Africa’s economic future is looking ever brighter. China and international investors may have something to do with it, but it’s not their money that is crucial.
Africa’s boom is due to a different type of currency – international attention. That in turn is producing an unprecedented confidence, a force that is driving African entrepreneurs to venture into regional and international markets.
At first glance, all the signs are that it is international money that is fuelling African growth. Last July, US President Barack Obama did his Africa tour. Among other things, during a speech in Cape Town, he touted a new $7 billion energy plan called “Power Africa.”
He spoke of it as “a new initiative that will double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa.” The initiative is projected to bring 10,000 MW of electricity to sub-Saharan Africa. Electricity, Obama said, is “the lifeline for families to meet their most basic needs and it’s the connection needed to plug Africa into the grid of the global economy.” (He almost got upstaged by Senegalese-American rapper Akon, who has been selling his own “Akon Lighting Africa” version).
Obama had been preceded in March 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping. He dropped in on the Republic of Congo, Tanzania, and South Africa and inked a string of agreements.
Underlining China’s status as Africa’s new leading trading partner– by far – last week, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang also did his African round, his first visit to the continent since he took office over a year ago. He notched up nearly 6,000 kilometres hopping around the continent in a trip that took him to Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola, and Kenya.
In Nairobi, Li signed a deal for China to build a $3.8 billion railway link between the country’s Indian Ocean port of Mombasa and Nairobi, the first stage of a line that will eventually link neighbouring Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan.
The signing on Sunday was, significantly, witnessed by four East African presidents: Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, and troubled South Sudan’s Salva Kiir.
Sense of wellbeing
In terms of African summitry, 2014 has been remarkably busy, with France, the European Union, India, China and the US featuring heavily, further fuelling the sense of wellbeing on the continent.
Observers have spoken of a rivalry for Africa’s markets and natural resources between the West and China, and about how African leaders have exploited the jostling to extract concessions.
Though this is true, for a continent long-ridiculed as a failure, the real value of the courtship by the likes of Obama, Xi, and Li, and the other heavyweights, is that its people are feeling a little more loved and needed.
The importance of this on a person’s — or in our case the continent’s — productivity cannot be understated, as American psychologist Abraham Maslow postulated decades ago.
The message from this “New Scramble for Africa”, as some have called it, is that Africa, warts and all, matters.
While investments in infrastructure, for example, will reduce the cost of doing business and getting produce to market, it is the confidence generated by the attention Africa is getting that seems to be driving the most interesting aspects of the boom.
Some evidence of this is that while a couple of smart new African firms are able to export and compete globally, few are direct beneficiaries of the money flowing into Africa. This new generation of African entrepreneurs is not shy about jumping into the global fray.
For example, Millecollines, a fashion brand that was born in Rwanda in 2009, is now a large exporter with outlets in regional capitals like Nairobi, and offices in Barcelona.
Another is Madlyn Cazalis, an African handmade bio-cosmetic company conceived by Cameroonian entrepreneur Christian Ngan that produces body oils, natural lotions, creams, scrubs, masks and soaps. Madlyn Cazalis has retail outlets in Cameroon and neighbouring countries in Central Africa.
While Kenya is most famous for the pioneering mobile-based money transfer system M-Pesa and the crisis crowd-sourcing platform Ushahidi, its more successful exports are coming from clever old economy-type companies.
A typical one is Shades System East Africa. It manufactures military and relief tents, branded gazebos, restaurant canopies, car parking shades, marquees, luxury tents, wedding party tents, canvas seats and bouncing castles, which it exports across the region.
Nigeria, known for the world’s third largest – or second largest, depending on how you count it – film industry, has an ever more successful online market. BellaNaija, essentially a blog, is Nigeria’s premier lifestyle, entertainment and fashion website, and garners an average of 10 million page views every month. It has made its owner, Uche Eze, a small fortune, enough for her to have functioning offices in Maryland and Lagos.
Billions of dollars of both aid and investment have flowed into Africa since the late 1960s, so that is not new. What is new are the citations it is receiving from the world, and the confidence its more adventurous entrepreneurs now have that doors will no longer be closed in their faces.
That premium is really what Africa has to thank the likes of China and Obama for.
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