Africa Rising: Myth or Reality

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By Kevin Motaroki

In our defence of the Africa Rising narrative – from an economic perspective – we talk of large and expanding consumer markets, mega malls, rebased economies – the most recent ones saw Nigeria overtake South Africa as the continent’s leading economy, and the transformation of Kenya into a middle-income country – and increased Foreign Direct Investment ratios. Revelling in this is the true spirit of Africanism for, who wouldn’t be proud that Africa is touted as the next frontier in world economics?

Vijay Mahajan, in his book Africa Rising: How 900 Million African Consumers Offer More Than You Think (2014), reveals how India and China are staking out strategic positions throughout the continent, out of the realisation that Africa is one of the world’s fastest growing consumer markets, where he also outlines the vital role played by the diaspora in driving investment.

This is all very well. But what has really changed?

The trouble with this concept is that it focuses primarily on the economic and completely ignores other aspects of humanity – education, culture and politics – without which the idea that Africa is rising is, at best, farfetched. For what is human development if it does not encompass all or a majority of all aspects of human life?

Siphiwe Sibeko, writing in Reuters, points out that not everyone is buying into the “Africa Rising” narrative, and for good reasons too. Quoting a study done by consulting firm A T Kearney, Sibeko suggests that some investors still have a nagging uncertainty about doing business in the region, which led to a three per cent drop in FDI inflows last year.

Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria have rebased their economies in the recent past, with the respective GDP figures surging by what, in economic ratios, are phenomenal terms. What these measures did was to define the status quo more accurately – the difference between the rich and poor has gone up, and that inflation rates favour the haves, rather than the have-nots. What does this say about “Africa Rising”? Kenyans are not better off, the Ghanaians are not, and Nigerians certainly are not.

In fact, Ghana has one of the worst electricity crises on the continent, despite being Africa’s thirteenth largest economy. So dire is the situation – a friend tells me the longest they have electricity in their house is two hours every day, and that is during weekends – that last month, Ghanaian artistes organised a demonstration to force government to “stop hoarding electricity”. It is sabotage, she says, and adds that everyone could have access to the precious commodity all day every day if government systems worked as they ought to. The story of Nigeria doesn’t need retelling; almost every homestead has a generator because the people no longer trust government to meet their electricity needs – which they pay for! There is talk that things could change with the voting out of Goodluck Jonathan, but there has been such talk before.

Their fear is not misplaced. And we give investors a reason to reinforce that each day. Burundi is burning. And so are South Sudan, Somalia, Chad, Niger and Congo. In Kenya there is unease as well. Communal and religious extremism threatens the very existence of these regions, making their economic and political future uncertain. 

While some of these conflicts, as is the case in Burundi, are evidence of a roused population, especially the youthful segments, what they have in ideals they quickly shed in quality of life. An attempted coup in Burundi last month to protest a decision by the incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza to run for a third term when the constitution disallows has left scores dead, millions in property destroyed, displaced thousands and created uncertainty as to whether the failed coup means the people lost in their quest.

Ali Mufuruki, a Tanzanian businessman and founder of Infotech Investment Group, is one of the more prominent personalities who have openly rubbished this narrative, which, he says, is riddled with fundamental flaws and does not portray the real picture of growth and development in Africa. Says Mufuruki:

“The enthusiastic embrace of this notion of rising by Africans has been done without examination of the facts, but sadly, this is not the first time we have believed without seeing. Our enthusiasm is derived from comparison of Africa’s growth with sluggish growth in Europe, which is recovering from financial crisis. It is not a fair comparison.”

The undoing of the “Africa Rising” narrative is our attitude, our inability to remember; we move on too quickly. Because of the inefficiency of systems, people hardly have the strength to question matters beyond a certain level, and when they do, it is with a defined measure of exasperation. How often, for instance, does a government official ever resign for ineptitude or corruption? The answer is never. It is not that the masses, buoyed by different civil movements, don’t demand it, no. It is that what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it-if-I-don’t-step-down attitude. It is an epidemic.

And so, how is one to measure this “Africa Rising” ideal? Through infrastructural development? Perhaps, but what we have for blueprints are plans from the 1970s. Quality of life? More than half of the populations in almost every country in Africa live in poverty. Social development, maybe? We have hardly anything impressive to write about in education, health or nutrition. Economic growth? In opinion polls posted and broadcast everyday in media – that institution our President so dearly hates to love – people say they simply cannot feel the effects of economic expansion.

Again, in the past two months, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam have witnessed the worst flooding the two cities have ever had. Our ineptitude, alas, is collective. Drainage systems established fifty years ago, to cater for a population of 100,000 are not just overwhelmed; they are also unmaintained. Road and housing infrastructure is unplanned, so that we have companies digging up sections of cities every weekend, clogging water and sewerage channels, disrupting electricity lines and generally making a mess of our cities. Our planning departments do not know how to plan at all.

Africa cannot feed half of her population. Vast regions are filled with malnourished people who cannot work because they don’t have the strength. Grand plans by governments to grow food are sabotaged before they take off, making a mockery of plans to improve the quality of life. Hoarding of essential commodities, like petrol, cereal and farm input is common. 

Corruption – that age-old vice – is not about to disappear. People, including the leaders entrusted to safeguard public resources, defraud governments by the billions, but they are “our brothers and sisters”, and so we look the other way and let them keep stealing. The forests by which we survive are fast disappearing, but ejecting grabbers and (illegal) loggers means losing political mileage. There is too much mediocrity around.

Going back to Mufuruki, one other flaw with “Africa Rising” is that the exuberance associated with the concept is derived almost exclusively from what is considered a relative high rate of GDP growth in Africa in recent years, compared to the growth of economies in the West. In other words, a growth of six or seven percent for a region with more than 1.3 billion people is nothing extraordinary, when compared to, say, China, with more or less a similar population, which posts 18 percent!

Here is another example: According to a World Development Report published by the World Bank in 2012, quantified, Africa’s economy is about the size of The Netherlands’, which is about six percent that of the US. Germany produces about four times more the electricity produced by the entire Sub Saharan Africa (47 countries). And according to the policy paper Power Sector Reform in Africa: Assessing Impact on Poor People No. 306 of 2005, less than two per cent of the rural populations of Malawi, Ethiopia, Niger, and Chad have access to electrical power.

 

Should we still believe the narrative?

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