Why Africa’s ‘Ubuntu’ trumps trade wars


Heard the story about the anthropologist, the African children, and the basket of fruit?

An anthropologist places a basket of fruit on the ground. A group of children from an African tribe watch from a few feet away as he draws a line in the sand. On his signal, he says, the first child to cross the line can have all the fruit. He sounds the signal. But rather than kicking up dust in a race to finish first, the children join hands and cross the finish line together. They sit and enjoy the fruit in each other’s company, savouring their joint victory. When the anthropologist asks why they did that, the children answer with a single word:


The spirit of Ubuntu (the Nguni Bantu term meaning ‘humanity’) embodies the African philosophy that there’s a universal bond that connects us all, rooted in a belief that ‘I am because we are’ and that we’re all in this together.

Ubuntu means recognising that every person is different, with their own strengths and unique qualities, but these qualities combined make us stronger as a group.

Now, Africa often gets a bad rap because it’s a developing continent with, supposedly, little to offer besides mineral resources. But one thing that has been ingrained in African culture since the earliest days – that the rest of the world is only now cottoning on to – is Ubuntu.

And Africa is applying the same Ubuntu principles that have served it for decades to trade on the continent, while others bicker over tariffs.

Ubuntu vs Wetiko

At its most basic level, trade is a simple concept. You have something I want; I have something you want. So we trade the things and we’re both better off. When both sides benefit from the transaction, we call that free trade. It doesn’t matter if we’re strangers.

It doesn’t matter if you’re better at making something than I am. What matters is that your strengths complete mine. Ubuntu.

But not everyone gets it. Some developed nations in the world are doing everything possible to stop the flow of free trade. It is building walls, closing borders, imposing tariffs, and using strongman politics in the name of ‘protectionism’. It claims to be protecting its communities and economies by blocking foreign competition. But the clue is in the name. Trade wars don’t protect anyone.

In fact, trade wars cause immense collateral damage, including weakened economies, job losses, and higher inflation. Protectionists policies do more harm to the economies they claim to protect, and the economic costs of stifling trade opportunities greatly outweigh the benefits to those who are protected.

I have another word for trade wars: Wetiko. From the North American native language of Algonquin, Wetiko is the opposite of Ubuntu. It’s a cannibalistic spirit driven by greed, excess, and selfish consumption. It feeds on the life force of others and makes infected individuals blind to the fact that they’re actually part of a balanced environment.

Free for all

Meanwhile, Africans quietly forge ahead with their mission to remove restrictions on the free movement of goods, people, and money.

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is one of the largest free trade agreements, and will, it is said, create substantial social and economic opportunities for the continent. Through its implementation, Africa will be a single market, in which 90% of goods are exempt from tariffs and duties, supported by a borderless, visa-free continent.

This is Ubuntu. As a philosophy, it encourages community equality, wealth distribution, and collective prosperity. Africa could one day have the most liberal and progressive trade set-up we’ve seen to date, because it acknowledges that a village gets things done.

It’s a different approach to how the rest of the world deals with change. But it’s a better one.

Learner becomes the teacher

I have a feeling (or maybe a hope) that the tables are going to turn one day. That Africa is going to become the teacher, rather than the learner. That the positive effects of Ubuntu will become evident throughout Africa’s trade corridors, and the world will take notice.

The irony is that global trade is probably the only industry not adopting the principles of Ubuntu. Only, they don’t call it ‘Ubuntu’ in other parts of the world.

They use words like:

  • Collaboration
  • Cooperation
  • Networks
  • Influencers
  • Co-working
  • Squads
  • Tribes

Different words that all mean: Our success depends on the strengths of individuals.

Bottom line

Developed markets might be industrially advanced, but could it be that they need to work on their emotional development? We need to strengthen international collaboration to reduce inequality for everyone, not leverage fear-based politics to get the upper hand over a threat we’ve created ourselves.

We are all interconnected, and with that comes a responsibility to create an economically and environmentally sustainable future for the world.

That’s Ubuntu.