Entrepreneurial Resilience and Vision: Insights from “Things Fall Apart”

I recently was gifted a copy of one of my favourite teenage books “Things Fall Apart” by the renowned author Chinua Achebe. As I read through pages and went from chapter to chapter, I realised for the first time the many life lessons embedded into it. I have read this book like many others several times before, but I have not had the level of insight I have had in the last few days. I strongly believe that while the book holds several interpretations, as an entrepreneur/Startup Operator it tells a very powerful story and offers viable lessons for operating in Africa.

In the intricate dance of entrepreneurship, where the boldness of innovation steps on the toes of tradition and resilience sings the tune of survival, the narrative of Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” resonates deeply.

At first glance, the journey of Okonkwo, set against the backdrop of the Umuofia clan’s struggles and transformations, may seem worlds apart from the modern startup ecosystem. Yet, within its pages, I have found profound lessons for navigating the unpredictable currents of business with wisdom and foresight.

I have attempted to draw parallels between Okonkwo’s story and the wider saga of his community to shed light on the entrepreneurial path as experienced by many of Africa’s entrepreneurs.

Okonkwo’s passion- His “Why”

Okonkwo housed within him a passion that was fueled by a deep desire to not be like his father “Unoka”. A man the whole village knew was a failure; not because of ill fate as he “Unoka” believed but because of his laziness. Even the gods when consulted by Unoka about his failing farm efforts pointed to the fact that the gods are not against him but rather Unoka’s inability to work hard was the result of his failure.

So naturally, being born by a man like “Unoka” means Okonwo has two fates; Use his father’s failure as a motivation to be successful or simply use it as an excuse to stay poor.

He chose the former and this drives his passion:

“……And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion- to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness”- Things Fall Apart

The reason why Okonkwo set out to be the successful, but yet feared man that he was stem from his very personal experiences with poverty and failure that came from being born by Unoka.

As entrepreneurs in the continent, the odds are already against us like Okonkwo and yet like him, we have two fates to choose from; allow these odds to be an excuse for failure or a success motivation.

The Fallacy of Inflexibility: Okonkwo’s Tragic Flaw

Okonkwo’s life story is a testament to the dangers of rigidity. His fierce adherence to traditional values and his inability to adapt to the new laws and customs introduced by outsiders reflect a common pitfall in the startup world: the refusal to pivot or adapt in the face of changing market dynamics.

“He was a man of action, a man of war… unlike his father, he could stand the look of blood.”- Things Fall Apart.

This characteristic, while admirable in certain contexts, underscores the peril of clinging too tightly to one’s original vision without considering evolving circumstances. For entrepreneurs, Okonkwo’s downfall is a stark reminder that adaptability, rather than sheer determination alone, is key to long-term survival and success.

The Power of Community: Umuofia’s Collective Strength

The Umuofia clan’s initial unity and collective response to challenges highlight the importance of community and networking in the entrepreneurial journey. Just as the clan comes together to celebrate their traditions and defend their way of life, startups thrive on the support of a robust ecosystem—be it mentors, investors, or peers. The disruption brought by external forces to Umuofia mirrors the upheaval startups face in a competitive market.

Building a strong, supportive community can provide the resilience and resources needed to navigate such challenges. Umuofia was feared greatly by its neighbours and when the sons of Mbaino- the neighbouring village attacked and killed one of its daughters, they had one choice make amends or be massacred by the warriors of Umuofia. We can replicate the strength of Umuofia by understanding the power behind going together, as a unified force and as one people.

Innovation vs. Tradition: Finding Balance

The collision of the clan’s traditional beliefs with the new religion and government introduced by the Europeans offers a parallel to the tension between innovation and tradition in business. Okonkwo’s struggle with these changes highlights the critical balance startups must achieve between disrupting markets with innovative solutions and respecting existing norms and customer expectations. The successful integration of new ideas within a framework that customers accept and understand is often the hallmark of a successful venture.

Today, many startups are building the “X and Y” for Africa. While this is great, it is important to note that traditional and moral context within the continent still applies- unlike the “Europeans”, we cannot force people to conform to buying into the idea of our product but rather ensure that we are building relevance into these products as we attempt to solve their problems.

Leadership and Vision: The Legacy of Choices

Okonkwo’s leadership style, marked by fearlessness and sometimes tyranny, and his eventual alienation from his community, illuminate the complexities of leadership in any venture.

A child cannot pay for its mother’s milk.-Things Fall Apart

This Igbo proverb reminds us of the foundational role of vision and empathy in leadership. Decisions must drive growth and foster a culture of inclusivity and respect within the team and the broader community. The legacy of a startup is not just in its financial achievements but in the culture it builds and the impact it has on its industry and society.

Adapting to Change: The Ultimate Entrepreneurial Skill

The ultimate lesson from “Things Fall Apart” lies in embracing change. Okonkwo’s resistance to the transformations within Umuofia and his tragic end serves as a powerful allegory for the fate of startups that fail to adapt. The entrepreneurial landscape is inherently volatile, with success often hinging on the ability to pivot in response to new information, market feedback, and emerging trends.

In weaving these threads from “Things Fall Apart” into the fabric of entrepreneurship, I find a compelling narrative on the essence of resilience, the importance of community, the balance between innovation and tradition, the depth of leadership, and the power of adaptability. Okonkwo’s story, with its triumphs and tragedies, offers timeless insights for those navigating the complex and ever-changing terrain of startups. I hope it is a guide for us to forge paths of innovation with flexibility, vision, and an unwavering commitment to adapt and grow amidst the challenges that lie ahead.

Written by: Sidi Saccoh

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