I cannot shake off a sense of nervousness and mild irritation, each time I listen to the gospel of Africa’s enormous opportunity. Some of the irritation must come from fatigue, from hearing the same statistics and statements too often, but there is more to it. At its core, is the belief that if we do not move the debate and discussion to the ‘next’ level, most of the African miracle we see today will turn into a mirage. And, a lot of the blame will be on us – those who have been driving the hype but failed to deliver the content.
First of all, we continue to think and talk in half-truths and half lies. Whilst every presentation about Africa starts with the statement that it is impossible to talk about Africa in general, the next thing we do is exactly that. Let’s face it, Africa is a complex topic whether one talks geography, politics, economics, culture or climate.
Talking in aggregate is easier on the audience and we can get away with more sloppiness and generic statements – not inconvenient in a situation where up-to-date data are hard , if not impossible, to find.
When we all, in particular investors, went onto a massive collective learning curve about the Africa opportunity this was acceptable, but now, many years of conferences later, the quality of the discussion must move on. Let’s put a halt to speeches and panels that talk about Africa, but instead drive a focus on specific countries, regions and issues. And, just as importantly let’s put through the shredder all these Africa studies and reports that contain five-year-old data and basically reduce Africa to five countries, as diverse as Egypt, South Africa and Nigeria. It is time for a next round of more in-depth study and learning.
Secondly, there is the obsession with investments – but in a narrow sense.
Of course Africa’s future hinges on its ability to attract foreign direct investments. Massive numbers are floating around, and increasingly these focus on the need for an investment in utilities and transport infrastructure. This focus on the big future investments has started to crowd out the one that is at least as important. Africa needs to address the issue of how it deploys and maintains what it has, and in particular its existing public and state-owned infrastructure.
We are all too aware that barely half of the current capacity is in use, that existing inefficiencies benefit rent seekers who seek to hold on to it, and that there is inadequate technical and managerial capacity to fully exploit and maintain what already exists. Just building more, will also mean wasting more. It is urgent that any discussion on infrastructure investments becomes (again) one that goes beyond the quest for capital, and includes the need for regulatory reform and overall technical and managerial capabilities.
This brings us to the topic of education and talent, or skills, in general.
In the face of ample evidence that there is an acute shortage of skills in virtually all sectors of the economy, most countries have not upgraded their educational infrastructure. Worse, in several countries, educational infrastructure has continued to deteriorate with a increasing numbers of upper and middle-class families now contracting in their children’s education from overseas.
The result is a massive loss of talent: Firstly, Africa loses the bright minds who don’t have access to proper education. Secondly, there are those who leave to study abroad and never return. If only African leaders (and I mean this in a wider sense, beyond politics) would take some lessons from China’s success in lifting a massive number of people out of poverty. More than the influx of capital, at the core of China’s success was an extreme willingness, even obsession, to attract skills and know-how, both from the Chinese diaspora as well as from other nations. Seldom have we seen a country that so readily welcomes outsiders, be it managers, academics, chefs or entrepreneurs. And in virtually all cases, local entrepreneurs did find a way to learn, copy or leverage expertise in new or bigger ways.
It is a sign of success that Africa is indeed attracting ever larger foreign investments. But, where are the calls for increased transfer of expertise through the facilitation of (re)immigration, be it across African countries or from other continents. Not only is there no facilitation, in many cases the call for ‘Africa for Africans’ has the perverse effect of locking Africa, and in many cases countries themselves, into their own solutions and talent pool. Often, this is actively or passively encouraged by those with an interest in maintaining the status quo or monopolising the know-how – often these include expatriates or foreigner investors who have no interest in increased competition.
To open up fully will require African communities to be confident that they can, and will, stay in control. The fear of a ‘new colonisation’ is not unfounded, but can be avoided with strong African leadership and, most importantly, the recognition that attracting foreign or diaspora talent is an important facet of a country’s development strategy that must include strengthening its institutions.
Africa is often, glowingly, described as the continent where ‘everything is possible but nothing is easy’. We must move on and make Africa into a continent where ‘not everything is possible (after all, why should it be?), but everything is easy’.
This evolution requires strong regulatory frameworks to ensure that at all times, the interest of the society in general, and the weakest in particular, are paramount. This is the real protection against Africa losing control of its own destiny.
One last point. George Bush was quoted as referring to the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ when he described a fundamental issue facing inner city schools. Soft in this sense was ‘well meaning’. Bigotry, because it describes the unspoken. Is there something similar at work in the debate around Africa?
I wonder why statements about Africa are so often framed in a particular way: ‘For Africa, this is an excellent product’; ‘In the Africa context, this is a great performance’. Or to put it like one of my African friends did: ‘ Why were the same football pitches in a much worse state when South Africa hosted the Africa Cup of Nations than when it hosted the World Cup?’
Why should we not raise the standards and expectations for everything we do in, for and with Africa to ensure that we get a
much better outcome than we ever hopped for?. We should adopt this attitude, even if it is only for consumers who pay too much for products that are often substandard, or for citizens who do not get their fair share of the economic success.
Frank Braeken was formerly Unilever’s executive vice president for Africa, and is now chief investment officer of Amatheon Agri Holding, a German headquartered agribusiness and farming company developing and operating sustainable agricultural and food projects in sub-Saharan Africa. This article was first published in EY’s new Africa 2030: Realizing the possibilities report.