Cleaning the African narrative
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    “My name is Tolulope Ilesanmi,

    I am a Cleaner.

    That is not a confession. It is a celebration. 

    It is also a protest.

    I was a banker.

    That is a confession…”


    These were my opening words when I spoke at the Desautels African Business Initiative conference on January 23, 2016, titled “Redefining the African Business Model”, organized by McGill’s African Business students.

    I know many may have wondered what on earth a Cleaner has to do with such a complex subject. Quite
    a lot.


    What cleaners do

    Cleaners make things better. They go into a space that is dirty, and when they leave it is cleaner. It does not get simpler than that. Cleaning is fundamentally about making a difference so that there is a clear ‘before’ and ‘after’. Cleaning is the practice of leaving a space, an organization, a relationship, a life, not the same, not worse, but better, than when you met it.

    Cleaners simplify. The very act of cleaning is the act of simplifying and bringing something back to its essence. Clutter is often unnecessary complication. The act of cleaning is to strip spaces to essentials.

    Cleaners take responsibility for changing the narrative. A dirty or cluttered space has a narrative that is not conducive for living, working, playing, or relating. That narrative is experienced by everyone, but a Cleaner is one who takes upon herself the responsibility of changing it, by getting her hands dirty and making a difference with every step and every move.

    This is what cleaners do. They are not experts, and they do not need to be experts, because their work is not about bringing anything new to a space but exposing what is already present. They do not flee from messes. Rather, they thrive when there is a mess because therein lies their opportunity to make a difference. Africa is seen as a kind of mess. For a Cleaner, that is not a thing to run away from but a reality to embrace because we get to transform it.


    Cleaning when I met it

    This is my way of articulating my experience of what cleaning appeared to be: “An undesirable act performed by untouchables to remove physical dirt and waste from a space in order to make the space desirable.”

    While doing my MBA at McGill, I became a cleaning man, the lowest anyone can ‘descend’ after being a GT Banker. Through my company Zenith Cleaning, we were cleaning homes, offices, schools, churches and other public and private spaces. We were environmentally-friendly and respected, but I knew I was not doing anything to change that faulty narrative. And as a Cleaner, once you bear witness to dirtiness, rest often departs from you till you begin to make a difference. The undesirability of an act intended to create desirability took my ‘rest’ away and was a more exciting challenge for me than the possibility of ‘taking over the market’.

    It took me a long time to be able to articulate how the prevailing narrative of cleaning is a faulty one. It took years of stumbling and failing forward, years of confusion, while still running a cleaning business.

    In the midst of trying to redefine what cleaning means, I was invited to speak at a Concordia University MBA class and was asked a typical MBA question: “What are your growth plans?”. I said without realizing that I, an MBA grad from one of Canada’s top schools, should be ashamed of myself: “I have none.”

    I had none. Who develops growth plans when they do not know what to grow or what growth means for them?

    Fast forward several years, we are starting to redefine cleaning and have a much clearer idea of what to grow. I needed years of ‘window cleaning’ for my windows to be clearer so I could see the truth and beauty in something that is so stigmatized yet has everything to do with making things better, not worse.

    What has this got to do with Africa? We Africans and the rest of the world need our windows cleaned so we can see the beauty, potential and truth of Africa. Anyone can see a mess, but it takes great insight to see beauty and potential in the mess. We see the world not as it is but as we are. And what we see determines our boundaries and limitations.


    Cleaning Redefined

    “Cleaning is the process of removing dirt from any space, surface, object or subject, thereby exposing beauty, potential, truth and sacredness.”

    This took my breath away when I first read it. And it continues to take my breath away. I do not cease to be radically amazed by it though I have been accused of just ‘marketing’. Marketing cleaning? Marketing the act of revealing beauty, potential, truth and sacredness? Need I mention that though I loved cleaning, I was ashamed of it for years and could not publicly declare I was a Cleaner as I confidently did at this conference?

