I once believed that capital
was another word for money, the accumulated wealth of a country
or its people. Surely, I thought, wealth is determined by
the money or property in one’s possession. Then I saw
a Deutsche Bank advertisement in the Wall Street Journal
that proclaimed: “Ideas are capital. The rest is just
I was struck by the simplicity of such an eloquent and forceful
idea. I started imagining what such power meant for Africa. The
potential for progress and poverty alleviation in Africa relies
on capital generated from the power within our minds, not from
our ability to pick minerals from the ground or seek debt relief
and foreign assistance.
If ideas are capital, why is Africa investing more on things
than on information, and more on the military than on education?
Suddenly, I realized what this idea could mean for Africa. If
the pen is mightier than the sword, why does a general earn more
than the work of a hundred writers combined? If ideas are indeed
capital, then Africa should stem its brain drain and promote
the African Renaissance, which will lead to the rebirth of the
continent. After all, a renaissance is a rebirth of ideas. And
knowledge and ideas are the engines that drive economic growth.
When African men and women of ideas, who will give birth to new
ideas, have fled to Europe and the United States, then the so-called
African Renaissance cannot occur in Africa. It can only occur
in Paris, London, and New York. There are more Soukous musicians
in Paris than in Kinshasha; more African professional soccer
players in Europe than in Africa. African literature is more
at home abroad than it is in Africa. In other words, Africans
in Europe are alleviating poverty in Europe, not in Africa. Until
the men and women of ideas — the true healers of Africa — start
returning home, the African Renaissance and poverty alleviation
will remain empty slogans. After all, the brightest ideas are
generated and harnessed by men of ideas.
The first annual report by J.P. Morgan Chase, a firm with assets
of 1.3 trillion dollars, reads: “The power of intellectual
capital is the ability to breed ideas that ignite value.” This
quote is a clarion call to African leaders to shift purposefully
and deliberately from a focus on things to a focus on information;
from exporting natural resources to exporting knowledge and ideas;
and from being a consumer of technology to becoming a producer
For Africa, poverty will be reduced when intellectual capital
is increased and leveraged to export knowledge and ideas. Africa’s
primary strategy for poverty alleviation is to gain debt relief,
foreign assistance, and investments from western nations. Poverty
alleviation means looking beyond 100 percent literacy and aiming
for 100 percent numeracy, the prerequisite for increasing our
technological intellectual capital. Yet, in this age of information
and globalization when poverty alleviation should result in producing
valuable products for the global market and competing with Asia,
the United States, and Europe— shamefully, diamonds found
in Africa are polished in Europe and re-sold to Africans.
The intellectual capital needed to produce products and services
will lead to the path of poverty alleviation. Intellectual capital,
defined as the collective knowledge of the people, increases
productivity. The latter— by driving economic growth — alleviates
poverty, always and everywhere, even in Africa. Productivity
is the engine that drives global economic growth. Those who create
new knowledge are producing wealth, while those who consume it
are producing poverty. If you attend a Wole Soyinka’s production
of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, you consume the knowledge
produced by Soyinka and Achebe as well as the actor’s production,
much like I consume the knowledge and production of Bob Marley’s
through his songs.
We will need wisdom, that which turns too much information—or
information overload—into focused power, not only to process,
but also to evaluate the overwhelming amount of information available
on the Internet.
The following story illustrates the difference between information
and wisdom. Twelve hundred years ago, in the city of Baghdad,
lived a genius named Al-Khwarizmi, who was one of the fathers
of algebra. In fact, the word algebra comes from the title of
his book Al-jabr, which for centuries was the standard mathematics
textbook. Al-Khwarizmi taught in an institution of learning called
the House of Wisdom, which was the center of new ideas during
Islam’s golden age of science. To this day we computer
scientists honor Al-Khwarizmi when we use the word algorithm,
which is our attempt to pronounce his name.
One day, Al-Khwarizmi was riding a camel laden down with algebraic
manuscripts to the holy city of Mecca. He saw three young men
crying at an oasis.
My children, why are you crying?” he inquired.
Our father, upon his death, instructed us to divide his 17 camels
as follows: ‘To my oldest son I leave half of my camels;
my second son shall have one-third of my camels; and my youngest
son is to have one-ninth of my camels.’”
What, then, is your problem?” Al-Khwarizmi asked. “We
have been to school and learned that 17 is a prime number that
is, divisible only by one and itself and cannot be divided by
two or three or nine. Since we love our camels, we cannot divide
them exactly,” they answered.
Al-Khwarizmi thought for a while and asked, “Will it help
if I offer my camel and make the total 18?”
No, no, no,” they cried. “You are on your way to
Mecca, and you need your camel.”
Go ahead, have my camel, and divide the 18 camels amongst yourselves,” he
said, smiling. So the eldest took one-half of 18— or nine
camels. The second took one-third of 18— or six camels.
The youngest took one-ninth of 18— or two camels. After
the division, one camel was left: Al-Khwarizmi’s camel,
as the total number of camels divided among the sons (nine plus
six plus two) equaled 17.
Then Al-Khwarizmi asked, “Now, can I have my camel back?” These
young men had information about prime numbers, but they lacked
the wisdom to use the information effectively. It is the manipulation
of information to accomplish seemingly impossible purposes that
defines true wisdom.
The genius of Al-Khwarizmi was not in his mathematical wizardry
or even his book knowledge: It was in his experiential knowledge — his
big-picture, right-brain thinking; creativity; innovation; and
wisdom. It was his wisdom to add a camel to make the total 18
and still get his camel back. This wisdom will give us the competitive
edge and enable us to find creative solutions.