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Socio-economic development in Africa – a new era dawning

It is time that Africa rids the continent of western socio-economic development models – the people of Africa are entrenched with their own intuitive knowledge on African solutions to affect social change. It is time to implement and share these models with confidence, writes Reana Rossouw, director and owner of Next Generation Consultants.

One of the key causes for Africa’s poverty is a long history of crippling misgovernance. This problem is often exacerbated rather than relieved by rich countries’ donations. In recent times, there has been a shift towards a trade rather than aid philosophy to develop the economic capacity of Africans. This trend is typically aimed at developing market-based incentives that assist people to help themselves through stimulating social businesses. An aid philosophy is often inefficient because it is based on geopolitical considerations and not economic criteria, whilst a trade philosophy aims to find financially viable solutions for social improvement projects through a concept that is already interwoven in Africa’s collective unconsciousness: trading. This trend portrays a more sustainable, African approach to socio-economic development and, in many ways, is shifting development on the African continent.

Another prevalent trend, related to the trade vs. aid approach is that of the fortune-at-the-bottom-of-the-pyramid philosophy. It is based on developing business models that aim to provide goods and services to the poorest people in the world. The philosophy makes a business case for one of the fastest growing new markets and the entrepreneurial opportunities to be found among the billions of poor people at the bottom of the financial pyramid. Africa abounds with excellent examples, and this approach illustrates the vital impact that poor communities have on formal business.

Increasingly global corporations seek ways to integrate marginalised African communities into their business strategies. Today, the business world looks at Africa as a boiling pot of opportunity – but as Africans start to empower themselves – the undertone of exploitation that characterised the past, is fading.

The western imprint

Since the early days of colonisation the African continent has battled to develop a uniquely African solution to its challenges. Colonial rule was synonymous with authorities in bureaucratic offices in Europe, fighting over land and drawing lines on a world map to constitute countries where they had never set foot. Colonial governments thought they knew what was best for Africa and how it should be ruled, without ever fully understanding the African way of governance.

The colonial effect has shaped African thinking in many ways. Today, the duplication of American and European socio-economic development models still prevail on the continent. Too many western models are duplicated and implemented without understanding local complexity.

Too often, as recipients of international development aid, local practitioners did not necessarily understand, or were not even engaged or part of the development process, including programme design and management. This resulted in very few truly sustainable socio-economic development projects in Africa. Even to this day, international skills mostly conduct these projects and they seldom transfer the capacity and skills employed for such projects, dooming sustainability from the outset.

Similarly, corporate organisations also tend to misunderstand local contexts. Companies often engage with the communities in which they do business without fully understanding the socio-cultural context, or how their presence and actions affect the complex dynamics between stakeholder groups. These poorly integrated programmes lead to a series of unintended consequences, often exacerbating tensions or creating conflicts among communities, and interfering with local subsistence practices without transfering the necessary knowledge and skills to implement and sustain these ‘foreign’ methodologies.

Celebrity funders and glamour philanthropy is also very in vogue and there is no shortage of names that come to mind easily: Madonna, Angelina Jolie, Oprah, Bono, Bill Gates. Although they elevate Africa’s social problems on the world agenda like very few other social outreach initiatives, the critical question remains whether celebrity do-gooders really equip African communities for a sustainable future and empower them to find African solutions to their problems.

Africa has an extended history of socio-economic development aid and the continent has observed many global interferences and vastly different socio-economic development models. However, the influence and impact of socio-economic development programmes have not always been negative. Socio-economic development work by the UNDP, World Bank and other large foundations and agencies such as Oxfam, DFID and Danida has been positive for Africa in many ways. It exposed the continent to international socio-economic development models and in many cases effected sustainable social change. But, many of these programmes were still based on western economic principles and a western notion for solving Africa’s social problems.

It’s time for Africa

I am a firm propagandist that the African continent must develop its own models and skills, build capacity and find entrepreneurial solutions for its socio-economic problems. In several case studies, it has been proved that – at grassroots level – the deep-seated knowledge and skills to ensure sustainable socio-economic development projects, already exist in African communities. However, this grassroots knowledge and skills must be channelled through programmes that apply African socio-economic development models for their formalisation.

