It’s time the world listened to new stories out of Africa

Published in The Observer (January 20th, 2011)

Eleni Gabre-Madhin rings the bell and another day of frenetic dealing starts at the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange. As she walks back to her office past screens filled with flickering prices, traders in green and brown jackets start bargaining over prices of some of the world’s finest coffee beans. The hubbub grows as they haggle, high fives denoting another deal. Each one is another small step in lifting the threat of starvation from the country.

The former World Bank economist set up the exchange in Addis Ababa after realising that even at the height of the 1984 famine, when 1million people died in the north of the country, there were food surpluses in the south. Her ambition was to transform food security in Ethiopia, enabling farmers to reach new markets and obtain better prices. Today, the place is buzzing as traders deal in sesame, pea beans and maize, along with those prized coffee beans. It has been open for 1,000 days, during which time it has traded an astonishing $1bn worth of goods – and with zero default.

Gabre-Madhin admits that when she told colleagues in Washington of her plans to establish a modern exchange from scratch in Africa they laughed out loud. “But we have done it and we are helping change the image of this country,” she said. “I could smell the change in the air and I wanted to be part of it. And all across the continent, there are similar things happening, despite the terrible bureaucracy and infrastructure.”

She is right to be so optimistic. Think of Africa and for too many people it conjures up images of hunger, poverty, disease and conflict. These are the four horsemen of the supposed African apocalypse. Journalists seeking stories look for death, decay and destruction while charities seeking donations reinforce the stereotypes with pictures of malnourished children and dying adults. Often, they work and travel together, reporters rarely subjecting charities to the level of scrutiny applied to other vital institutions.

But these images fail to reflect an accurate picture of a fast-changing continent. People such as Gabre-Madhin, the traders on the floor and the farmers growing those goods and using modern methods of communication to get the best prices are the real face of Ethiopia today, a country that more than any demonstrates the gulf between the West’s perception and the reality of modern Africa.

Indeed, while we have been captivated by the astonishing events over recent weeks in the north, we have overlooked another, slower-burning revolution taking place across the rest of Africa. It is one largely driven from the ground up and turning the continent into a place brimming with good news. We ignore it at our peril.

There are still deep problems, with monstrous dictators, rampant corruption, wretched inequality and grinding poverty for millions. The election in Uganda on Friday underlines the difficulties of reform, with an authoritarian leader using the power and patronage of the state to remain in charge after 25 years despite once recognising that Africa’s problems are caused “by leaders who overstay”.

But for all this, the twin motors of capitalism and consumerism are driving profound changes for the better, especially when allied with technological advances, good governance and rapid urbanisation. People are living longer. Their lives are more prosperous and more peaceful. And many of the continent’s 56 countries are roaring ahead with such vigour that a pack of African lions may soon be snapping at the heels of the Asian tiger economies.

After China and India, the continent is being seen as the next emerging billion-person powerhouse. Investors are scrambling to put their money into Africa, lured not just by the mineral wealth and uncultivated arable land, but by an astonishingly young population – nearly two-thirds of the people living there are under the age of 24 – which is increasingly educated and has money to spend on consumer products. There are already more mobile phone subscribers in Africa than in Canada and the US combined, proving that even those on the breadline have spending power.

The Economist revealed last month that six of the 10 most rapidly expanding economies over the past decade were in sub-Saharan Africa. Heading the list was Angola, transformed by the oil boom from a wartorn wreck into the world’s fastest-growing nation. The others were Ethiopia, Nigeria, Chad, Mozambique and Rwanda. And it is not just down to the commodity boom – retailing, manufacturing and telecommunications also played their part, along with tourism.

Indeed, thanks partly to the World Cup in South Africa, this was the only region of the world that saw a growth in tourism last year.

This is just the start. Already, Africa’s collective gross domestic product is bigger than Brazil’s and the continent’s households spend more than those in India. Over the next five years, the average African economy is expected to outpace its Asian counterpart.

By the end of this decade, there are expected to be at least 17 cities, among them Dakar in Senegal, Rabat in Morocco and Kano in Nigeria, with consumer markets worth more than $10bn each. Looking further ahead, the Standard Chartered bank predicts that the continent’s economy will grow at an average annual rate of 7% over the next two decades – faster even than China’s.

China has led the way into Africa over the past 10 years. Although many argue it is just ripping out raw materials to fuel its own growth, it has improved infrastructure and put massive sums of money into the continent. It was rapidly followed by its Asian rivals, which is why Hyundai cars will soon be rolling off a new plant in Mali. And now the American corporate behemoths such as Coca-Cola, Walmart and Yum! – the owners of KFC – are spending billions to catch up.

This is a phenomenal turnaround. For much of the late 20th century, Africa was in a sorry state – pockmarked by war, plundered by dictators and plagued by poverty. For two decades, nearly all the countries in sub-Saharan Africa recorded zero or even negative economic growth per capita as they struggled with their colonial legacy, suffered apartheid and became a proxy battleground for the cold war. Promising businesses were ruined, investment dried up and unemployment soared. In 1989, when the Berlin wall fell, there were just three democracies in Africa.

But as the last century ended, Africa shook off the shackles of the past and began to stir. As the impressive Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf likes to say, there are no poor countries, just rich countries that are poorly managed. And it would have been hard to manage countries worse than most of the leaders then in charge. But as democracy spread – today there are 23, albeit of widely varying quality – countries became better governed and conflict declined. The numbers killed in battle, for example, fell sevenfold in the first eight years of this century, while the number of successful coups fell more than threefold in two decades.

This process continues. There has been extensive coverage of the alarming standoff between two rival election candidates in Ivory Coast. But in neighbouring Guinea, ruled by a series of brutal and rapacious dictators since gaining independence in 1958, a massacre of demonstrators led to a bizarre series of events that culminated in the first democratically elected government being sworn in a few weeks ago. And we have just seen the referendum over the division of Sudan pass off peacefully despite widespread predictions of violence and chaos.

There is still a long way to go. Repression remains rife, corruption endemic, infrastructure woeful, bureaucracy stifling. But one result is that people respond with immense ingenuity and world-beating innovations emerge.

Two examples are M-Pesa, a Kenyan system for transferring money by text that is attracting global attention, and mPedigree, a Ghanaian service to determine whether a medicine is counterfeit from its bar code, sent to a central number by text. There are dozens more.

“Things are moving so fast there,” says Vijay Mahajan, a business professor at Texas University and author of Africa Rising. “After all, God did not put all the entrepreneurs in China and India.”

Europe remains Africa’s biggest trading partner with strong historic and cultural links. But too many people in Britain retain a myopic vision of Africa, blinkered by the past and influenced by the corrosive legacy of Live8 in 2005.

If we really want to help, we can lift trade restrictions, support those fighting for civil society and ignore the current squeals over new anti-bribery legislation. But we should focus relentlessly on trade and not on aid. Africa does not need “saving” by outsiders: it is finding its own solutions to its own problems with impressive speed.

Related Posts

Categorised in: , , , , ,