What is it like to be born rich? I mean, really wealthy? This question has been asked by wealthy and non wealthy people and has brought confusion; there is definitely some apprehension to answer.
I am part of the generation that grew up watching Serena Van der Woodsen and Nathaniel Archibald contemplate the hardship of life. FYI, I only handled two seasons.
Younger, I remember watching Clueless, Melrose Place and 90210. Nowadays, I am a sucker for Succession & Billions. Is there a theme here? I guess watching people think money and power are the way to eternal life is my sort of entertainment. That’s my take anyway.
To the one who was born into wealth, the question is an uncomfortable one for several reasons, the one that comes to mind is ‘I didn’t work for it’ and to the one asking the question, ‘how about some discretion, please!’
Born Rich is a documentary directed and produced by Jamie Johnson, heir of the Johnson & Johnson family who as a young man wanted to get some insights into his friends mindsets. In the documentary, Born Rich, a list of his circle of friends showed a vast array of children who inherited or were going to inherit a tremendous amount of wealth and of responsibilities. I watched this documentary several years ago and I have rewatched it here and there. I wanted to hear from a more mature perspective what these kids were afraid of, fighting against and running away from. For some, they had taken the family burden of pursuing some kind of higher education and a multitude of extra curricular activities to show the family and the world that they are not idle children while others were still trying to figure things out. A couple were full on in rebellious mode.
When the movie ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ came out in 2018; I remember hearing people being overwhelmed by the luxury lifestyle shown on camera; dare I add, they were incredulous that in Asia; the continent that counts Japan and China could not have similar wealth attributed to Americans or old families in Europe.
Can we even trace family lines in Asia?
Stunted by some much ignorance, I realised that the same movie aficionado was somehow reluctant to believe what was portrayed on screen made in Asia, how much more if wealth was made in Africa.
Africa was once home to numerous royal families and in some parts of the continent, families still own large real estate properties. During colonisation, Africans were introduced to European luxury brands or ways of living ; be it by traveling in Europe for studies, for work or on the ground, where colonists were making themselves at home.
After this unwanted stay came to an end, the time to rebuild everything and to redistribute properties. Similar to the fall of the USSR, some people were able to build companies or empires that cemented their names in the nation. Before Forbes started its African Billionaire listing, we knew where to look : who owns this business, this bank, this building, this land etc. Depending on the cultural heritage, some African citizens were able to flaunt their wealth and for some, they were able to play it cool. You can tell it is difficult for a Congolese to play it cool. (Sapologie quand tu nous tiens!).
What is it like to be a rich African?
Hmm… do not look at me for answers because I might give a confusing one.
To be rich in my lexicon is not only to be alive but to be healthy. This is not some type of clichés that I am writing but some real life experience. I remember learning in third grade that the average life expectancy was 33 year old. I was shocked and still shocked because I am now 33. Making a quick addition at that time, I realised that my parents were above that mark and it stayed with me. How about having three meals a day? Check.
I do realise that being in the family that I was brought up in gave me privileges as a young child and as a curious teenager, I knew not everyone in Africa and even in the Western world was accustomed to. From attending private schools to enjoying sports to traveling abroad. However, the way my parents taught us about our wealth was through education and meritocracy.
When I see how the world is evolving and how Africa is being targeted as the new/last frontier of capitalism, I wonder what kind of (financial) education wealthy and the upcoming middle class families are teaching to their children. Now, the world is so connected that a Zambian girl can be learning Korean through the soap operas or any entertainment coming from Seoul but have no clue about her cultural background. How about drooling over a diamond necklace worn by Beyonce on her new ad for Tiffany’s without understanding that this rock could be controversial or a Congolese young man travelling to Belgium monthly to escape the hustle of Kinshasa or Lubumbashi with no clear understanding that Belgium was built on the sweat and blood of his compatriots.
Thinking about wealthy families in Africa somehow gives me hope and joy. There is so much to do on the continent that I believe that education that will be given to my children and grandchildren will be different. It will no longer be about futile consumerism but how we can use the power of philanthropy to work at changing real problems? I believe that teaching a man how to fish will reap rewards rather than settling for crumbs.
Contrary to what is happening in China where luxury consumerism driven by mostly non Chinese designers is soaring; African designers, architects, artists have already started showing their work ; this is a great reminder that I can buy a great Ethiopian leather bag without a Mulberry stamped on it. ‘The Bling Dynasty’ a 2015 book written by Erwan Rambourg shows how China’s luxury landscape has evolved over the years. For someone who has not yet been there, I can sense the amazement of a population that is now enjoying the fruit of their work but I am also not confident this will last. Recently, we have seen how the government of China was able to regulate a lot of what is happening in the mainland; there it is a probability that the same government might advise its citizens to consume local. This means for the wealthy ones, there will be a need to look for something new. LVMH, Kering & Richemont might struggle because of this potential change of plan.
As a reminder Richemont is owned by a South African family with headquarters in Bellevue, Switzerland and listed on the Swiss stock exchange. The portfolio contains Cartier, Montblanc, IWC, A.Lange & Söhne or Van Cleef & Arpels.
However, Africa already boasts of luxury products in high end jewellery with Vania Leles, designers with Imane Ayissi and many more.
Africans are not only enjoying Western products; they also know how to blend them with local designs. If a country like Ethiopia decides to incentivise its population to consume local (i.e. 100 million), it will hurt foreign brands but the good news is that the African continent boasts 1.2 billion people and the brands could conquer other markets easily.
When I review the books that I have read in the last 5 years, I see a different perspective shifting towards Africa and the hope to finally see the continent coming out of the ashes. When I compare the excitement of years ago when China was the go to place and now, the reluctance or the hesitancy that comes from certains countries, I foresee different results regarding the African continent not only is it a segmented place, Africa is also home to 54 presidents, each one with its agenda; if there is a situation in Abidjan, it will not necessarily affect Dodoma.
Being wealthy in 2021 in Africa, what does it mean?
Families outside of Africa have had their share of philanthropy and now it is time for us to help in several areas : culture, sports, arts, education etc. Why wait for the UN or an NGO to come to the rescue when 3 or 4 families, let alone 100 families could help alleviate some of the problems in a region or in a country?
Some families can even dive into the investment banking world, launch venture capital & private equity firms etc. Why wait for Silicon Valley’s or Wall Street’s firms to own assets of African based companies and that cater mostly to African markets? When there is an exit, the money goes back to the U.S or to Ireland. Smart people can work at changing this unbalanced market.
It is my belief that the private sector is the one that will lift Africa out of the misery and propel some countries on the global space. Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Kenya will be huge players in international relations and this will benefit the whole continent.
When yesterday it was considered an insult to talk about ‘trust fund babies’, I hope that in Africa, it will ring differently as those babies will be the change makers of our continent.
This process starts now as my generation is already changing things on the ground.
There seems to be much excitement when one wears a Gucci bespoke product and a different excitement when one is changing the world.
I hope that my children will be part of the latter and hope that 99% of the NGOs operating in Africa will be history. I hope that in the near future African foundations and other charity organisations will rise to the level of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a U.S based organisation that owns a huge amount of data about Africans. How do they use the data? We do not know much about that.
Well, as an African, let’s say that I prefer the data to be primarily owned by us.
Born Rich directed by Jamie Johnson (2001)
The Bling Dynasty by Erwan Rambourg (2015)