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Africa’s Most Successful Women: Divine Ndhlukula

Divine Ndhlukula

Divine Ndhlukula

Divine Ndhlukula, a Zimbabwean national, is the founder and Managing Director of SECURICO, one of Zimbabwe’s largest security companies. The Harare-based outfit is a market leader in the provision of bespoke guarding services and cutting-edge electronic security solutions.

Ndhlukula has done remarkably well. In less than 15 years of doing business, SECURICO has achieved a number of significant feats: The $13 million (revenues) company now has more than 3,400 employees – 900 of whom are women. The company was also the first security outfit in Zimbabwe to achieve an ISO (International Organization for Standardisation) certification. Last December the company was the winner of the prestigiousLegatum Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship.

Divine Ndhlukula is immensely proud of what she’s been able to accomplish so far. The Midlands State University MBA grad granted me an interview recently during which she recounted her start-up journey, shared a few lessons she’s learned in doing business in Zimbabwe and relived her experience in winning the Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship.

Take me back to your earliest beginnings as an entrepreneur, right to the time you founded SECURICO. Of all the opportunitiesin the world, what prompted you to venture into the very male-dominated realm of security services?

I have an Executive MBA from Midlands State University and an MBA (Honorary) from Women’s University in Africa conferred me in recognition of my business leadership and efforts on gender equality. After attaining an accounting diplomafrom an institution in Zimbabwe, I worked briefly for the government and Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation as an accounting officer. I went on to take up an appointment at Old Mutual and later took up a job at a local insurance company in 1985. While I was working at these places, I was always running around doing some small business on the side – I was ordering clothes from Harare factories and selling them to colleagues at work. Sometimes, I gave my friends in other companies some clothes to sell for me and I gave them commissions on clothes sold. Within a short while, I had made enough money to buy an 8-tonne truck, which I hired out to a construction company.

As time went on, a situation cropped up where I had to rescue my late father’s farm from being auctioned. My brother (who had inherited the farm according to our customs) had taken a loan with a local bank which he had been unable to service, so the bank opted to auction the farm which my brother had tendered as collateral. As a result, I had to sell the truck in order to raise funds to rescue the family farm from being auctioned. The title of the farm was changed into my name and I ventured into the farming business in 1992 and quit my job. I then took a loan against my house in Harare, to prop up the farming business and poured the loan in a maize crop that flopped due to a drought that season.

As I was almost losing my house in 1995, I then went back to my former employers,  Intermarket Insurance (now ZB Insurance), and asked for my job back. Since I had been one of their top performers, the company was happy to take me back. In no time I moved to the executive team.

Let me say that right from a tender age, I had always told myself and everyone that I was going to start and run my own business which I always envisaged as a large business. Hence the time I had stopped working, I had taken time to learn about all the critical elements of business as I had learnt my lesson the hard way. Among the various development programmes I enrolled for was an Entrepreneurial Development Programme which I did in 1995 and this indeed sharpened my entrepreneurial competences in a big way. I learned elements like opportunity seeking, to goal setting, business planning, networking etc.

My quest to start and run my own company never dissipated and therefore, even as I was back at work, I started scanning at the various opportunities that I could see and think of.

Eventually in 1998 I saw an opportunity in the security services sector. The opportunity was prompted by what I had noted in this sector- a total lack of professionalism, quality and services that customers really yearned for. There were two distinct groups of security organizations: the first group was comprised of the long established and larger companies – there were about five of them at the time. They literally had the market to themselves and did not see the need then of meeting the customer’s expectations as they could simply rotate the business among themselves in a cartel like arrangement.

The second group was the small emerging or submerging companies which did not have the resource capacity to service big corporations and the multinationals. In short, the decision to start this company was made on the understanding that only service and value addition was going to carry the day.

With next to nothing in capital and no security background, just armed with passion and determination to succeed in a hitherto male area, SECURICO was founded in Dec 1998 in the cottage of my small home in Harare with 4 employees. The business idea was after the realization of a gap that I had noted in the market for a service and quality oriented security services provider.

I set up operations in December 1998 and the company was formally incorporated in 2000. We started with three security operatives and two administrators-I included. I used to do literally most functions like office administrative work, accounting, deploying operatives with my one vehicle, supervision, training and other related activities. We converted my servants’ quarters to an office and we had only one desk for furniture that we shared.

