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Opportunities to begin a new era of African pride

Beyond the Millennium Development Goals, prompted by foreign bureaucrats to alleviate endemic shortages, Africa wants to build infrastructures and to create, for the first time, a middle class.

Africa is a big continent, for those who have forgotten: 6% of the total surface of the Earth and 20.4% of land mass. The cradle of modern man, this continent is home to 16% of the world population, distributed in 56 countries. It is the region most affected by illnesses, poverty and malnutrition.

Viewed from space, Africa is as dark as Siberia, despite harboring nearly 1,000 million people, a sixth of the world’s population. From space, its silhouette is barely marked by the light pollution of its coasts, in contrast with the completely illuminated Western Europe.

This continent generates only about 4% of global electricity, three quarters of which is used by South Africa, Egypt and Maghrebi countries (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia).

But attempts to electrify Africa, through diverse infrastructures plans throughout the 1970s and 1980s, is not the only failed project due to government pillaging in different countries.

Africans want to develop their own future

The Millennium Development Goals were established in 2000 by the 191 countries that make up the UN, to achieve minimum development standards worldwide by 2015. Of the 1,200 million people that live on a dollar a day, or the 854 million that suffer from hunger, or the 11 million children that die every year on account of treatable illnesses, a disproportionate percentage live in Sub-Saharan Africa.

As has always been the case, prescriptions for the current situation originate from outside the continent, with personalities such as the American Jeffrey Sachs (director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and author of The End of Poverty), who are the authors of the proposals by the international community to improve the living conditions of Africans.

Although scientific controversy persists about the causal relationship between the health of a population and the level of wealth that the society can reach, few studies on the subject cast doubt that education and work are more effective when the health of children and parents stop being a a problem.

Work to overcome malnutrition and the fight against AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and the curable diseases that each year kill millions of children are crucial. But Sub-Saharan Africa also wants to develop its economy.

The message is clear: philanthropy and international charity will continue being welcomed, but Africans want to decide their own future. For this, they will need leadership skills that avoid the errors of post-colonialism. It will not be easy.

It’s the economy, stupid

“It’ s the economy, stupid”. The phrase thrown out by Bill Clinton toward George Bush, Sr., during the presidential campaign of 1992, that elevated him to the White House against predictions, could now be uttered from of a growing number of African businessmen.

Various countries have increased their diplomatic and commercial exchanges with the continent, especially China and India, explains The Economist. It is a message to the West: the Asian giants haven’t come to the African capitals just to offer food, or emergency, aid. They want to build infrastructure in return for access to primary resources.

Rediscover Africa

The size of Africa usually passes unnoticed by the eyes of the world. Historically, the Euro-centric world cartographers have drawn a European continent at a size greater than the real one, while Africa appears diminished.

An image from an Atlas published by The Times, titled “Africa in perspective”, demonstrates just how big the continent is in relation to other countries and zones of the world.

It so happens that Africa (30.3 million square kilometers) is greater that the combination of China (9.6 million square kilometers), the United States (9.4 million), Western Europe (4.9 million), India (3.2 million) Argentina (2.8 million), and the British islands.

It’s a piece of diverse and incredibly rich land though with a future that remains permanently outside the focus of world attention.

The controversial nickname, the Dark Continent, used recently by The Economist to refer to how investors view Africa, has also been used to describe the poor electrification of the continent, as well as its given importance by the world.

The focus of the media, or of the increasingly more important Internet forums, shine less on Africa, although this reality could be changing.

From Africa, the usual…

If we were visited by an alien civilization that studied the information coming from traditional media and the Internet about Africa, they would come to the conclusion that no positive news comes from this continent.

As if there existed an alarmist mandate followed by everyone, including the social web and YouTube, the information that the world consumes about Africa continues being controlled by the world’s main information agencies.

But this is changing, slowly. In the future, the flow of information that emanates from Africa and its control will stop being monopolized by agencies and professionals, and instead stem from the work of enthusiastic, local reporters and, to the extent that they improve publishing access for regular citizens, from the public themselves.

The phenomenon of the blogosphere, still foreign to the majority on this continent, could interconnect African towns with the rest of the world, without passing through the filter of American and European press agencies.

The British newspaper The Independent talks about a new generation of Africans taking advantage of their Internet access. For example, the project Kenyan Blogs Webring began in 2004 with only 10 spots, a figure that rose by the middle of 2007 to 430, with blogs dedicated to politics, economy, business, arts and culture in general.

