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How Equity Bank chief is creating an ‘accidental’ army of capitalists

Wednesday August 22 2012

 

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

On Tuesday, I was one of the guest speakers at the Third Annual Equity Group Foundation Education and Leadership Congress at the Kenyatta University campus.

I am not a fan of these kind of thing, but there were a couple of things in the invitation from Equity chief James Mwangi that whetted my curiosity.

The invitation said that the congress would be attended by “over five thousand scholars drawn from the Equity Bank university sponsorship programme and the ‘Wings to Fly’ programme”.

The university programme benefits the top-performing students in the university entry exams. Pretty straightforward.

However, it is the Wings to Fly programme that intrigued me. It offers full scholarships for academically gifted children from poor backgrounds. At least two are picked from every district in Kenya every year.

The congress goes on for all of two weeks. I just could not get my head around how a programme that has over 5,000 students looks like.

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Now Mwangi should know better than to invite nosy journalists into his business, because we work on the assumption that the real and most interesting story is not what is on the menu before us. It is what is behind the curtains and happens in the corridors. Anyway, he did.

The main event was held at the Amphitheatre at Kenyatta University. The theatre was full to the rafters and enveloped in that honest sweaty odour of the masses.

Very different from the plastic cologne-and-perfume variety you would get at a conference held at a five-star hotel in central Nairobi.

It was intimidating. Fortunately, we were to speak separately to a smaller group of only the university scholars, some 400 of them.

Looking ahead, if these Equity Foundation programmes continue for just another 25 years and remain at the same level, they will have nearly 50,000 of what I would call “Equityzens”.

Because the gender split is nearly 50-50, if by the time half of them are married to people who are not alumni of the programme and have families of three children each, you will have 12,500 Equity men having 37,500 children, and Equity women having 37,500 children too — 75,000 in all. In all, that would give you 125,000 Equityzens.

What does this mean? If Mwangi were called by his maker to start a bank in the Hereafter in 25 years, and all Equityzens turned up for his burial, he would have the biggest funeral in East Africa.

We should be thankful that the gods of capitalism and democracy work in mysterious ways, and they have ensured that our politicians do not learn any lessons from the methods of foundations like Equity’s.

Otherwise, a political party that chose not to bribe voters and instead used its money to set up a similar scholarship scheme could dominate every branch of the state and private sector completely within 20 years. And it would be impossible to defeat.

In fact, the first organisations in Africa to do what Equity is doing on a larger scale were the Catholic and Protestant missionaries. It is the Africans who are in their 40s and 50s who were the first to be educated with their parents’ money.

Before that, nearly 100 per cent of, especially, poor Africans (and they were the overwhelming majority) studied on Catholic or Protestant church scholarships.

Thus nearly all of the first generation of independence leaders was educated on church money. The best part was that the first crop of radical Africans was also a creature of the missionaries.

In Uganda, for example, many of the radicals and leftists to this day are chaps who flanked out of Catholic seminaries.

These firebrand failed priests, though they oozed anti-church and anti-imperialist rhetoric, could never take away the privileges of the churches (tax breaks, huge land holdings) because they would be biting the hands that fed them.

The real success of the missionaries in Africa was that they bred, and “owned”, the opposition and radical movements on the continent.

Likewise, while the Equity Foundation scholarship programme might partly be an investment into a future loyal customer base, the greater effect is that most Equityzens will come to represent the mass conversion of people who were born in poor families into leading champions of capitalism.

I doubt that even in his most inspired moments Mwangi would have planned that.