Give me a brief rundown of Securico’s security services. I know your company primarily provides uniformed guard services, but you’re engaged in other services I suppose.

When we started we were primarily offering guarding services but we started cash and assets–in–transit services in 2002. This service offering has grown phenomenally and we are now the market leader in this service in Zimbabwe with a fleet of over 80 armoured vehicles. We have since diversified this service to “Cash Management.” Besides moving cash, gold bullion and other valuables, we provide on-site banking where we deploy our own cashiers to receive cash from our clients’ customers. At that point the cash is considered banked so our customers are able to cut back on expenses to do with employment and transporting cash. They also reduce risks involving cash to zero. It’s a very attractive and innovative offering. We have also gone on to propose value to our clients by another offering of providing them with receptionists who besides being frontline personnel also provide security incognito for their premises.

In 2008, at the height of the Zimbabwean economic crisis, we acquired an electronic security systemscompany – MULTI-LINK (PVT) LTD as a going concern. We transformed this company into a high tech installer specializing in the latest innovative and cutting edge electronic security solutions. We have since established partnerships with suppliers in South Africa, China, Hong Kong and India. Within the last two years we grew this company into the second largest in Zimbabwe in the provision of electronic security systems like CCTV, access control systems, alarms, remote site monitoring and response services, electric fences etc.

We also do private investigations, employment vetting, and security consultancy. Our consultancy includes risk assessments, security policy formulation, setting up security systems and establishing security profiles of employees.

In 2005 we founded a subsidiary company – CANINE Dog Services – that breeds, trains and leases guard dogs. The company also trains dogs for domestic use or as pets.

The initial mobilization of funds was not easy.  As a person who went into this industry as an underdog, we started very small, doing the best that could be done, exercizing a lot of discipline in terms of cash management and literally grew with very little borrowings save for bail outs from family when the need arose.

SECURICO is now one of Zimbabwe’s largest security groups. How have you been able to accomplish this feat?

Two things: Firstly, from the onset our emphasis has been on service quality and professionalism. Therefore when we started our operations our approach was distinctly different from the other providers. The aim was to establish ourselves as a high quality security services provider. We also worked hard to build a robust organizational culture with a strong customer orientation a culture that would define our make-up. Although we started building this culture from inception we decided to implement the ISO 9001 Quality Management System to buttress the culture. We became the first company in the security industry to attain the internationally acclaimed ISO9001 QMS.

We set a pace that transformed the private security business in such a manner that our brand became the flagship in this industrial sector. It involved very hard work on my part and my team but the effort led to the phenomenal growth that took us to where we are now.

Secondly, the security industry in this country was associated with people who hitherto had failed to make it into other careers.  This resulted in the industry being served by people who had low self esteem and that indeed affected the quality of services. We embarked on an initiative to shift the paradigm altogether.  This was achieved by a conceptual framework that I came up with that we implemented to change that mindset. That won the day and the security industry has tremendously transformed now to one that is respectable, professional and people are eager to build their careers in it.

You recently won the Legatum Africa Awards for entrepreneurship. How did that make you feel? Relive the experience for us.

Winning the AAE was the most humbling experience I have had in my life.  I was awed to say the least. When it became apparent that we were going to be announced the winner, this is at the point when they had announced the other six winners and about to announce the grand prize, I just sat in my seat at loss for words and just managed to say to my colleague Mark Kupfuwa, “We are winning this award and I can’t believe it!”  Though I tried very hard to be cool and composed, I just went up that stage not believing it was actually happening.

Before we got to Nairobi for the finals, my team and I had been so confident with our showing at that point that we were almost certain of getting the grand prize. However, after meeting the other finalists in Nairobi, whom I found to be dynamic and talented, I had then almost been convinced that the grand prize was going to any of the ten of us, but, at least I was convinced we would make it into the other 6 run up winners. So 8th December 2011 is a day I am unlikely going to forget for the rest of my life.

While we have won 11 national awards in the past 12 years, AAE is the most significant so far as we were competing with 3,400 companies in 48 African countries and this magnificent achievement has put us at a very enviable position. This will make our future growth plans easier.

