Unlocking undiscovered Africa

Ian Beales

If China is, as once famously described, a riddle wrapped in an enigma, then Africa is a cliché, encased in a myth. It is still burdened by pre-colonial Western notions of the Dark Continent: impenetrable and disorganised; sick, broke and divided; exploitable and exploited. A landmass the size of Africa is quite possibly all of the above, from time to time and place to place. But that scattered truth should no longer define it. When Zambian government bonds are more sought after on world markets than those of Italy, it is time for a reappraisal. Something is happening, but what?

Africa is on the move, expanding while Europe, the US, and much else worldwide, struggles or shrinks. But that fact begs many questions. Will it last? Is Africa’s new economic confidence founded on its own strength, or dependent on the rest of the world’s current relative weakness? Is Africa’s growth, predicted by some to zoom from US$2 trillion GDP to $29 trillion by 2050, really sustainable? Or is it wishful thinking? It is too early to be sure of any of this, but if Africa waits for certainty, the delay could condition the outcome.

However, since we are in the realms of advanced fiscal astrology, we can be fairly sure that the current conjunction of economic stars is favourable. The failure of traditional financial growth markets has forced investors to look elsewhere. Africa is now on the agenda. China’s phenomenal growth has inevitably increased its labour costs, which again means multinational corporations look elsewhere.

Meanwhile, buoyant commodity prices doubly assist Africa’s economy by bringing greater returns on existing reserves of minerals and hydrocarbons and underwriting development of new ones. And, not least, we have the rise of Africa’s domestic market, driven by an emerging middle class that creates its own virtuous wealth cycle, and which has inspired world-beating innovation, such as Kenya’s pioneering ‘digital wallet’ mobile money systems. Booming consumerism has put Africa on the world’s agenda as the new frontier for marketing. It is still not universal: countries move at different speeds, as on every other continent. But the direction of travel is clear. So, while there can be no ultimate certainties about outcome, it is not too soon to divine that there is here a real and present opportunity for Africa. A continent so often exploited in the past is better positioned than ever before to exploit its own resources and assets. It is growing at the right time in history.

To that extent, this truly is Africa’s new dawn: a new chance; a cause for real hope. Yet hope, however well founded, is not the same as expectation. Nothing must be taken for granted. To press home its current advantages, Africa must attack its own chronic internal problems. Here, the stellar conjunction is not so encouraging. First, rapid economic growth is a potent, sometimes toxic, force. It could unleash a lucky strike mentality that would exacerbate Africa’s enduring curses: of bad governance, political instability, gross and growing inequality, rampant corruption and – especially in this context – youth unemployment. Second, the rise of jihadist terrorism harboured in the Sahara adds a new dimension to old issues of stability and international investor confidence in the region.

These are the great challenges to be overcome. This is where the debate about Africa’s future must centre. It has concentrated some brilliant minds in these pages and will do so with even greater force and intensity at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town in May, where the theme is Delivering Africa’s Promise. We wish them great wisdom – and good luck.

For history tells us that one vital key to economic progress is having self-belief and attainable goals. The recurring message from Global‘s Africa Survey has been precisely that the continent, while too vast to have a monolithic self-belief, is increasingly discovering a positive common identity at individual levels.

Find a way to bottle that, and create a unity of purpose, high public standards, with free and accessible internal markets, and the battle would be almost won. Africans individually would have a self-belief that would unlock the continent’s undiscovered talents. What a prize.

About the author:

Ian Beales is Editor of Global: the international briefing


Post a comment

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International