    I had reasons to be ashamed. I am African. I am male. I am Nigerian. I was a GT Banker. I am a Computer Engineering graduate of Great Ife, with a strong academic record. I am a McGill MBA who graduated with awards, including the prix d’excellence award, given to one top student in each of Quebec’s B-schools by the Associations des MBA du Quebec. Cleaning did not compute as a thing to be proud of. But when I saw cleaning this way, I wanted to scream to the whole world, “I am a Cleaner!!!” Shame was washed away. That is why “I am a Cleaner” is a celebration and not a confession.

    In practice, we continue to create unusual and radical programs around cleaning, including Cleaning as Practice, which started with executives spending time cleaning and then reflecting on the experience for their lives and organizations. This has expanded to include actual cleaning in schools by students, as a practice whose benefits are not hard to enumerate; workshops in schools and youth programs around the metaphor and practice of cleaning; as well as organizational team building exercises around cleaning.  My Africanness of course influences what I see as possible. I am sure the rituals in my ancestry are bubbling to the surface through Cleaning as Practice and I do not intend to silence them.

    We are now using cleaning as a practice, metaphor and framework for individual, organizational and societal transformation.

    And isn’t that apt? What else should we use as a practical framework and metaphor for transformation if not an idea whose practice transforms at a very fundamental level? By changing the cleaning narrative, from a business standpoint, we expanded our market; we created a market where there seemed to be none. This is what prompted me to say, “Love creates new markets.” It does. Cleaning is an act of love. By cleaning the cleaning narrative, we expanded what was possible.

    We still clean homes and offices. I still clean. And when I clean, I do it as a practice, a practice that is not unlike yoga in some respects, with all the benefits of yoga and more. I look forward to opportunities to clean, just as I look forward to opportunities to hold workshops that leave people with a better view of the world. Either way, I am cleaning. Imagine what could happen if Legal practice or Banking was redefined.

    How can you change how you see? Step outside of your ‘world’ periodically. This is one of the original ideas behind our Cleaning as Practice program that invites executives to come and work as cleaners for a few days. I must say that it is almost impossible to do something of the sort and not think new thoughts.

    The easiest way to think outside the box, is to step outside and function outside of it. You will think. And your thoughts will be outside the box because you are outside it. It is a little embarrassing to articulate.

    You may be a CEO, but why not clean the washroom periodically, even if once a quarter? Your mind will probably be clearer and calmer, not to mention the impact on your team. It is radical but how else can transformation happen if not by radical means? If not cleaning the washroom, wait tables once a quarter or once a year, or just do the ‘lowest’ and farthest thing from your role. If we do not see this as an African thing, we need to clean that. Cleaning, remember, is not about introducing something new but about returning to the essence and truth of something. Redefining the African Narrative is as you would expect with cleaning, simple: return to what is true about being African by getting rid of what is not.

    It is okay for an African CEO to serve those he or she leads. It is radical and it does not diminish you. One of the great ideas at GT Bank when I was there was Guest Tellering, where everyone who was not customer-facing, starting with the CEO, would spend a day attending to customers in the banking hall. I respected the bank’s co-founders Fola Adeola and the late Uncle T for that.

    They both inspired me beyond what I can write in a few sentences, including Fola’s facility with Yoruba language and mythology. As scandalous as it may sound, it is okay for an African to be a Cleaner like me.  My Africanness, I’ve discovered, is not diminished by it, nor is my manhood or intelligence. Cleaning does not make people worse, it makes them better, especially when they come to it with a cleaner lens.

    Africa does not need to change. Those of us who engage with it need to change until we see better, until we gain more clarity.

    Central to the new cleaning narrative is that the intangible can be cleaned too. Cleaning applies to perceptions as much as it applies to windows. Cleaning applies to mental spaces as much as it applies to physical spaces. An expansive understanding of cleaning renders our mental spaces, where we hold and experience ideas like systems of government, ideologies and cultures, as much in need of cleaning as floors.