Is Zimbabwe really an easy place to do business? Have you had to navigate some bureaucratic bottlenecks in trying to do business, and is corruption still a major problem?

I am a firm believer of the philosophy that there is no easy road to anywhere worth going to, especially business, in particular in Africa. The Zimbabwean business environment has been very difficult in the past ten years, however, at the same time, this presented opportunities for those with a good entrepreneurial flair. The record inflation, lack of consistent power, the uncertain political environment of 2007 to 2009 presented unimaginable challenges. We managed to pull through due to tenacity, creativity and determination.

Zimbabwe still boasts of abundant opportunities to do business. The environment has not reached expected levels necessary for ease of doing business but there is great progress. We are one of very few countries with potential for greenfield opportunities across all sectors. Competition in some of them is low and scope for maximizing profits exists. For those with little hesitation to plunge….this is the time.

Bureaucracy has been tamed now. The creation of Zimbabwe Investment Authority (ZIA) has plugged all cumbersome processes.  ZIA has resulted in the realignment of licensing, registration and most, if not all statutory requirements, regulatory information is found under one roof.

Corruption, unfortunately, is the cancer the country is grappling to deal with. We as a business had anticipated to get a lot of government work after the multi-currency system was introduced 3 years ago, but we have not gotten much work from government as their awarding of tenders is fraught with corruption. Institutions created to superintend over graft have also been highly politicized rendering them ineffective. Graft exists in both private and public sectors. Yes, it is one of the negatives any investor will and is expected to deal with.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in business?

The biggest lesson I have learnt so far is that nothing comes easy. While I had always knew I was going to make it in business, I had not really anticipated the amount of hard work, discipline, commitment and determination I needed to get here. Hence, I have now have had to learn that the secret of success is found in one’s daily schedule.

What is your philosophy in business and in life?

My philosophy is anchored on the biblical “never tire in well doing, because, in due season, you shall reap if you faint not”.  I believe that every good deed is a door opener hence I always try to be as good as I can to others, my word being my bond, as the key to my success is loving and connecting with people which are always the seeds of great things to come. I believe in playing by the rules all the time and most importantly upholding my personal integrity as this gives me good night sleep.

In a nutshell, what is the most important piece of advice you’ll give to young, entrepreneurial inclined individuals out there- particularly the ladies?

My advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is start with an end in mind, know exactly what you want to achieve and start to work systematically towards the goal, exercising some patience.

Know the industry you want to get into, its internal and external environment.

Work your plan with passion, determination and diligence, and when a bit of cash starts rolling in, have the discipline to know that it is not your money yet.

My advice to women all the time is: If you want a certain future, go out and create it. Conquer your fears as that is what enslaves most women. Opportunities are now galore.  We just need to roll up our sleeves, lift our feet, and walk through the door as no one will carry us.

Have a game plan and execute it with passion, determination and focus. Never mind that you are a woman. Do not think about that except as a competitive advantage. No one is going to give you anything on a silver platter. You have to work twice, thrice, five times as hard and do not lose focus. Work with your passion, it will keep you going and once you have a footing in your business, make the most of it and create the momentum and that will get rid of all the little challenges that may bog you down. Lastly, choose your team carefully and get rid of non-performers soon enough.

Follow me on Twitter @EmperorDIV

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The Senegalese Entrepreneur Selling African Recipes To Americans

Magatte Wade

Magatte Wade

Magatte Wade is one of the most notable female entrepreneurs to emerge from Africa.  Born in Senegal and educated in France, she is the original founder of Adina World Beat Beverages, a San Francisco beverage company that manufactures coffee, tea and fruit juicesbased on indigenous traditional beverage recipes from across the world, using organic ingredients sourced from small-scale farmers across Africa and Asia.

Wade started the company in 2004 and within five years had raised $30 million inventure capital. That was great news but had drawbacks. Other parties became increasingly influential regarding the styling, positioning, and content of the brand.  Wade did not like the direction, so she stepped down as Adina’s CEO in 2009, but held onto a stake.

Wade then went on to start Tiossan,  a company that produces luxury organic skin-care products based on traditional Senegalese skin care recipes, in New York.  The name is a play on “Thiosane” a Wolof (Senegalese) word which means “origins.”