Bloggers such as Obed Sarpong (Accra, Ghana) or Titilayo Obisesan (Abuja, Nigeria), publish their impressions on daily problems or hopes, from the role of South Africa as a power in the region to the vices of the ruling classes or the arduous state of the highways and other infrastructure, that complicate any attempt toward progress in extensive areas of the continent.

Always bad news

The news brought to us from Africa continues to be as pathetic as that to which we have become accustomed to listen to since we began accepting our news from a handful of professionals that at times risk their lives to show the horror (Joaquin Phoenix plays a role of one of those reporters in Hotel Rwanda).

Some of the conflicts that have caught our attention recently demonstrate just how skewed is the information that we receive:

  • The marine piracy and the abductions in Somalia, the failed state on the Horn of Africa.
  • The last conflict in the Republic of the Congo.
  • The effect of the different pandemics that affect the Sub-Saharan population (“strategies of population reduction”, as Susan George would say sarcastically in The Lugano Report).
  • The failed economy of the continent, thanks to so many other failures.
  • The human drama of the migrations toward Europe.
  • The focus of forgotten conflict (Darfur is only one of them).

Marine piracy flourishes in the middle of the chaos found off the Horn of Africa (The Lawless Horn, according to The Economist), due to the failed state of Somalia. Somali youth do not want to be sports, nor do they dream of travelling far from their country: they want to be pirates.

Inland, in November of 2008, the Spanish photographer José Cendón and the British journalist Colin Freeman were kidnapped along with two local translators in Juntland, a semi-autonomous Somali state. They joined other kidnapped journalists in the zone.

Those who have read the book -or seen the movie- Black Hawk Down, will be able to be get an idea of the current situation, since nothing has changed -simply, has gotten worse- in Somalia. The pirates, who capture ships increasingly further off the coast, have become more aggressive.

The IMB (International Maritime Bureau, an organ of the International Chamber of Commerce, ICC), has published a map that shows in geographical context all the incidents of piracy attacks and armed robberies suffered by the merchant marine worldwide in 2008.

It is not a surprise that the attacks cluster mainly around Somalia, the natural doorway to the Arabic Sea and inescapable passage, through the Gulf of Aden (nicknamed “Pirate Alley”), for the cargo boats going to or returning from Europe through the Suez Canal.

The second most troubled zone on the continent, also hardly surprising, is found on the Gulf of Guinea, the other great business district of Sub-Saharan Africa. There is only one other zone in the world where the marine piracy represents a comparable problem: Southeast Asia (in water off Indonesia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Strait of Malacca).

With regard to the military conflict in the Republic of Congo: despite the presence of the largest contingent of blue helmets in UN history, there are thousands of displaced persons, mass violations, and even more threatened endangered species (gorillas), due to the conflicts in the zone and to the abandonment of special protection zones.

The conflict in the Congo is a classic in Africa: beyond the deaths and population displacements, there exists a war for control of the country’s natural resources: gold, diamonds and coltan.

Another debilitating issue are the widespread pandemics and the fight against them: AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria.

The role of the old colonial powers hasn’t always been positive for African countries. The West has often supported the interests of the large energy, food and pharmaceutical companies, with important interests in the zone.

The Constant Gardener (a novel by John Le Carré and a movie from the Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles), for example, tries to describe the tangle of interests and corruption that surrounds drug companies working in Africa.

The human drama of Sub-Saharans trying to reach the European Union from Mauritania, Senegal and the Western Sahara (bound for Spain’s Canary Islands), Northern Morocco (via Spain’s North African cities of Ceuta and Melilla) and the coasts of Tunisia and Libya (bound for Lampedusa, Sicily and Malta), will not be resolved until there is a future for the brightest youth of Sub-Saharan Africa in their own countries.

The region of Darfur, in western Sudan, the largest country of Africa, continues suffering the consequences of war, despite having disappeared from the media.

In Sudan, as in other African countries, various parallel conflicts exist: between the Arabian north and the southern black populations (above all Christian and animistic), and inside regions rich in resources, with Darfur as a sad paradigm.

Sudan, a country created with a pen and an improbable State, is another entrenched problem in the middle of Africa that no one can agree upon.

