Page last updated at 09:42 GMT, Friday, 28 November 2008

Western liberal eyes African investments

Felix Riley
Private investor

I am a Western Liberal. If it were a club I'd be a card-carrying member. I think I think the right things about the world we live and the people I meet.

Children playing in Lusaka, Zambia
Zambia's future generation needs help for sure, but what kind?

Take Zambia. I was there last year to buy a copper mine. As you do.

But I was buying this copper mine like a Western Liberal.

No imperialistic exploitation for this 21st Century capitalist.

Partnership was my byword and "putting something back" was my mission.

As I put my arm around my guide I told him of my vision.

"I'm going to build you schools, Richard. There will be a classroom for every child around this mine."

My heart swelled so much that I didn't notice immediately his hand slapping his forehead.

"Felix," he said. "Our chiefdom is full of schools. It's teachers we need."

I looked at the empty - correction, abandoned - school building. He was right, of course.

The air went out of my liberal balloon and I fell to the dusty earth with a bump.

Easier way?

Travelling for eight hours along a bone-shaking dirt-track to see your hole in the ground teaches you the importance of a transport infrastructure to the growth of an economy.

School in Zambia
Zambia has plenty of schools, but not enough teachers

Zambia needs the taxation dollars, but I can't begin to add to their coffers until I can get at my copper.

And to do that I need to build roads, accommodation, an electricity plant, a water plant, schools, a hospital clinic, shops - and that's just to begin with.

There must be an easier way to earn a living.

Hard working entrepreneurs

Unfortunately for Zambia and other developing nations there is.

Who do I speak to in Zambia to ask them to "do a China"?

To build out their infrastructure, to build towns as staging points along the economic highway, to help me to help them?

I met with entrepreneurs in the capital Lusaka.

They are like entrepreneurs the world over. Dynamic. Visionary. Hungry.

Some were opportunists, some were future captains of industry. All were working with what they had.

I asked them about the demise of their president - a good, uncorrupt leader. They are optimistic for the future, do not expect any disruption to day to day business.

Not paternalistic

So, to do business in Zambia, I resolved to set aside my Western Liberalism. I put away my preconceptions of what The Good Man in Africa does and how he behaves and how he does business.

I went out into the bush.

I went to another chiefdom to discuss another mine.

I crouched down with the Elders of the village and sketched out for them in the dirt at our feet how I would build roads and houses and how I would provide nurses and teachers and this time I got it right because now I was not a Western Liberal, I was a pragmatist giving them what they needed, not some paternalistic outdated version of what I thought they needed.

"Felix", said the Chief's nephew. "This is all very well but what about a new porch for my father's palace?"

Hmm... Back to square one for my experiment in Western Liberalism.

Felix Riley is a private investor and is head of ChoiceOdds bookmakers.

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