I spoke with Wade recently to learn more about her entrepreneurial journey, her current business venture and lessons she learned along the way.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in doing business?

The negative perception that most Americans have about Africa.  Either they believe that it is a disaster and thus I can’t possibly build a business based on producing goods in Africa, or they believe that it is a disaster and want me to build a “pity-based” brand where Americans buy the products because they feel sorry for Africans.  The notion that Africans can be capable, hard-working, successful professionals creating world-class products and services is largely alien to the American mindset.  The media and, sadly, the NGOs, are largely responsible for this perception of Africa. But because I believe in “Criticize By Creating”, I created Tiossan as a fun and value-creation oriented way to positively change the perception that the world has of Africa.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in doing business?

The importance of alignment.  It is crucial that partners, investors, employees, and other stakeholders be deeply aligned with the purpose of the company.  This may be less crucial for a company that is based strictly on lowest cost, but for a purpose driven company to succeed, philosophical alignment is essential.

In 2011, the World Economic Forum named you as one of their Young Global Leaders. How did that make you feel?

The recognition was very gratifying.  That said I’ve been too busy building my company to participate in most of their activities.

What is your philosophy in business and in life?

To stay true to myself, speak up my mind and stand my ground firm, even if it means great sacrifices. There are countless opportunities to take shortcuts, but I would destroy my mission in life if I took those shortcuts.

In a nutshell, what is the most important piece of advice you’ll give to young, entrepreneurial inclined individuals out there- particularly the ladies?

Focus on building your skills and relationships while you are young, then as you develop a concept begin looking for highly aligned partners, investors, and supporters.  Realize that it is ultimately more about you, your positioning, and your persistence than it is about access to capital.  And ultimately it is about selling (I prefer the terms “sharing something I care profoundly about and trust with other people”) – if you can’t sell yourself, your vision and your products, then you need to partner with someone who can.  No sales, no revenue, no company, no jobs created, no greater good provided to the world. And especially for the ladies, never compromise your integrity, self-respect and dignity in your life in general, but especially on your entrepreneurial journey

Tell me about yourself and how you got where you are?

I was born in Senegal, and spent the first few years of my life in a traditional African family compound.  My parents left to find work in Europe shortly after I was born, so I was raised with my grandmother and spent my days leading packs of boys on fun and adventure filled little hunting and fishing expeditions.  When I was eight my parents decided that I needed to get an education (somehow I never managed to make it to school back home) so they brought me to Germany, where I faced snow and the German language for the first time.  After a couple of years we moved to France, where I later went to high school in Chartres followed by a Business School, the Ecole Supérieure de Gestion et de Commerce.  Mybusiness school had an exchange program with a university in Indiana, during which I built the connections to later come back and settle in Columbus, Indiana after I graduated from business school.  I spent one year working for a family-owned automotive company, then fell in love and moved to San Francisco where I married a French entrepreneur whom I had known slightly in business school.  While there I was working in the executive recruitment industry (head-hunting), identified finance professionals for companies likeGoogle and WebEx when they were tiny start-ups.  I was very inspired by the world of start-ups and, combined with helping my husband build his own company, helped me catch the entrepreneurial fever.

You started out your first company, Adina to attractively package traditional African tea and juices and sell to the western world. You were able to build a viable commercial enterprise. Tell me the story behind Adina World Beat Beverages. What triggered you to start up the company? What does Adina even mean?

“Adina” means “life” in Wolof, my native language.  I started Adina after returning to Senegal and finding that Bissap, the hospitality beverage of my country, was being replaced by Coke and Fanta.  I was sick with anger that my country’s cultural traditions were being destroyed, and realized that only when my country’s traditions were respected in the West would the Senegalese respect their own traditions. I came back to the U.S. and built a company around this concept.

How did retailers and customers initially respond to your beverages? Was there any reluctance from westerners to try out African juices?

The cultural creative demographic (essentially those people who shop at Whole Foods) are very eager to explore the indigenous traditions of other cultures.  Thus the fact that Adina was originally inspired by African traditions was a huge plus.  We had to tweak the recipe and branding a bit, but I found many retailers and customers to be very enthusiastic.

