By Godwin Semunyu

I recently stumbled on an interesting report by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) revealing that human beings’ attention span; the amount of time humans spend concentrating on a task before becoming distracted. Has fallen from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to just 8 seconds today. Less than goldfish that has a 9-second attention span. In other words: The average human attention span is now shorter than a goldfish. Blame it on technology, they say.

At first, we blamed cellular phones for distractions, then the internet boom, later social media, and now, smartphones have become our brains’ nemesis. The latter being the undisputed source of distraction.

The insights took me back to one of Mark Manson’s article– the attention economy, where he illustrated how life has changed, and the economies morphed into new things. For instance, if you’ve ever spent time in a challenging neighborhood or with people who grew up in poverty, you’ll notice how much they talk about food — their favorite foods, what they’re going to eat this weekend, how they like this and don’t like that, and so on. Much of their lives and conversations revolve around food for the simple reason that the scarcity of food makes it appear incredibly important.
But in first-world cultures where food is never an issue, discussions of food among most people are superficial and usually over within a few seconds.

For most of human history, the significant economic scarcity in the world was land. There was a limited amount of productive land; therefore, there was a limited amount of food. And because there was a limited amount of food, most day-to-day economic concerns, and political squabbles involved land. Most people spent their lives contemplating what land they were going to work, what they were going to grow, what kind of harvest to expect, and so on. Food was always on the top of people’s minds.

Eventually, when the industrial revolution hit, the primary scarcity was no longer land, as machines could now help cultivate more than enough food for everybody. Now the considerable scarcity was labor. You needed trained people to run all of these machines that did all of the cool new stuff so you could make money and get rich. Thus, for a couple of hundred years, the organizing principle in society was based on labor — who you worked for, how much you made, and so on.

Then, in the 20th century, more was produced than anyone would ever need or could ever purchase. The new scarcity in society was no more prolonged labor or land; the scarcity was now knowledge. People had so many choices of what to buy with their hard-earned money, but they didn’t know what to purchase. I once visited a lavished Nike store in the US, and I got overwhelmed by choices. I left.

The abundance of choices then gave way to brands. Thus, people spent most of their day-to-day existence trying to figure out what the best toothpaste was, what a toaster oven could do, and so on. The advertising and marketing fields then came to dominance to disseminate information people needed to make “informed purchases.”

Now, the internet and smartphones have disrupted everything. The primary scarcity in society is no longer comprehensive information. In fact, there is now more information than any of us could know what to do with. Everything can now be figured out in mere seconds. My twelve-year-old son would often scold me, “You can google that, dad, google is your friend,” whenever I ask for information or directions.

The scarcity in our world is no longer comprehensive knowledge, neither labor nor land. The new scarcity in the modern internet age is called; attention. People would do anything to get followers, the likes, impressions, and comments. The new bottleneck on our economy is attention. We tend to seek attention at all costs while paying little attention to things that matter. We are indeed in an attention-based economy with an increasing lower attention span.

The author is Head of Marketing and Communication at Equity Bank(T). The article is his personal views and does not represent his employer. He can be reached through: godwin.semunyu@equitybank.co.tz.

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Need to inculcate savings culture

I just finished reading a memoir by former President Ally Hassan Mwinyi, “Mzee Ruksa, Safari ya Maisha Yangu.” Probably the best narrated Swahili biography of all time. In the book, Mzee Mwinyi discloses how he learned the saving culture from an early age through his late grandfather, Nzasa.

He says, during harvest season, when everyone was busy partying and plummeting the harvests, Nzasa would carefully stock the family harvest, ready to sell at higher prices during drought or in exchange for labor. That mentality, he says, has guided him through his entire life (he just turned 96yr), so much so that he has never borrowed money from anyone, thanks to self-discipline in savings and avoiding unnecessary expenditures.

In Tanzania, we are slowly becoming a nation of spenders rather than savers. The savings to income ratio is lower as the social norm is spending to achieve a particular lifestyle or status, regardless of income. The price tags and brands are essentials, irrespective of income.

Most people will place their lack of savings on not earning enough or because prices continue to rise. Frankly, the real reasons why people don’t save are seldom economic – they’re more psychological. That’s because, to most people, savings is considered as what’s leftover after paying for all essentials, rather than one of the essentials after earning. For most people, their savings get squeezed to allow consumption, while realistically, consumption is compressed to enable savings.

People tend to cling to the illusion that things will somehow improve – that, regardless of their efforts, things will get better, they’ll get lucky, their talents will suddenly be recognized, or “Dili” or Mchongo will come out of the blues, and all their financial worries will disappear. False optimism or what is known as Peter Pan syndrome‘.

Psychologically, spending is funnier than saving. It can be hard to save, especially during tough economic times. But saving is no longer an option. The coronavirus pandemic outbreak has given us all the chance to rethink our spending habits, and if you’re lucky enough to have a job still, it can be a brilliant time to make some positive changes to your financial habits. For instance, in Dar es Salaam, local hospitals charges as high as TZS 1mn for one-night admission for COVID-19 patients, which medical insurers do not cover. We are soon going to see families making life or death choices. Save.

Where do we go from here?

An orthodox piece of advice is to automatically save at least 15-20% of your income every month for future expenses, including emergencies and future life plans. Banks can help you set a particular standing order that will automatically transfer funds to this special account after each instructed income. You can also instruct limited withdrawals.

Another renowned method is starting what is known as an emergency fund, where one can start saving for the future. It might feel like emergency savings money is “just sitting there,” but that’s the point. Your emergency cash reserves should be easily accessible if your income is adversely affected or a significant unexpected expense arises. If you become ill, the last thing you want to worry about is how you’ll pay your bills.

Yet still, since savings is a habit, it is imperative to inculcate it early. Savings should start at home and schools at an early age. One can be taught to start small with achievable targets, short-term goals, and identifying fundamental lifestyle changes. Once savings habits are established, they tend to be maintained, and among ‘rainy-day savers,’ the savings developed during childhood continue into adulthood and become self-reinforcing.

The author is Head of Marketing and Communication at Equity Bank(T). The article is his personal views and does not represent his employer. He can be reached through: godwin.semunyu@equitybank.co.tz.

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