Africa Time

Time is a funny thing in Africa. It is at the same time the most abundant and the scarcest resource available, yet another paradox on this continent of contradictions.

Time’s abundance weighs heavily during a sizzling and rain-starved afternoon. Work in the fields is often saved for dawn and dusk on dry season days, so the afternoon becomes a long waiting game for the relief brought on by sunset.  The hours stretch ahead as the sun inches towards its resting place on the horizon. Villagers shelter from the searing blaze under tin roofs and gaze at the souls who dare to walk the dusty paths in search of work or water.

The scarcity of time is exposed with the news of premature death. A young mother perishes during childbirth. A child dies from a preventable disease. A grandmother leaves this world at the age of 42. “Too soon,” they say. “She left us too soon.”

Time in Africa is the village elder, painstakingly trudging home after a trip to the market. It is also the baby of the family, scaling trees too quickly and tugging impatiently at Mama during road trips in the back of a speeding matatu.

Co-facilitating a Business Arts workshop this week at Hope of Children and Women Victims of Violence in Ndejje, Uganda, taught me another nuance of African time: when it comes to business, time is often extremely undervalued. This may not be surprising to anyone who has traveled to Africa before and is familiar with the colloquial concept of “Africa time” – the idea that things here rarely happen quickly or on-schedule, which has been lamented as a source of inefficiency. But it was quite a revelation to the women I worked with and provided an interesting insight into the complicated relationship that people here have with time.

The HOCW Women’s Collective is a group of about 100 women who work together to produce and sell products that range from jewelry and handbags to liquid soap and mushrooms. The collective is made up of a diverse mix of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Rwanda and Burundi, as well as native Ugandans. The goal of my (and my mother, Virginia Green’s) Business Arts workshop was simple: to help these women make more money in less time.

To determine whether the members of the Women’s Collective were assigning appropriate prices to the products they made and sold, we came up with a budget of how much money each member needed to cover the basic costs of living in Uganda.  The women were shocked to discover that in order to cover their most basic needs, they each had to earn approximately 5,246 Ugandan shillings, or approximately $2 USD, per working hour. It might not sound like a lot to those of you reading this from your desk in the U.S. or Europe, but $2 an hour can feel like a fortune to a struggling single mother in Uganda.

After determining the hourly wage that was necessary to make ends meet, we looked at the costs of making the different products sold by the collective. We introduced the concept that the total cost of a product should not only include the cost of the materials used to create the product, but also the amount of time, or labor, spent on the product. This exercise revealed a startling fact: the women were pricing their goods according to the material costs, but were not considering the amount of time that went into actually making the product. They were essentially working for free, and often losing a good deal of money on products that were labor-intensive. As a result, they were losing precious time that could have been used to make money through new projects or to take care of their family.

Why didn’t these women assign value to the time they put into their craft? I have a couple of theories. The first one might sound familiar: we are often afraid to ask for appropriate compensation for our time. How many times have you rehearsed that speech in which you ask your boss for a raise, only to put it off until “tomorrow” when you lose the courage to initiate the conversation? Perhaps it is this same fear that has kept the members of the Women’s Collective from asking for higher prices for their goods –“How will my customer react if I ask her for more money? Will she laugh in my face? Will she scorn me and tell me to get lost?” Prices here in Africa are extremely competitive, and it is often considered better to get something rather than nothing for your efforts, even if it means eating costs. Another theory is that in a part of the world where people are hyper-aware of the cost of basic commodities, such as food and water, time doesn’t factor in as a resource that can be priced. Food has a hard cost: a kilogram of cornmeal costs 2,000 Ugandan shillings and will provide two meals for a family of ten people. But you can’t buy time. Time doesn’t feed a family, doesn’t put a roof over one’s head, doesn’t heal a sick child. So how can you possibly assign a cost to it?

Introducing the concept that “time is money” to the HOCW Women’s Collective was empowering. It gave the women permission to ask others to respect the hours they put into their craft. In fact, it has become our new mantra here, and has led to a lot of interesting ideas for generating more money in less time. The first approach the women are going to test is to focus on improving the manufacturing process behind their most efficient products so they can make more of them every hour. I feel proud to have taught this group of amazing women that their time is valuable. At the very least, it is a step toward correcting their imbalanced relationship with the trickster that is “Africa time.”

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