You started Adina in 2004, and by 2010 I read somewhere that your annual revenues had exceeded $3.5 million. What are the figures now?

I left the company in 2009 after building up revenues to that level by means of four years of nonstop flying across the country promoting the products, opening up new sales channels, and supporting my sales staff with servicing existing accounts.  Since leaving Adina I’ve been 200% focused on building my new company so while I’m still a shareholder, I don’t know what has happened to the company since my departure.

Riding on the crest of your success with Adina World Beat beverages, you decided to set up another company, Tiossan. Tell me about Tiossan and the story behind the company.
Tiossan is a return to a deeper version of my original dream.  I wanted to bring more of my indigenous Senegalese culture to the U.S. market, both to share the gifts of our culture with the West and so that Senegalese would become more aware of the value of their own culture.  I chose to start with skin carebecause I am personally a skin care junkie and because I had the highest respect for the healing secrets of our traditional healers and herbalists.  After apprenticing with a renowned tradipractitioner, I brought the recipes to one of the best California green chemists to stabilize them for long shelf life on the U.S. market, and then scented the products with custom fragrances designed by a French artisanal perfumer and manufactured in Grasse, cradle of perfumery in France.

Tiossan has been described in some media as a high-end skincare products manufacturer.  Define high-end. Must I be rich before I can afford Tiossano products for my girlfriend?

Our products are entirely affordable for people who really care about their skin.  We use only the best natural and organic ingredients and avoid all damaging chemicals in our products.  Women know that soft, healthy, beautiful skin is one of their most important assets, and it is not an area where they should skimp and risk damaging their skin with products that may create dryness, peeling, or long-term damage due to harmful chemicals.  You want your girlfriend to have deliciously soft and healthy skin, don’t you?

I’m just curious- where did the funding for Adina and Tiossano come from? Have you ever had to sell equity to external investors to raise capital for your business?

With Adina we started with friends and family, then went through several rounds of venture capital, ultimately raising more than $30 million.  But outside capital also dilutes the owner’s stake.  As a consequence, I chose to keep Tiossan very tightly controlled, which means that I’ve mostly self-funded Tiossan along with a few carefully selected outside investors who are deeply committed to the Tiossan vision.

In total, how many employees do you have?

I’m not up to date with Adina, but our biggest impact in Africa was through the creation of an organic hibiscus industry in Senegal.  The hibiscus industry was slowly dying in Senegal when we started, then with the help of ASNAPP and the First Lady of Senegal, we taught women to grow world-class certified organic hibiscus.  Today the organic hibiscus growers of Senegal sell their product around the world and thousands of women have jobs they would otherwise have lost.

With Tiossan I’m just getting started and at present everyone who works with the company is a contractor working on setting up the systems.

What are your expansion plans? Tiossan products are sold at major retailers in the United States, but I haven’t seen any of your products here in Africa. Don’t you think it’ll make a lot of economic sense to sell your products in Africa?

Because margins are higher in the U.S. and large-scale distribution is easier, I intend to build Tiossan here first.  In addition, the U.S. is the best place in the world to build a brand.  Once a brand becomes successful here, it is possible to sell it around the world.  I intend to distribute in Africa, but first I must build a stronger base here in the U.S..