Arab tribes armed by an Islamic government that devastate rural populations; compulsory migrations to favor the livestock breeding of determined tribes; armed factions that fight for the control of entire regions; international support of one or another edict; rivalries that are passed along between generations… Sudan has the ingredients that make Africa an unhappy place. Kirsten Dirksen tried to cover the story from the youth perspective in a report on the conflict of Darfur, reviewed by The New York Times.

Credit crisis? A relative problem for Africa

Africa is very far from the epicenter of the economic crisis. This can be an advantage. Several countries, nevertheless, have strong ties with American and European economies, foremost South Africa.

In a globalized economy, the financial crisis ends up impacting the sales of goats in Kenya, the intensity of maritime traffic in the Suez Canal or the foreign investment in the region, to give a diversity of examples.

Nevertheless, a lesser participation in the world economy spares the main economies of this continent from other problems: African banks tend to conserve their loans in their own accounts, while the derivatives market is practically nonexistent.

Shanta Devarajan, head of the World Bank in Africa, believes that there are risks that Africa could suffer from an economic crisis that originated outside the continent:

  • Some subsidiaries of foreign banks, as well as local banks controlled by foreign companies, could fail.
  • There is an expected decrease in the flow of private capital, which had grown in Africa at a rhythm greater than any another place in the world.
  • Prices of commodities, the main source of economic subsistence in the region, could fall.
  • Foreign aid could also drop, according to Devarajan, due to a great recession in Europe and North America, and to the increase in spending in these regions on macroeconomic policies to revive their economies.

Being the poorest region of the planet does not exempt Africa from paying the consequences of the global economic crisis. The butterfly effect is a reality.

Africa seems not to have changed too much with regard to the reports novelized by the Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski (Ebony), or to the movies (The Last King of Scotland, based on a successful novel of the same name; Tsotsi, Blood Diamonds) and documentaries (Darwin’s Nightmare, for example), that show the misery of the poorest continent.

It is difficult to fight against an information agenda that only has time to focus on the most pressing problems of the continent, normally located south of the Sahara.

Africa has shown, for example, that when it comes to fighting against climate change, the entire continent votes in unison, as if it were a single country, a quorum increasingly more difficult to obtain in the European Union.

Positive news from the forgotten continent

Something is changing in Africa. In some places, local and international reporters explain that there wasn’t as much hope and feelings of pride among the population since Sub-Saharan Africa managed to become independent in unison from the European colonial powers, in the 60s and 70s.

The victory of Barack Obama in the American elections was not only celebrated in the humble village of Kogelo, in Western Kenya, the hometown of his father and where his paternal grandmother still lives at 87 years of age.

Analysts point out that Obama hasn’t shown a special interest in changing the most flagrant realities of Africa, and that the foreign policy of this democratic Administration will be centered on reinforcing troops in Afghanistan, increasing pressure on Pakistan and the gradual withdrawal from Iraq. Given the current economic situation and the runaway deficit in the United States, Obama can’t dedicate a lot of time to the forgotten continent.

Nevertheless, there are signs of change:

  • The development of a cellular phone system and other technologies is notable. The cellular phone system has reached areas where personal computers never have, including the most remote villages that lack electricity. Cellular phones allow for micropayments as well as communication in some of the most incommunicable zones of the planet. Jason Harris explains in ReadWriteWeb that 300 million African citizens have cellphones, almost a third of the population. In some countries, the rate of penetration reaches between 80% and 90% of the population (in South Africa, 42 million people are cellphone users, of a total population of 47 million). Africans have embraced without problems services such as M-PESA, the biggest mobile payment network in the world (it allows users to exchange money through SMS messages, allowing for credit transactions through pre-paid calls). To pay a debt to a friend, an SMS message is sufficient. The service, a simple concept, is significant when the majority of the population lacks bank accounts (in South Africa, the regional powerhouse, only 13 million people have a bank account and, of these, only 3 million have conventional Internet access, to carry out similar transactions allowed by M-PESA. The adoption of the mobile Internet holds a lot of promise in all the countries of the region.
  • South Africa itself will host the next World Cup Soccer tournament, an opportunity for the world to focus its media attention on the continent. The power of soccer is global. Millions of people in Africa have never heard of the Nobel Peace Prize winner -and standard-bearer of reforestation in Africa and in the remainder of the world- Wangari Maathai, yet they recognize immediately the Cameroonian Samuel Eto’ or and other international African soccer players.
  • Several international businesses want to have a more important presence in Africa, and this time they aren’t just focusing on commodities.
  • The impact of some development aid initiatives are visible, and hopeful: development of nutrition and vaccination campaigns carried out by organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as campaigns to computerize schools in the poorest countries of the world (initiatives like XO-1 of the American organization One Laptop Per Child -OLPC-, the laptop computer designed for children by the team of Nicholas Negroponte, ex-director of the MIT’s Media Lab).
  • A new generation of African businesses are born, and not only in the Maghreb or in South Africa.

