Aisha on Black Group Economics

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The importance of talking about, and acting on, the notion of Black group economics cannot be emphasised enough. Day after day, young black professionals are waking up to the reality that, in order to change the course of black people’s lives and ensure the success of black people as a whole – we have no choice but to work as a collective. Enter Aisha Jackson. Having grown up in South Africa and later studied at a prestigious American HBCU, Aisha came to establish the Shop Katika app – a market place for black-owned business. Below, Aisha discusses the need to place group economics at the forefront, her app being the starting point…

Interviewer: Zimasa Mabuse

Aisha, you are the CEO of the Shop Katika app – a 2-in-1 directory and marketplace app for black-owned businesses. I was personally at the launch of this app a few weeks back and was left in awe of how the importance of Group economics in the black community was the highlight of the app’s creation. I won’t ask you what inspired you to launch it – instead, I’ll ask what was the breaking point that led you to realise that the existence of this app was critical?

There’s a few things that contributed to the breaking point pertaining to nature, nurture and life experience. Firstly, I am an activist by nature. I naturally want to fight for people’s rights, especially those who don’t have a voice. I’ve always rooted for the underdog, I was a counsellor in school where I wanted to help people with their problems, and I’ve always tried to bring light to difficult but necessary global social challenges.

Secondly, I grew up in a home that held the Pan-African ideology and consistently celebrated our “African-ness”. My mom, dubbed first African-American executive at NBC (a major US media network) and my father an entrepreneur co-owning the first radio stations owned by African-Americans. Originally from the US, my family started visiting South Africa in 1992 and moved in 1998. As toddlers, my siblings and I wore African print and attire, called my father “Baba”, and celebrated Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is a celebration in the African diaspora (mainly the US) that honours our African heritage by practicing the 7 core principles of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith over 7-days. I was listening intently, and decided it was my responsibility to carry.

And lastly, though life’s experiences, I was able to feel first hand that the world didn’t see me as equal. I had certain privileges my class afforded me, or my American accent gave me living in South Africa and being seen as a special black, or my lighter brown skin gave me amongst the black community “I was automatically prettier”. Even so, I felt it – felt my blackness in the world. When I was paid less than my white counterpart and I did a better job and had more responsibility, when you enter a restaurant and they say all the tables are full but you can see with your own eyes that it is empty, when FNB offered me a loan at 17%, when a white person calls you a “kaffir” on the street or skips you in line like you weren’t there first. It’s tiring and it shouldn’t have to be like this.

I just started to get more and more frustrated. And not only with the white
community/ establishment but also the black community. We were despondent and complacent. I started to hear things like “We need white people to save us”. We still have a “slave” mentality in 2019. Our leaders weren’t doing anything substantial, and bless their souls I truly believe their fight was the political one and that it is our generation’s fight for socio-economics. All of it was furthering the cycle of poverty and disrespect for the black community and it irked me.

So to answer your question, it was when I was told I need to change my hair from natural back to relaxed – so I looked more European/white – that I’d had enough. I had reached my breaking point. I was told my consulting clients wouldn’t take me seriously. What they weren’t aware of when saying this was the personal journey I had gone on to reassure myself I was beautiful even though it wasn’t in the way the world had told me. It was an attack on my being and my blackness. I decided we are our own worst enemy, and I couldn’t stand by and watch anymore. Something had to be done.

What remained at the forefront of your reasoning behind the app’s launch, was the notion of Group economics. It seems that, as remarkable as black people are, we are still struggling to unify and utilise our immense power to benefit our economic dynamics. What is the cause of this, in your opinion, and how will the app serve as a catalyst to solve this?

As discussed briefly before, it is our mentality. Unfortunately, we haven’t addressed the socialisation of the black community in any seriousness over the past 400 years of any black African in the diaspora. Whether you’re descendants on a slave in the United States or a recently freed African on the continent from colonisation from some European empire, the conditioning is still evident in and out of our communities. For example, the lack of Afrocentric curriculum in primary, secondary and tertiary schools in South Africa doesn’t reinforce that, as a black child, you can do and be anything. We grow up subconsciously believing that white people have all the answers. They are the mathematicians, the philosophers, the doctors, the lawyers, the strategists – we just lay the brick, we’re the workers – and that is far from accurate. I mean it still bothers me to see grown black men in African courts today wear blonde wigs – that is not their hair colour or texture! Representation, role modelling and history must show and be taught that Africans are brilliant and smart and beautiful and capable because we are. And it’s important not only for black people to learn but also the other communities, which will result in respect and equality. The other communities don’t see us as equal or capable or beautiful.

I was fortunate to grow up in a household that was pro-black and celebrated “Africanness” so I don’t have this mentality. Black is beautiful and capable. I am beautiful and capable. But I also know I am privileged in a sense.