Mfonobong Nsehe

POETIC JUSTICE: DRAKE & EAST AFRICAN GIRLS

By Safy-Hallan Farah
I am an East African Girl. A couple years ago, one of my friends told me that being an East African meant I’m not really black. A visibly mixed-race girl with a “high yellow” complexion and sandy brown hair telling me I’m not black didn’t sit well with me. I wanted to tell the girl, in the words of CB4, I’m black y’all. I’m black like the back of Forrest Whitaker’s neck. I’m black like Snoop Dogg’s lungs. I’m black like some Helvetica font against a white backdrop trying to sell you stuff.
I’m a black woman. But my nose, my loosely coiled curls and my fivehead make me black in a way that extends the colorism debate, creating this hierarchy of aesthetic value where I’m not just black, I’m also acceptably black.
Back in the day, white people went to East Africa to find Iman, their acceptable black girl. When white people did this, former Essence Editor-in-Chief Marcia Gillespie called East African model Iman Abdulmajid “a white woman dipped in chocolate,” highlighting Iman’s acceptable blackness while also lamenting the fact that black women’s beauty is often measured in their proximity to whiteness.
Two decades later, Bill Cosby in his “Ask the Ethiopian” speech said African Americans should aim higher than menial jobs because menial jobs are for “Ethiopians,” i.e. immigrants, i.e. The Other. Marcia and Bill emphasized the otherness of East Africans like we’re not black, too, which is why I’d like to tell Bill: please let us, East Africans, have all the menial jobs. But in accordance with Marcia Gillepsie’s criticism, make sure those shitty jobs aren’t jobs where the way we look will inspire racists to pat us on the back and deem us more respectable or better than other black people. This is what the fashion industry notably did with Iman.
East African Girls, Iman included, take part in a system that marginalizes and limits other forms of aesthetic blackness. Every image of Iman or Yasmine Warsame or Liya Kebede reinscribes white beauty through black beauty. Reinscribing white beauty through black beauty has always been with us, but in recent years it has inspired rappers to reference East African Girls like we’re the 49th Law of Power, predictably denigrating black women who lack acceptable blackness in the same tired ways.
The first rapper I remember rhyming about East African Girls was Nas. In “The Set Up,” a song from Nas’ “It Was Written” album, Nas raps, “They thought the hoes were Somalian.” The “hoes” in question are “two fly bitches, Venus and Vicious.” On his latest album, “Life Is Good,” Nas references East African Girls again, in a party song called “Summer” ft. Miguel and Swizz Beats.
East African Girls have been referenced in several other songs: Wale’s “No One Be Like You” (“Somalian women, Ethiopian queens/Never could tell the difference, I just know that you mean”) and “Hold Yuh Remix” (“I’m lookin’ for an Ethi-Somali here beside me”); Tinie Tempeh’s remix of Drake’s “The Motto” (“My bitch booty bigger than a fucking Eritrean”); Common’s “Celebrate” (“Exotic broads lobbyin’/Spanish, Somalian”); Drake’s “Where To Now” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Poetic Justice” ft. Drake.
In “Where To Now,” a track off Homecoming Season, Drake’s second mixtape, Drake spits sweet nothings about an East African Girl, over a J. Dilla beat. Drake desires the East African Girl (perhaps as much as he desires getting ghost head from Aaliyah): “Ethiopian girl, Ethiopian girl, with yo long curly hair and yo big ass bootay.”
In “Poetic Justice” by Kendrick Lamar ft. Drake (music video above), Drake does it again: “I was trying to put you on game, put you on a plane/Take you and your mama to the motherland/I could do it, maybe one day/When you figure out you’re gonna need someone/When you figure out it’s all right here in the city/And you don’t run from where we come from.” But couched between another lazy description of a faceless, nameless East African Girl, and Drake’s assertion that that East African Girl is busy ignoring him for another man, is a story of afrodiasporic identity, which is what sets Drake apart, narratively, from other rappers.
While Drake’s definition of black beauty may seem limited, his definition of black identity is what Touré would call “post-black,” and Michelle Wright would call “postwar diasporic black.” Drake’s flow in “Poetic Justice” facilitates a broader discussion of black identity and black authenticity, a discussion that implicitly critiques Marcia Gillespie’s “white woman dipped in chocolate” statement, positing that East African Girls “come from” the same city Drake does, Toronto. The underlying message is that Drake considers us black like him. Drake, as a black Jewish man whose Degrassi character Jimmy Brooks dated a fake East African Girl, occupies a similarly hybrid space like East African Girls. For many East African Girls, that feels like poetic justice because the definition of ‘authentically black’— descendants of Africans brought here as slaves— is a limited definition that doesn’t even include Barack Obama, much less East African Girls.
When one does a cursory Twitter search of Drake’s “East African Girl” lyrics, fetishistic things are tweeted by Drake fans, most notably East African Girls themselves. “Poetic Justice” functions, on some level, as a false empowerment anthem,a song For East African Girls. There is a pleasure many East African Girls I know derive from hearing men, particularly Drake, talk about us to a larger supposedly authentically black population. A pleasure teenage me would no doubt indulge in, too. It’s a reiteration of our own myth that when God created humanity, he started with the Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans first— borne out of us is whiteness and blackness. It’s unscientific but when you’re a teenage girl, especially a young East African Girl, there’s no science needed to justify supremacy or fetish, and where those two things interplay.