Putting Africa on the map

Some of the Western businesses that are investing in Africa are of a different profile: they’re not just energy giants and food multinationals, nor European buyers of precious metals, nor of distribution chains in search of increasingly better South African wines.

Google has been looking for workers since the beginning of 2008 in Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria and Senegal, besides reinforcing their headquarters in the zone, situated in Nairobi, Kenya.

All this even though Internet connectedness is still under 5%, and large zones of the continent still lack water, food and electricity.

Sub-Saharan Africa lacks, likewise, a direct connection to the Internet’s main network, the information highways that offer connection speeds comparable to those of the remainder of the world at accessible prices. Several local companies offer Internet connection via satellite, although at exorbitant prices for most Africans.

Seventy-five percent of Internet traffic with origin and destination in Africa is routed through Great Britain, according to The New York Times, which results in very slow service and millions of lost connections.

An alternative to the British connection exists: the only fiber optic connection is the maritime connection between Portugal and Northern Africa, which cost 600 million dollars.

Despite being in operation since 2002, the connections are neither faster nor cheaper, due to government monopolies over telecommunications. Plans to unfold another fiber optic connection through the east coast of Africa would involve the same problems.

Google, as well as other international agencies that want to contribute to the development of new technologies in Africa, have begun a new project: to digitize the continent cartographically, so that it will stop being the Dark Continent.

Shortages, disasters, famines and also good news related to development will appear in real-time in Google Earth and Google Maps, mapping applications from Google.

Joseph Mucheru, responsible for Google’s East African office, explains to The Economist the importance of initiatives such as that of the Silicon Valley company, that is concentrating resources from their self-sufficient subsidiary, Google.org, so that Africans can search and publish (in the wiki style) locations (residences, houses, public equipment, zones at risk of the spread of disease, etc.) and activities.

The gradual improvement of Internet connections offered by African Internet cafes will also allow Africans to explain their problems and hopes in the first person, without western intermediaries, through YouTube and similar services that can flourish in Africa.

The Internet in Africa:

  • Total Population (2008): 955 million.
  • Number of Internet users: 51 million (3.5% of the world’s users).
  • Penetration of Internet in Africa: 5.3% of the population, 24.7% of the rest of the world and 21.9% of the world total.
  • Growth in the number of Internet users (2000-2008): 1.031.2% (in comparison with 296.3% for the rest of the world).
  • Ten main African countries, in millions of Internet users: Nigeria (10 million); Egypt (8.6); Morocco (7.3); South Africa (5.1); Algeria (3.5); Kenya (3); Uganda (2); Tunisia (1.8); Sudan (1.5); Zimbabwe (1.4).

Time for an African Renaissance?

As happened with the American fight for civil rights, with Martin Luther King (as well as with the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali), the victory of Barack Obama in the U.S. presidential elections are a symbolic victory for the continent.

Barack Obama’s father, who studied in the United States, was Kenyan and fought his entire life for development in his native land. He saw the failures of the independent African States, that fell one after another, after the departure of the colonial powers, in the hands of capricious -when not psychopathic- dictators.

Corruption was generalized on the entire continent, and the African technocratic youth that achieved a world class education (the father of Barack Obama being one of them) often ended up corrupt, imprisoned, exiled or murdered.

Obama in his book Dreams from My Father portrays his father as being a fighter against his country’s corruption, but eventually succumbing to alcoholism.

Maybe this is a new train that Africa, above all the Sub-Saharan zone, cannot be permitted to miss again.

Recognizing the importance of small businesses

The African SMEs, small and medium-sized businesses, are beginning to exploit a potential market of hundreds of millions of people. The winners of the Pioneers of Prosperity Africa Awards are only a sample of the new wave of enterprising Africans who are directing their products and services toward their own countrymen and betting on the future prosperity in the continent.