    The real opportunity in Africa

    We are seeing quite dimly, perpetuating the status quo and continuing to plunder rather than nurture, if the opportunity we keep seeing in Africa is a mere ‘business’ opportunity.

    There is a prevailing faulty narrative that Africa must follow the rest of the world, which is also accepted by most Africans. We need to clean that. Why would we continue to follow ideas like self-interest based economics that are already being discarded because they are not making the world cleaner?

    This is not about triple bottom line businesses or accepting climate change as fact or investing in renewable energy. It goes beyond sustainability. What is there to sustain? Should we not transform before we sustain? It goes beyond being a BCorp. The BCorp originators are my good friends, and I love what they do. These are great ideas, but they tend to skim the surface, much like trying to get rid of pests when you have an infestation without doing some needed cleaning to get rid of what feeds and breeds the pests in the first place. It is not about changing society but about changing ourselves. G.K. Chesterton said it best: “Dear Sir, regarding your article, what’s wrong with the world? I am. Yours truly. G.K. Chesterton.”

    We need solutions that work on multiple problems and on multiple levels at once. For example, if in Nigeria our solutions do not address the root problem of corruption, they are merely skimming the surface. There may be GDP growth, but it will not translate into real benefits unless the underlying problem of corruption, which contributes to a multitude of societal problems, is addressed. Addressing root problems like deep corruption requires a deeper level of intelligence than is available in traditional business education from a McGill or Harvard. It requires an intelligence native to us as Africans.

    It is in our DNA to address challenges on multiple levels because deep in most African cultures is an appreciation for the inter-connectivity of seemingly disconnected phenomena. Separateness, in my view, is an imported idea. One of the tendencies we need to rid ourselves of is the tendency to discard everything native to us in favor of everything foreign to us. Not everything is great about Africa, but we have grown up to believe that ‘local’ or ‘native’ is synonymous with ‘backward’. We need to clean that.

    From a cleaning standpoint, ownership is slightly different from the prevailing understanding of ownership and is closer to the traditional African idea of ownership. For example, when a Cleaner is mopping a floor and you step on it and make it dirty, they could challenge you. Why? They have ownership of the floor. From a cleaning standpoint, ownership implies stewardship, it implies responsibility of caring, it implies custodianship. What I own is what I get to care for. In reality, what do we really own? Are we not all here like Cleaners, to make the world better and leave it all behind? Ideas of ownership that are different from this are imported, and while some imported ideas are useful, this one is not. There is an opportunity to redefine ownership and bring it closer to reality.

    We need to rethink capital. The Venture Capital world has traditionally viewed capital as financial. I may have offended a few people when I said at the conference that financial capital is one of the lowest forms of capital, but deep in my African DNA is the ability to see in multiple colors and dimensions.

    There is spiritual capital, there is intellectual capital, there is emotional capital, there is social capital and more, all of which are more important than financial capital. This expansive view of capital can help us to lovingly take Africa back from those who are trying to ‘help’ us. Why would we forsake the opportunities for investment in abundant spiritual, intellectual, emotional and social capital by allowing someone, whose primary concern is return on financial investment, to invest billions of dollars in a way that is disconnected from a deep love for humans? By expanding our view of capital, we do not constrain return on investment, we expand it because its drivers are nurtured.

    “Black is not synonymous with lack”, as one of my mentors once said. We are a continent of entrepreneurs. We know how to create something from nothing. One reason we remain where we are is not because the rest of the world is not willing to help but because we are not addressing our challenges as Africans. We are trying to be westernized because we have been deceived into thinking ‘western’ is good and ‘African’ is not. That is partly why most of us Africans would rather visit the US or Europe than other African countries and why African countries do not trade with each other as they could.

    Despite all our challenges, Africans need to celebrate and leverage the resilience; the stamina; the spiritual, emotional and physical strength; and the richness that being African means. The average African does not need to go to any school to create something from scratch. They will do it if well nurtured.