East African girls are generally not mixed race, yet this idea that we are is deeply embedded in the minds of white racialists, leading some to believe we’re an entirely different, special, exotic breed of people. This goes back to the pseudoscience of Carleton S. Coon’s “The Races of Europe.” Anthropologists and white racialists, which are often one in the same, have been claiming we are of majority Arab or white or “Afro-Asiatic” descent for years. And while that isn’t the sentiment of Drake or Nas’s lyrics, our alleged mixedness underpins their lyrics by virtue of the sheer selectiveness of the East African Girls shouted out in hip-hop lyrics. When Drake or Nas reference East African Girls, it can be easily inferred that they mean Cushites representing the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia). “Cushite,” a term derived from “Cush” of the Hebrew Bible and Quran, is in reference to our shared “Afro-Asiatic” language classification, which is often mistakenly typified as a shared racial identity. This little mistake triggers a big mistake: the conflation of biology and genetics with race and ethnicity as a social fact, which reifies the racial categories.
One of the most popular threads on Niketalk.com, a sneakerhead forum, is called, “African Women Appreciation Thread: ‘Young East African Girl/Thoroughbreds.” A commenter in the forum who goes by Macc E-Money claims he was deprived of “beautiful African women,” and wasn’t able to procure a Somali “thoroughbred” until he left his home state of Michigan. Macc E-Money references Drake’s “Young East African Girl” lyric, presenting black beauty in a limited way and privileging East Africans over other Africans while passing it off as an appreciation of African beauty.
The lines between acceptance, fetishism and exoticism are blurry. It would seem that the primary distinction between black (North American) men, East African men and white men exoticizing East African Girls is that for many white men and even some East African men, the exoticism is firmly rooted in a belief in the racial categories—a belief that race is biological when it is in fact social, and a fetishization and romanticism of our Arab World ties and colonial past. For a lot of black men like Drake, it’s way less insidious. At best, it’s a misguided reinscription of the white standard of beauty through acceptably black women. At worst it’s intra-racial discrimination. Usually, it’s a combination of all these things but if representing, hyping and esteeming women with acceptable blackness is good for all girls—Trickle Down Acceptability, if you will— then we’d probably live in a post-racial world where fairies and dragons and Tupac populated the earth.
Sadly, we live in a racist, sexist world where black men and white people can hurt black women in the same ways. Black women hurt black women, too, but differently: we don’t have each other’s back. Those that see themselves represented in the lyrics and the videos, accept it without questioning it. And those who lament the overrepresentation of East African Girls, frequently fail to realize that the “Young East African Girl(s)” of Drake’s lyrics are like all women of color; they are objectified and male-gazed upon in hip-hop. These women are mythic, “exotic” generalized by rappers as theambASSadors of their ethnicity or nationality. We are an idea rooted in a scant and skewed example— a token— from Drake’s own lived experience, mixed in with a little bit of mainstream imagery and a history that isn’t even our own.
Perhaps my own cousin, Leyla who Drake once bought lunch for, is Drake’s East African Girl. Maybe his East African Girl is my friend Ayan, who Drake met while clubbing. Maybe his East African Girl is like Helen Gedlu or Lola Monroe. Drake’s East African girl, whoever she is, does not account for of all of us. Our varied hip-to-waist ratios and hair textures and booties (or lack thereof) and cultures make us more nuanced than whatever Drake or anyone else needs to believe.
The over-representation of East African Girls cannot be separated from broader media representations of acceptable blackness. Broader representations that, in the 90s, brought us acceptable black women like Tatyana Ali, Stacey Dash, Chilly of TLC, etc.; the biggest face today being Scandal’s Kerry Washington. It’s no wonder Kendrick Lamar believes there is a balance issue. Kendrick cast Brittany Sky, a black woman, as his love interest in the video for “Poetic Justice.” Brittany Sky is a black woman who is neither East African or light-skinned, however she is every bit as acceptably black as Iman. It’s Drake’s love interest—or rather, sex interest— who is actually balancing representation. But she is who Drake is having sexually for that night, not who, as the video and the lyrics suggest, Drake wants; Drake wants the East African Girl he’s talking to on the phone. Drake is talking on the phone with the East African Girl while his sex interest is splayed across the bed, naked. Thus, even within the video there is a hierarchy. There’s a specific depersonalization and objecthood of the non-acceptable black woman’s body. The non-acceptable black woman is granted zero agency, and rendered the least desirable in a video that is supposedly progressive.
There is nothing progressive about acceptable blackness. There is, however, something progressive about Drake and the internal conversation he seems to be having in his music. When Drake raps about this East African Girl as he is talking to this East African Girl on the phone, he is also talking with other black people. He is having a conversation with Marcia Gillepsie and Bill Cosby and me and that girl I used to be friends with who said I wasn’t black. This conversation requires context that can’t be reproduced for an American audience with limited knowledge of the nuances of blackness. This conversation cannot translate externally, hence the phone. The video begs for the consistency of our transmuted presence but the direct presence of an East African Girl wouldn’t make sense to an audience that doesn’t understand Drake’s specific location in the diaspora, what diaspora is, or who East Africans are.