Katika is a tech and experiential platform – meaning the app is a medium to reach the black market. At Katika, we know we are solving a socio-economic challenge: that learning to trade within the community is a social issue as well, it will take a different mind-frame to get it done on the scale and as quickly as we need it to happen. Therefore, we aim to re-educate and socialize our community into believing in ourselves, believing that we have the answers and solutions to our economic challenges. “Katika” means ‘inclusive’ in Swahili. We want to bring the entire black African community together. Our mission is to create an innovative and sustainable Pan-African global economy. We seek to be the engine of this Pan-African economy. So as it stands today, Katika is a platform that has 3 components: directory/search engine (find black owned businesses); marketplace (shop black-owned products) and experiences (events that market black culture, knowledge and empowerment). In the next version of the app, to be released in December [2019], it will include the experiences and eventually the content. We take our social responsibility very seriously.

You studied at an American HBCU (Historically black university & college). How did your studies influence your outlook on life, being a black woman in 2019 and your current career?

It had a huge impact. Actually both my undergraduate and graduate experiences did. I went to Howard University (HU) in Washington, DC for undergrad, and it was such an important part of my development for many reasons. Growing up in South Africa, I saw myself as South African and didn’t identify that well with my African-American heritage so going to Howard allowed me to connect with that part of myself as well. In order to graduate from HU, you had to take a certain number of African American history and philosophy courses, and it was the first time I was made to engage our history. I learned about the slave trade and colonisation. I read about our community’s literary hero/heroines. I came to understand where I came from and respect who we are as a people. And I was surrounded by like-minded individuals who wanted to engage in the important socio-economic problems. I met my Katika partner at Howard. We went to the business school together. He founded it in the US and is the US CEO.

I got my MBA from UCT Graduate School of Business last year, and that experience gave me the confidence to make the leap into social entrepreneurship. It might seem strange that a school founded in so much negative history was my liberator, but they created an environment that supported me as a black woman. It was even acknowledged in my interview, and I was sold. There were classes about leadership that help me explore my values and doing business in Africa that positioned me to research the Berlin Conference’s Scramble for Africa, to being able to bring the plight of black professionals to the classroom and my dissertation that looked at the “Challenges preventing black leaders from being authentic in the South African corporate workspace”. I wanted to go to an Ivy League school, and even started preparing to do so, but decided to choose an experience that would nurture my soul more than my technical skills. A school that would be open to new ways of thinking and doing instead of preparing me for corporate America. These 2 schools and those experiences were what I needed for MY destiny, because everyone is different.

Could you comment on the similarities and differences of African American businesses & South African black businesses? What can the two learn from each other?

Honestly, there are more positive and negative similarities than there are differences. Jawanza Kunjufu very accurately stated the challenges facing African American businesses in his book ‘Black Economics’ as: social environment that surrounds starting a Black business; a people without a vision; lack of trust and cooperative spirit; pooling of resources; desire to convince yourself, your family and community of the business viability; attitude of the black consumer; poor service; our desire to be humane, open, honest and fair; lack of business knowledge; “Black Brain drain”, which considers the educated blacks working in white corporates; lack of credit and capital. All of these are painstakingly true and distinctly similar to that which faces black business. Also in similarity, is the talent, capability, values and excellence of the black communities.

I think what is different are the environments they find themselves operating in. In the US, African Americans are a minority and therefore operate in a much more tangibly white-dominated environment and struggle to change the regulatory environment, but as an American, they have access to basic business essentials like transportation systems and unlimited data. Whereas in South Africa, black South Africans are the majority and can change legislation to uplift the community even though unfortunately the economy is mainly white owned and that community is still taking advantage of the black community, i.e. data prices.

The takeaway here is that in each instance, both markets have access to a huge consumer base that they aren’t utilising to its maximum. If the black community supported black business, it could create its own sustainable economy. For me, it’s less about what we can learn from each other because we’re both struggling and share the same challenges, but instead about working together. For instance, South Africa has a cheaper standard of living and looking to industrialisation to solve its unemployment challenges, we should be manufacturing and supplying and selling to African American businesses and other African countries, the way the Asians supply and sell to their diaspora and multinationals. This is the key to prosperity.
We are stronger in numbers.

Take us through the availability of the app, along with its functionalities.

The app is available in the App Store and Google Play for download now, just search “Shop Katika”. The website to compliment will be live by the end of July 2019.

Once you download the app, you can register through your Facebook, email or create your own login details. It’ll ask you to share your location, which is important because of the geo-location software which allows you to find black-owned businesses near you but you can also specify a location within the US, South Africa or England – the 3 countries we currently have businesses in the directory). The app will open to the directory, which now has over 1,200 businesses in South Africa (mainly Johannesburg and Cape Town). Our plans are to expand to most countries where you find black Africans owning businesses so when you travel, you can still support. There are 28 categories to search from: food & drink to professional services to agribusiness to financial services. It is not only B2C but also B2B, as we want to support the entire business value chain.

