Africa's best kept secret; its little-known winners, from star forest savers to innovators

Niger adds forest cover equal to Lesotho and Slovenia combined; the Maghreb tops in birth registrations; and Malawi doesn't tolerate wife-beating.

THERE ARE two Africas: The one that makes big headlines on the continent and international media, and the one that doesn’t. However, to know how much Africa progress Africa is making, and how healthy most of its societies, it is this “secret” and “invisible” part of it that tells the more interesting story.

Moving away from the typical factors (e.g. Gross Domestic Product) that most of us tend to focus on, these off-the-road indicators reveal African nations which are breaking now ground in development and seizing control of their future. Some of these happen in some of Africa’s lead economies, but are ignored. These our “little winners”: 

Niger reforestation

In one of the unlikeliest of areas a green revolution is under way. Despite being a politically volatile region, with few resources and no modern equipment, farmers are slowly transforming what was an increasingly barren landscape to a place where millions of trees are flourishing. Following a bad drought in Niger in 1984, farmers who still had trees standing found that their harvests increased. The trees provided shelter to the fields, preventing the top soil from drying up and blowing away. When others saw this they began to protect seedlings on their own land. This could easily be the greatest environmental success in African history led by the “small” people; the farmer-managed natural regeneration project has since resulted in 5 million hectares of agro-forested land and an estimated 200 million extra trees. That is almost as big as the nations of Lesotho and Slovenia combined! Niger is the only country in Africa to have added forest cover at that level over the past two decades and the project has been hailed as the most successful reforestation scheme in the world. Like many countries across the Sahel region, Niger suffers from lower rainfall. This reduces harvests, because famers rely on annual rains. Trees have proved crucial in helping to reverse this trend.

Early initiation of breastfeeding in Malawi

Malawi leads the Africa scoreboard with 95% of women initiating early breastfeeding. This in contrast to Cameroon where only 20% of women do. Early breastfeeding reflects strong awareness by women of the benefits of proper feeding of infants and the presence of mothers in the early stages of childhood. The impact of early breastfeeding cannot be underestimated, it promotes optimal growth and development - especially in the critical window from birth to two years of age - boosts the child’s immune system, reducing the risk of child mortality, and diminishes the risk of diabetes later on in life.

Access to electricity in Libya

When many think of the Maghreb today, terrifying images of Al Qaeda in Maghreb (AQIM) pop up. But there is something opposite to that, which is awesome…really. In terms of access to electricity, the Maghreb region is by far the most successful on the continent with over 99% of their citizens linked up to a power grid. In Libya, 99.8% of people in the country have access to electricity, the highest in Africa. Between 2000 and 2010 electricity generation in the Arab nation more than doubled. This reflected high economic growth and greater investment in the oil and natural gas sectors during this period. This was particularly high after sanctions affecting foreign investment in the hydrocarbon sectors were lifted. These suspended sanctions include UN sanctions that were suspended in 1999 and the United States Iran and Libya Sanctions Act which was eased in 2006 when the US removed Libya from its list of states that sponsor terrorism. This would have a huge impact considering Libya already ranked among the world’s significant hydrocarbon states with proven oil reserves of 47.1 billion barrels - or 2.9% of the world’s total. Perhaps this also helps illustrate the tragedy of the destruction in Libya following the ouster and lynching of the dictator Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011.

Social insurance in Zambia

With an “African socialist” background and a heavy reliance on the workers that power the country’s vital copper industry, Zambia tops the world list in the adequacy of social insurance programmes with coverage of 111.2%. Zambia has a long history of contributory social security schemes, which are based on the social insurance model and provide protection against the loss of income resulting from retirement, disability and death. This social insurance encompasses old age contributory pensions, occupational injury benefits, paid sick leave, health insurance and maternity. The Ministry of Community Development and Social Services implements the social protection strategies, and though their funding amounts to less than 1% of the national budget, this is higher than the regional average of 0.25% of GDP for social assistance - developed countries spend on average of 2.5% of GDP on social assistance. Through institutional structures the government has developed policies towards making medical and educational services free and accessible for poor and vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, orphans, children with special needs, and children and adults with disabilities. 

Trademark applications in South Africa

With 19,522 direct requests in 2011, South Africa is the leading African nation in trademark applications. This reflects a high level of innovation, entrepreneurship and a good business climate for individuals…suggesting perhaps that proclamations of South Africa’s economic demise are premature. The applications are designed to register a trademark with a national or regional Intellectual Property (IP) office and are a distinctive sign that identifies certain goods or services as those produced or provided by a specific person or enterprise. The trademark provides protection to the owner of the mark by ensuring the exclusive right to use it to identify goods or services, or to authorise another to use it in return for payment.

Access to water in Mauritius

In Mauritius 100% of the population has improved water source access. This means that all Mauritians have a good water source that includes piped water on premises (piped household water connection located inside the user’s dwelling, plot or yard), and other improved drinking water sources (public taps or standpipes, tube wells or boreholes, protected dug wells, protected springs, and rainwater collection). As an island nation it was imperative that stringent water management policies were in place. This coverage has resulted in a healthier population due to improved sanitation and fewer water-related diseases. 

Registered births in the Maghreb

In Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt, 99% of total births are registered. It may seem like an unusual indicator but it reflects a high level of organisation and protection by a government. If a birth is not registered, it usually means that a child is unable to obtain a birth certificate which is fundamental to safeguarding a person’s rights. Not having a birth certificate can mean a person is denied health care, or education. Later in life, the lack of official identification documents can mean that a child may enter into marriage or the labour market, or be conscripted as a child soldier. In adulthood, birth certificates may be required to obtain social assistance or a job in the formal sector, to buy or prove the right to inherit property, to vote and even to obtain a passport.

Attitude towards wife beating in Malawi

Malawi is the African country that is the least tolerant towards the idea of wife beating. According to Unicef, 13% of girls or wives aged 15-49 years consider a husband to be justified in hitting or beating his wife or partner under certain circumstances. This in contrast to Mali, which had the highest figure, at 87% of girls or women thinking it was acceptable. This suggests a society in which women have a higher status, that gender roles are less pronounced and correcting and controlling behaviour by men against women is not expected.

Author twitter handle: @samooner

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