HOW THE AFRICA-CHINA ROMANCE IS KILLING EUROPE

By Serginho Roosblad

In the past decade the international media first focused on China’s economic boom, which was then followed by the ‘Africa is rising’ narrative. The latter partly as a result of China’s investments. Many have wondered whether China’s interest in Africa would trigger a new wave of colonialism and exploitation of mineral resources, needed to keep Chinese factories going.
On regular occasions one would find media analyses of the China-Africa romance (like here, here and here). And like a mother not too happy with her daughter’s choice of partner, the experts tended to be wary of the authenticity of the cute new couple. Even when South Africa became the ‘S’ in BRICS, the rest of the world (read: the West) had its doubts. Was South Africa ready to play with the big boys?
As it now turns out, what the West, and Europe in particular, have been afraid of all the time is how much the “Old World” would lose because of the new relations between China and the African continent. A documentary on Dutch public television by broadcaster VPRO, that premiered recently, painfully shows the consequences for Europe now that it virtually has closed its borders, while China is welcoming African migrants with open arms.
The 45-minute documentary entitled “Zwart geld: De toekomst komt uit Afrika” – “Black money: The future comes from Africa” (one could question the title) examines two things.
First, we see how migrants live in ‘Nigeria Town’ in the Chinese city Guangzhou.
Four Africans – three Nigerian men and one Mozambican woman – serve as living examples how life is like after having roamed across the globe in the hope to find employment or to do business. (Usually the latter.) It’s intriguing to watch the easiness with which the main subjects go about their daily life and interact with their Chinese business partners; there seem to be no signs of racism, a subject that inevitably needed to be covered by the filmmakers. It’s a totally different picture of the loneliness and hardships endured by African immigrants who came to Europe as seen for example in the documentary series Surprising Europe.
African migrants in China are far better off as we learn that one can make $5,000 a week in China, that an individual can make it in China and that on a daily basis twenty to thirty million dollar is sent from China to Nigeria in cash.
The second narrative of the documentary focuses on the losses for Europe as a result of the economic romance. This time no European experts, but South African economist Ian Goldin and Cameroonian historian Achille Mbembe. Goldin, the former Director of Development Policy at the World Bank and now Director at the Oxford Martin School paints a clear picture for Europe: “I predict that in 2030, Europe will be saying desperately: ‘we want more Africans’.” A pretty grim picture for those political leaders in Europe who in recent years have been working hard to build the European fortress.
A lot of the analysis and facts Goldin presents about the economic dawn of Europe are not new. However the connection he draws between the liberal economic policies that have enabled free flow of people and goods in Europe for the economic good of the continent and the liberal politicians that have drafted these policies while also being the ones responsible for the strict immigration laws might be the most interesting.
As the main focus of the documentary is on the economic consequences (positive for Africa and China, negative for Europe), Mbembe seems to be given an appreciative nod rather than adding something substantial. His role here is merely to question “Why is Europe unable to understand that the world we live in is a totally different world. And that the future of the world more and more won’t be decided in the West.”

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