Have you heard of a kgotla?
Depending on the context, it’s a public meeting, traditional law court, a community council of Botswana villages, or all of these at once. I hadn’t heard of one until I visited the country for my research. In 2016, at Botswana’s second International Development Design Summit, I witnessed how the kgotla in the village of D’Kar introduced foreign designers like me to the local community members, to receive the community’s blessing for our four-week summit.
It was clear that the kgotla was significant to the culture, institutions, and daily lives of Batswana. A traditional Setswana, clearly advocating for the kgotla’s values, states, ntwa kgolo ke ya molomo, or “The highest form of war is dialogue”.
How do you feel, then, about how Kgotla is also the name of a business consultancy run by a Netherlands entrepreneur? Founded in 2003, Kgotla.com uses Botswana’s system of tribal gathering and open dialogue to help “leaders and organizations deal with complex problems.”
The Amsterdam-based company has consulted for 79 organizations in 11 countries, engaging over 75,000 people in the process. The company has developed case studies, videos, books, and many other published resources on the Kgotla process. He’s even who trademarked the Kgotla mark in the United States and the European Union.
The founder of Kgotla®, Martijn de Liefde, deeply understands how his startup looks to Batswana. Years ago, he spent years and millions of dollars trying to gain local buy-in on how the method can revolutionize local business. By visiting village leaders all over the country, running a curated Kgotla workshop for RioTinto, a well-known South African mining group, and even by including the new Botswana Innovation Hub as a partner, he had an aim for Botswana’s future.
“Botswana is the Switzerland of Africa, and I’m invested in its change.” However, he was stymied at every turn; Botswana citizens saw their methods as traditional, and therefore disconnected from the world of business. Eventually, he was denied the correct permits in the country and intended to evolve and adapt the process from outside.
He mandates his process is truly unique from Botswana’s cultural artifact. Inspired by a novel strategic method, he developed a cohesive suite of products and services, has integrated knowledge about countless indigenous democratic institutions, and leverages IP rights to make sure his innovation is protected. At the same time, those who come from the culture gain neither recompense nor credit for their ideas.
Kgotla.com is not the first to sequester indigenous artifacts. For example, Southern Africa’s Sengaparile, or Devil’s Claw, was transported by a German scientist in 1950 from Namibia to the University of Jena. In 1962, the plant was commercialized through German companies. However, the San People have sustainably used Devil’s Claw for generations to address ailments like skin cancer, fever, malaria, and indigestion.
The plant is central to their cultural practice, needing no IP protection. Still, German companies went ahead and “protected” their use of the plant through intellectual property arrangements and receive the vast majority of profits from its economic generation. Devil’s Claw has now grown into an international market, and the indigenous harvesters — without capital, technology, experience in cultivating crops, or land rights — are being exploited by international policies intended to protect the endangered material. Losing full protection over Devil’s Claw Hoodia, and countless other native resources has been a painful lesson for Botswana leaders.
In this context, it’s clear why Botswana government would be wary of de Liefde and other expatriate entrepreneurs. How can we balance this tight rope in the future?
Botswana’s citizens understand their dependency on natural resources all too well. Though the country made its original fortune by selling diamonds, a slowing diamond market and vast unemployment are forcing Botswana’s policymakers to aim for radical economic diversification.
To do so, they’ve developed a suite of organizations over a decade. The Botswana International University of Science and Technology, the country’s second public university; the Botswana Innovation Hub, a top-of-the-line science and technology park; and the Botswana Institute for Technology Research and Innovation, an applied research and development technology facility, were a few of the established institutions.
They support five innovation-focused national priority areas:
- mining and beneficiation,
- information and communication technologies,
- clean technology, and
- indigenous knowledge systems.
The country’s policymakers are also redeveloping institutions that support the protection and transfer of their intellectual property. Botswana’s Companies and Intellectual Property Agency is shepherding IP protection, institutionalization, and support across the country, especially in the context of indigenous knowledge.
Botswana, however, faces steep African competition. Since 2016, the number of active tech hubs across the continent has grown by over 50%, with 442 in total since March 2018. As innovation-based societies become synonymous with development, these hubs are aware they must compete against an unequal power dynamic of economic acquisition, protecting what is theirs and figuring out how to commercialize new products. And the Global North, which historically has profited from slavery, raw material acquisition, and the exploitation of novel ideas must better support native innovation.
Batswana educational institutions are also cautious of academic expatriates that develop exploitative relationships with their in-country partners. Batswana academics note there is immense research knowledge about Botswana’s plants, animals, and resources locked away in institutions thousands of miles away. They had this to say:
“A lot of the [research] culture… is very skeptical, guarded, when it comes to people from the outside, especially from the U.S. They are a sponge for information. They will share only that which… they don’t lose power by sharing.”
Botswana executive, HRDC
What does this mean about today’s development entrepreneurs and academics? Development with exploitative innovation practices is simply neocolonialism with a new face. As innovation continues to drive socio-economic development, foreign researchers, entrepreneurs, and aid workers must be certain our collaborations do not lead to further inequities.
The ability to acquire and exploit knowledge from the Global South must stop. Further, Northern entrepreneurs must examine the intellectual outcomes of their activities and work to develop partnerships that support sustainable economic equity with Southern partners.
How, exactly, will these relationships be built? Perhaps we can all learn something from the Kgotla, where everyone is a collaborator and everyone has a voice.