One of the best case studies is probably the science, technology and innovation (STI) capacity building programme in the Rift Valley of Rwanda. The government-led initiative – which followed the country’s first democratic elections in 2003 – was personally steered by President Paul Kagame emphasising the importance of science and technology in Rwanda’s economic and social development. This national vision was formulated in long-term STI policies and the country partnered with several development organisations, like the World Bank, to convert the policies into implementation.

Rwanda realised that it cannot prosper in a competitive global economy and open trading system if it did not build the scientific, entrepreneurial, engineering, technological and technical capacity to produce more value-added goods and services. The country also acknowledged that science, engineering and technical knowledge already existed elsewhere in Africa and in Rwanda itself, but that it had to be transferred to communities in a sustainable manner.

Already Rwanda’s long-term STI vision, and accompanied agricultural projects, have increased annual income from $1 a day to $3,500 per household per year (at certain projects). Over the past five years, Rwanda has developed high-value-add export industries in such diverse fields as coffee and flowers. Entrepreneurs worked in partnership with subsistence farmers to devote a portion of their time and land to grow cash crops, and dedicate the rest of the land to subsistence farming to feed communities. Many of these entrepreneurs were Rwandan expatriates who returned to the country to start businesses. Private investors now have plans to move into additional value-add sectors, including tea, silk, herbs, essential oils and specialty vegetables.

Rwanda’s example of excellence is not an isolated case. In South Africa the Phelophepa Health Train, a Transnet initiative, successfully brings primary healthcare to thousands of rural South Africans each year. In countries like Ghana and Kenya, franchised healthcare models created a wave of entrepreneurial innovation. The Child and Family Wellness Shops, chains of rural pharmacies and health clinics across Kenya, improved rural health conditions while at the same time stimulating the country’s local economy.

Africa’s ICT industry also leads with good models. A case in point is the M-Pesa project in Kenya. It allegedly accounts for more than half of all money transfers in east Africa. This project set the ball rolling for the migration of thousands of citizens from the informal economy into the formal banking sector.

These case studies are brilliant examples that Africa is already equipped with the knowledge to find local solutions to the continent’s problems. The projects illustrate the successes that can be achieved if governments direct development aid to projects that are intuitively part of the country’s collective knowledge pool and skills base, instead of aid organisations suggesting programmes which they think would benefit African communities and enhance their quality of life.

It is evident that rapid shifts are taking place across the continent, and several emerging trends portray a more African way of socio-economic development. It is time to document these pockets of excellence and share them at conferences and in the media. Global conference organisers need to take cognisance of these approaches, while Africans need to step up their game and confidently share the African socio-economic developmental story. In this way only, can the continent build on the existing knowledge base and ensure that African socio-economic development models be duplicated with ease towards a prosperous future.

Rossouw is a strategic sustainability consultant and director and owner of Next Generation Consultants.


  • thomas adewumi

    can you centralize your points on Nigeria? cuz it would really help me in my english essay

  • Rachel Kenya

    I was really confused by this article. You also compare invalid data points. But yes, I agree with you there is an immense amount of value in indigenous and rural knowledge economies, none of which can be maximized without investment. But first, let’s also differentiate the challenges. Socio-economic development in South Africa does not face the same institutional or grassroots challenges as Kenya, Congo or Liberia.

    Yes, commercial initiatives can dramatically impact human security models but East & Sub Saharan Africa continue to struggle with devastating food insecurity and malnutrition. These are directly propagating spillover of conflict. We can’t put a band aid on long term insecurity with a few success stories. The majority of Africa is an agrarian economy and we need to facilitate more commercial investment into farming! Of the top 20 food insecure countries, 12 are in domestic conflict.

    No, it isn’t an easy solution but not only Africa but the world needs to be growing more food. We won’t see any significant impact at the level of national GDPs until countries and regional economic blocks begin to attract more commercial investment at both the incubation and SME levels.

    And yes, MPESA is a phenomenal tool. I use it to pay bills every week. It has helped to facilitate enterprise; it is also the leading facilitator for local inflation directly impacting food prices. This model was developed with a local team but the model and technology was imported from Indonesia.

    In summary…. it can’t be ‘them’ or ‘us’ but ‘we’ as a global community who develop financially self-sustainable, scalable and equitable investments impacting not only local BOP marketplaces but regional and global development.

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