remains marked by a lack of manufacturing and agricultural diversification and modernization. Last but not least, A. Bud delivers an ethnographic contribution to the transformation of the urban space in Africa.

19The important research question to be studied is now the extent to which the country cases are representative of the broader African landscape. This appears to be all the more important because the picture that has been painted is not a uniform one, and reflects contradictions and fissures in the institutional and entrepreneurial situation. Given the fact that the countries covered are economically diverse, it can be expected that further case studies will confirm this nuanced picture and its sobering bottom line. Unfortunately, this leaves us with the strong impression that a clientelistic or neo-patrimonial environment still prevails in the core structures of African economies. They have not been adequately assisted in their transformation to self-sustained capitalism by aid programmes for PSD or BER, even if these aid efforts indeed ever had the intention or thrust to help achieve such a bold target. Self-acquired social capital is apparently still needed in order to outweigh the negative political capital for those entrepreneurs who are not willing to remain in a sphere of collusion with the state. As A. Badou and T. Bierschenk stress, in the end, it is hard to imagine the much-vaunted self-conscious “Africapitalism” without working business associations. This is sobering indeed, but it is also exciting for the purposes of further research. Development economics and aid organizations alike will gain by reading these findings from social anthropology on African business and business associations, which they have not been able to generate by using neo-institutional economic modelling or aid evaluation.

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1 The East African Business Council represents the private sector in the East African Community (EAC). COMESA is the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, and SADC is the Southern African Development Community.

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Helmut Asche, « Business associations at work – working for whom? »Anthropologie & développement, 52 | 2021, 143-150.

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Helmut Asche, « Business associations at work – working for whom? »Anthropologie & développement [En ligne], 52 | 2021, mis en ligne le 11 juillet 2022, consulté le 07 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Helmut Asche

Development economist, Universities of Leipzig and Mainz; asche[at]

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