Using the navigation menu, you’ll be able to easily switch over to the marketplace and shop an array of lifestyle products: books, art, wine, coffee, tea, cosmetics, toys, fashion and accessories. In South Africa, we are currently solidifying the first sellers, which should be transactional by the end of this month. The app has a user-friendly interface making it easy to navigate and find what you are looking for. We are constantly upgrading and developing the app to offer our stakeholders the best experience and want to continue to be on par with the best tech companies in the world.

In both instances of the directory and marketplace, you’ll be able to find out more information about the business or item being sold. For businesses, there are direct in-app links to social media, email, phone number, directions etc. What is important about the platform is the review mechanism that we need the community to use.

As a black community, we are hyper critical of each other, and sometimes rightfully so, of the quality of product and service. The review system allows for peer-to-peer review and for the customer to distinguish quality businesses. You can filter based on location, quality and category. This feature helps the customer discern which businesses to use, and ensures others have great experiences as well. I must tell you one of the greatest gifts of this project is seeing all the talent and wonder businesses we have out here; we just need a connector and easier way to find them.

Below are screenshots of the directory:

It’s also important to discuss our black businesses and professionals as our customers too. We offer businesses and professionals marketing and retail services and partnership opportunities. Businesses and professionals if they decide to market or sell with us have access to both a local and international customer base, receive brand exposure, and data analytics which all helps to improve their revenues. To be clear, it doesn’t cost any money to have your business on the marketplace, unless you decide to buy advertising space which is available.

Advice for black entrepreneurs and business-owners?

Work together. Collective work and responsibility and cooperative economics are the real way to grow our businesses. We look at multinationals or listen to success stories of people of other races, and think it is going to apply to us. Like we are welcome at either of those tables, and we aren’t. We need to create our own table, our own thriving economy. There is enough money, talent, capability and most importantly, market to support our community’s growth. Look at what China has managed to do in the past decade creating 1.6 millionaires in 2016 from 180,000 in 2006 (Source: Deutsche Wells) by supporting their businesses, not allowing interference, and exporting to their big corporations over the past few decades.

I can’t say it enough, let’s support and collaborate with each other and have some patience while doing it. We aren’t going to get it right the first time. Don’t give up and go back to patroning other communities, find someone else – we have the talent and capability. We need everyone in this movement. If we do this, then there’s more money in the community, more money in the community means we can invest in another business, which means we will hire more black people, and eventually the average black person will rise above the poverty line.

Sacrifice. Socialise with purpose and intention. We have been very busy distracted with “living our best lives” that we are spending money in the wrong places most especially on alcohol, clothes and cars instead of at progressive, networking events. Your network is your net-worth, this is not a drill! And if you must spend, spend it at a black establishment. We’ve fallen prey to it, I have too! It’s fun but it’s a distraction. For most, there isn’t inter-generational wealth to fall back on to support or white privilege that will promote you because you have things in common with your executives. We as this generation have a responsibility to get our community out of this economic rut, and we all have a part to play and no role is too big or too small, it all counts.

What’s next for Aisha?

I have so many ideas but for now my focus is Katika. This is the catalyst for change, and there’s so much more we want to do with it especially around education and emancipation of the mind. We are beginning to plan for an African Economic Summit for December 2020. What has been previously done is out of reach or doesn’t include the average person. It’s about dignitaries, which is important, but I think that’s been the mistake thus far – this is a grassroot movement, it must include the consumers and the SMMEs.

Corporate Quickie

If I had an extra R1 000 000 I would… spend most of it on a conscious, marketing campaign to create brand awareness but also begin the journey of resocialisation. It’s time to push buttons and make everyone uncomfortable with the status quo. Black is beautiful. Black is capable. Black is talented. Time to expose people to their history and the great philosophers, doctors and historians.

I am dying to meet? How can I choose, they are so many people who have
positively impacted and influenced my mind and spirit from President Paul Kagame and the Obamas to Beyoncé and Ta-nehesi Coates. But honestly, I’d love to meet AOC – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is a force of nature and disrupting the entire establishment and I love it. She gives me so much life and energy to carry on. In an African context, Strive Masiyiwa. I saw him speak at the African Union in Addis and I was floored by his vision and work as a businessman, philanthropist, though tleader and African-enthusiast.

Biggest money mistake? Buying too high per square meter on my condo while accepting the bank’s high flexible interest rate just all in the interest of owning property because that’s what I was told is success at 30.

Best investment? Katika because of both the financial, mental and emotional reward that comes with it.

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