    Adopting a startup: cleaning the venture capital role

    I was recently introduced to a young Tanzanian named Paul Myovelah through my good friend Tana Paddock and her connections with Rlabs. Twenty-one-year-old Paul did not pass his final high school exams, so he was at home doing nothing. He eventually ended up at RLABs Iringa, an organization that helps young people to dream again and start new ventures. With nothing, Paul started Envibright, a waste management company in Iringa, Tanzania, because he identified cleanliness as a huge need in his community and the rest of the country. I spoke to Paul and realized there was a young man with much potential.



    In collaboration with RLABs Iringa, we decided to adopt (not co-opt or own) his startup by providing mentoring. Our mentoring redefines the role of the Venture Capitalist. Our primary investment is spiritual capital, inspiring Paul by example to believe in himself and to embrace and embody his task as a Cleaner of Tanzania.

    We are providing support in form of ideas that will help them scale gracefully and deeply rather than merely ‘take over the market’. Our aim as Cleaners is to educe the wisdom and creativity already in Paul and his team, not to bring something new to them. Our interest is Paul’s growth and fulfillment as a human being, which inevitably drives the well-being of the rest of the team and that of his company. We have a deep interest in their success, which transcends financial returns. We have conversations regularly and are kept up-to-date on what is happening. We are big brothers of a sort. And of course, we provide financial investment. The company’s growth rate is unsurprisingly out of this world. Welcome to Africa.

    There is a lot to learn, and we will make mistakes, but that is what makes the journey exciting isn’t it? This is one of the ways we are getting our hands dirty and practically helping to redefine what it means to do business in Africa.

    We approach our intervention in Envibright as Cleaners – our investments need to make a difference not just in Paul and his team but in us as well. Cleaning is not happening if we are not transformed in the process of enabling their continuous growth. There is something in it for us. Of course there is. Our transformation is bound up in theirs. The quote by Australian Aboriginal activist group Queensland (1970s) says it best: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

    The real focus of cleaning is internal, not external. The connection between the inner work and the outer work is that my inner transformation happens as I engage in outer work. Whether you are African or not, please do not relate to Africa with an “I am going to help them” mentality. Africans have at least as much to give and teach as they have to receive and learn. It pays to approach Africa with humility and with the courage to be ‘radically amazed’, as Rabbi Abraham Heschel would say. If you are a “VC”, please set aside your Venture Capitalist role and kindly connect human to human. Are we not in need of serious help if all we derive from a relationship with a thing as sacred as a human being is financial returns?

    Whether you are African or not, how about engaging in a transformational experience of adopting an entrepreneur and his startup in a similar industry as yours and being genuinely interested in their well-being as humans not simply as money generators? Rlabs and others like them can help. How about seeing business as a means by which to ‘dance’ with people and touch the fecundity of Africa? As Africans, the tendency to value relationships is in our DNA because, traditionally, we are raised in community, where everyone is considered to be a brother, sister or cousin. We have been ‘civilized’ into thinking that is crude and backward, but the future of Africa is in seeing the beauty, the potential, the truth and the sacredness in Africa and Africans. The future of Africa is helping a world in dire need of human connectivity to experience what it means to be African.

    I wrote this reflection because I had such a short time at the conference to present that I could not share at this depth. I think that at the end of my presentation many people were in a state of confusion, a state that I usually enjoy walking people into and then out of when I give talks about cleaning. In this case, I was not able to walk everyone out of it, hence this article.

    Africa is more complex than can be represented in an article but not too complex to be experienced and thought about. This article hopes to provoke thought. It is only a tiny step that is successful if it leads to fresh insights and new possibilities not only about Africa.

    Thank you for reflecting.

    To hear Tolu speak about his experience of cleaning, check out this 15 minute radio interview on the Tommy Schnurmacher Show.


    February 29th, 2016 | Tolu Ilesanmi | 1 Comment

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One Response and Counting...

  • Michelle Holliday 02.29.2016

    Thank you for these beautiful, profound – and encouraging – reflections, Tolu. So good.

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