By Tim Harper; Founder & Director at Harper Performance
One of the most common questions I’ve been asked since Harper Performance announced we’d be running a crowdfunding campaign, is; what is ‘kanju’ and why is the campaign named after it? Well, with less than a month to go until we launch the campaign, it’s probably time to explain ourselves…
I was first introduced to the concept of ‘kanju’ by the incredible Nigerian-American journalist; Dayo Olopade (pictured above) in her book ‘ The Bright Continent’ but had experienced its magic whilst on the African continent before.
Kanju, put simply, is a "specific form of creativity born from African difficulty”. It is a rule-breaking, informal and super-agile ethos that makes it possible to just get things done in the face of constant obstacles, headaches, failing infrastructure, corruption and a dogmatic and bureaucratic banking system. It’s why cross-continental truckers in Africa stuff their axles with bananas in lieu of proper lubricant. It’s why an entire informal economy (commonly referred to as 'jua-kali') exists on the backstreets of Nairobi, where your machinery, watch, phone or car can be fixed with tools and materials that can really only be referred to as ‘junk’ and it’s why productive subsistence farms pop up on the most unusual scraps of land around Lusaka, the Zambian capital city.
Kanju is nothing short of a force of nature and it is one of the many reasons visitors to Africa and the developing world in general are left charmed, in awe and somewhat shamed by the resourcefulness on show - an inspiring but solemn reminder to the dearth of access to the proper resources and tools in the developing world that we take for granted back home.
I was privy to an incredible example of ‘kanju’ at work whilst visiting a farm in Zambia. The story goes something like this.
A tractor on the farm had been playing up for a couple of weeks when one day, without warning, it’s brakes failed and it careered into a nearby warehouse, promptly bursting into flames before being dowsed by a group of farmhands. To most, certainly to me, the tractor had met its maker, it was, to coin a British term, ‘a write off’.
Within 3 days, the tractor had been reborn, with not one single piece of actual automative material used, the farm workers had utilised things largely lying around the yards - bit’s of string and wire etc. to fix the tractor. One year on, it’s still apparently working.
This is the essence of 'kanju’. It’s an almost mystical level of just getting things done, whatever the situation, whatever the materials, whatever the conditions.
It’s a concept that is at the very heart of our mission at Harper Performance. As Dayo Olopade contends; “one of the biggest problems with the world’s longtime orientation toward [the developing world] is a preference for interactions between governments; or between gigantic formal institutions, when the most vibrant, authentic and economically significant interactions are between individuals and decentralised groups.”
Our mission at Harper Performance is not to transplant the high performance sports systems of Western Europe, Australia or the USA to the organisations we work with in Liberia, Uganda or Kenya. Instead, we are looking to utilise the expertise of the small and agile HP Projects team to foster Olopade-style free-form development in these disadvantaged, deprived and marginalised athletic communities.
Ownership of the performance-support systems of those we work with remain in the locality, with our team there to plug skills-gaps, provide expertise in the same way we would with a client back home and help facilitate the development of a ‘Monrovia/Kenyan/Ugandan’ solution to performance-support for elite athletes. After all, the best solutions to problems, in elite sport or otherwise, are local, developed by the people closest to the problem, not solely by our team, not by any think tank in the comfort of their London offices preaching theoretical and formalised solutions.
Our mission is to build capacity, not reliance, to complement, not take over and at the very core of that is to remember that the informal, rule-breaking, locally-driven hustle that is ‘kanju’ when combined with sound science holds the answers we seek! Similarly, our approach to performance-support is to deliver sustainable interventions, that can flourish and self-sustain themselves long after we’ve gone home. To do that, our approach has to be incredibly lean in it’s design, it has to take on the qualities of ‘kanju’.
That’s why our campaign is named after this incredible ethos and why ‘kanju’ is at the heart of everything we do at Harper Performance! We might have expertise in performance-science in no short supply at Harper Performance, but we don't have all the answers. Our innovative, sustainable, relevant and accessible solutions are born from the tight, vibrant and authentic collaborations we are able to build with our 'kanju' "trained" partners on the ground.
So, now you know…
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