BusinessWeek explains that, in an especially delicate moment for business in the entire world, young African businessmen enjoy big opportunities and nonexistent competition.

The new companies rewarded by African public opinion offer the type of products and services -medical, information technologies, mass media- that contribute to the dream of a middle class in the medium term.

The Pioneers of Prosperity, inaugurated in 2007, are promoted by Legatum, an investment group headquartered in Dubai; the OTF group, a global consultant for the development of business in emerging markets; Social Equity Venture Fund, an NGO that promotes social entrepreneurs; and the John Templeton Foundation.

The role of small and medium businesses in the future of Africa is, according to Rose Kimotho, director of the Kenyan company Regional Reach, crucial. Kimotho believes, likewise that the international aid, although usually well intentioned, has failed to create sustainable growth in Africa. The new African professionals prefer to negotiate for themselves the opportunities for their future.

A green revolution for Africa?

There are many doubts about the construction of a brilliant future for Africa, when the developed countries will finally recognize the role of the main emerging economies in the world economy and, therefore, in the future international institutions, which have not been reformed since the end of World War II.

The term BRIC, minted by Goldman Sachs, represents the group composed of the giants Brazil, Russia, India and Chinese, whose economic capacity could surpass that of the developed world in 2050. Some try to include Mexico and South Africa in this group.

South Africa, the main African economy, can act as a locomotive for the rest of the continent, as well as to lead a green revolution able to produce energy for internal, as well as international, consumption.

There are several ideas (some on the table of governments and organizations, while other barely constitute a project) to develop green technologies in the region:

  • Installing solar panels in the Sahara (as explains Alok Jha in The Guardian) which could supply clean electricity for all of Europe, is an idea that is well liked on both sides of the Mediterranean. To be developed, the idea must above the distrust that exists between the European Union and North African countries. Barcelona, the new headquarters of the Mediterranean Union, could be the location for an agreement regarding development of solar energy in the Sahara, as well as a driver of other clean technologies. This, when the Mediterranean Union becomes a forum with real issues and decision-making ability.
  • There are various projects being studied to take advantage of Africa’s potential in renewable energies. One such project would attempt to develop wave energy in places where the tides are particularly strong.
  • Natural gas originating from Algeria and Libya have become strategic assets for the European Union, which wants to diminish the importance of Russia as a main supplier of fossil fuels. For that reason, to the natural gas of the Maghreb, the EU is trying to add the development of various wind power projects.

The African electric car

The current difficulties of the American auto industry and, to a lesser extent, the European and the Japanese, have raised an important debate in world public opinion: should subsidies be given to an industry that has insisted on building inefficient cars, that still depend almost exclusively on petroleum?

The automakers of Detroit, Europe and Japan are marketing hybrid vehicles and promising all electric models, although they are demanding subsidies to make a reality of the dream of an accessible, reliable and technologically convenient electric car.

Africa doesn’t want to be left behind in these new developments in the automobile sector, nor does the region want to be forced to buy cars and technology from Chinese and Indian technology in order to produce efficient and affordable cars.

A South African project, the Joule Electric Car, is part of an ambitious South African program, that wants to mass produce this electric car, with African technology.

The Joule was presented at the 2008 Paris Auto Show, where the first African electric vehicle caused a sensation.

The game one must play

South Africa, which is the site for World Cup Soccer in 2010, the sports spectacle that attracts the most world attention (and economic resources) after the Olympic Games, wants to be well prepared for this date.

Nevertheless, the most important game that Sub-Saharan Africa should play is that of development. African businesses are those that have the least productivity in the world.

It is necessary that politics, for the first time since independence from European colonizers, contribute to stability. In the 1960s, there were 21 coup d’etats on the continent, a figure that was maintained at 18 during the 80s.

The 21st century has brought a certain hope: so for only 5 coups. And, while 25 years ago only 4 African democracies existed -Botswana, Senegal, Zimbabwe and Mauritius-, currently there are 32 states with democratically-elected governments, though some of them with serious problems of corruption and fraud (the latest elections in Kenya and Uganda are a clear example of this).

But Africans want the growth of recent years to arrive soon to the population. Creating a middle class won’t be easy, although the will of enterprising Africans could make this time different.