Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Era of Choice is here!

By John A. Akec

As school boy in my hometown of Gogrial in early seventies, I recall the time when many South Sudanese entrepreneurs had rushed to open up their own restaurants and teashops under small tukuls. The notion of having your own shop was unheard of then. Business was the preserve of Northern traders (or Jalaba). Little did we know that for the vast majority of Northern traders, the tanks in the army barracks gave them security. That situation changed overnight when Addis Ababa agreement was signed in 1972. The army and their tanks withdrew from the South except in large provincial capitals such as Wau, Juba, and Malakal. Even so, the new barracks were a mixture of brown-eared Northerner and blue-eared Southerners. Also, the police force got fully southrenised.

In short, it was a new order- that of freedom, choice, and opportunity. Many Northern traders packed and headed home. A few well-rooted individuals remained behind. It was an opportunity for the long deprived and marginalized Southerners to open their own businesses. Many of them did. Except that many of them not know how to care for their customers.

The brown-eared trader was out. The dark-eared trader was in. When the "tea-man" was asked: why there is too little sugar? Or why is my cup not filled to brim? The answer that frequently came back was: Take it or leave it! But as more teashops opened up, it became extremely easy to switch one tea-man for another. And quickly, our entrepreneurs learned to listen and do as the customer wanted. A British entrepreneur Richards Branson, founder and majority shareholder in Virgin Trains says: "Customer complaint is a free market research!"

Such civility as putting the customer in the driving seat will not come over night. It takes time. It is always a pain for me when I go out eating in London. When thought I have already made my choice of what to eat from the menu, the waiter comes back with more questions before accepting my order as a done deal: do you want it large, medium, or small? Would you like it with hot, medium, or mild chilli sauce? Would you prefer fried rice or boiled rice, white rice or brown rice? Or is it white bread or brown bread? White coffee or black coffee? It is an endless choice. But the secret is that they want to make good business and know that people have different taste.

Choice, and more of it seems to be what defines the last part of last millennium after the defeat of fascism in Europe. Choice is also very much at the heart of this 21st century culture. The right to choose the government we want. The religion we want. The partner we want. The career we want. The life we want. The newspaper we want. The websites we like. The TV and radio channels we enjoy.

We need regard the lack of choice in any environment to be an abnormal situation that people in that environment must overcome. This needs commitment from all. If we all do not believe in free choice, it is inevitable that somebody, somewhere is going to fiddle with the rules of the game in order to create unlevelled playing field.

We can learn a great deal from the tea-man that gained customers as well as one that lost. One thing is clear: you cannot convince people's hearts to part with their money or their votes by being bad or intimidating. You can only win them over by being nice to them. It does not matter what kind of trade you are in. The rule of free choice will still apply, even behind your back.

Aristotle once explained gravity as the tendency of natural objects to settle in state of rest on earth surface. In the like manner, human nature has the tendency to gravitate towards more freedom and more choice. And as long as this law of nature holds, the future belongs to those who want us to have more choice, not less.