How Africa's 21st century was made: it's the small things, the kitenge route, and 'our' football (Part II)

Africa’s 21st century has not only been made by powerful, imprecise digital forces, it has also been shaped by more concrete, salt-of-the-earth trades

IN THE first part of this series on how the 21st century Africa was made we explored how the mobile and tech revolution was about more than just handsets and data connections. It was about bringing a marginalised Africa into the mainstream, and energising the idea of Africa as a marketplace and a place for opportunity.

READ: The making of 21st century Africa: mobile phones, the bottom billion, and creating people’s spaces (Part I)

Although mobile and tech can capture imaginations, they are still rather intangible – you know how to use them, but few of us know how they really work.

[Beyond the political forces] Africa’s 21st century has so far not only been made by these powerful, yet rather imprecise digital forces, it is also being shaped by more concrete, salt-of-the-earth trades. And one man at the centre of that is Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote.

Dangote, a Nigerian, is a household name all over Africa today, but what is remarkable about his story is that he became the continent’s richest man by selling “ordinary” things that everyone can see and touch – cement, flour, sugar and rice.

This is unlike the other big billionaire names of Africa today – such as the Oppenheimers in South Africa who made their fortunes from diamonds, Mo Ibrahim in Sudan whose riches were made in telecoms, or Mike Adenuga, Nigeria’s second richest man, who has interests in oil.

Mining, telecoms and oil bring in the big bucks, but an ordinary villager is unlikely to start out as an artisan miner and end up being a mining mogul.

But selling sugar and flour – everyone can relate to that.

It’s the small things

Essentially, Dangote demonstrated that it was possible for an ordinary African to start a small-time gig, and eventually grow that beyond to a billion-dollar fortune, all the while selling small things that everyone can see and touch.

That re-energised the discussions around doing business in Africa, and the efforts to make it easier to start a business.

With young Africans beginning to imagine that they too, could make something of their lives by creating something small from scratch, responsive governments began building business incubation hubs and offering easy access to loans.

The other “salt-of-the-earth” story that has shaped this continent over the past two decades or so has been that of the local airlines – primarily Ethiopian Airlines (ET), Kenya Airways (KQ), and South African Airways (SAA). In recent years, the three have fallen on very different fortunes, with KQ and SAA bleeding badly, while ET continues to ride high.

The diverging fates are as a result of many political, economic and business decisions, that Mail & Guardian explored last August.

READ: Airlines in Africa, the tale of democracy: Kenya and South African carriers bleed, while Ethiopian flies high

But in the three airlines together remade Africa in a very characteristic way. They created what we will call the “kitenge route”, making it possible to travel around the continent, and for Africans to trade with each other.

Analogous to the Silk Route through Asia and Europe, the kitenge route was an ordinary businessperson sourcing shea butter from Ghana or Ankara fabric from Nigeria, and selling it at an open-air market in Kampala; or hundreds of artisanal curio traders getting their artefacts from Kenya and selling them at glitzy malls in Johannesburg.

Before the airline revolution in Africa, it could take days to travel from one African city to the other; often you had to route through Europe. But ET, KQ and SAA made it possible to move easily through the continent, and with that, a distinctly “African” idea was created – one that unapologetically mixed and matched different concepts from around the continent, and melded them together into a recognisable, yet paradoxically vague “African” identity. You know it when you see it, yet you can’t quite explain what it is.

Satellite television, and primarily the South Africa-based Multichoice/ DStv, is also a huge part of Africa’s 21st century story. Although the absolute figure of DStv subscribers in Africa is small – just 10 million households, more than half of which are in South Africa – its impact on the continent’s consciousness has been outsized.

“Local sounds”

The explosion of urban African music in the past two decades has been driven by many forces – demographic change, globalisation, and fast-growing cities – but DStv’s Channel O was one of the first to create a space for urban music on the continent.

Today, we have superstars like P-Square, Sauti Sol, Diamond Platnumz, and Mafikizolo, many artistes have found crossover success on the continent. In fact, one Nairobi radio station (One FM) claims to play local music 24/7. 

But a close listen reveals that at least more than half of the sounds on rotation are by Nigerian, Ugandan, Tanzanian, Ghanaian and South African acts. That is still “local”.

DStv’s greatest impact, however, has been in bringing European football to African screens. Many a pundit has groaned why Africans don’t support “their own” clubs, yet go fanatical over a Manchester United-Arsenal clash. 

But that is missing the point. The fanaticism and dedication that African audiences have towards European football reveals that in a very legitimate sense, Africans do see the English Premier League as “theirs” – a dream to aspire to.

Today, 45 Africans play the Premier League, with representation in 17 of the 20 clubs, up from the 37 in the 2014-2015 season. And clubs like Chelsea were almost “honorary African”, with Ivorian striker Didier Drogba the club’s talisman, and a bevy of sterling African players in its ranks, going back to the days of George Weah and Celestine Babayaro.

And European football probably led to the revival of the African Cup of Nations, which became a scouting ground for European clubs looking to sign fresh talent.

Single generation

The story of Africa’s 21st century would not be complete without one towering man – Barack Obama.

The US president grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, raised by his white mother and grandparents, and met his Kenyan father once when he was 10 years ago: Obama himself has said in his early years he stuggled to relate with the plight of black Americans, let alone identify with a distant Africa.

But that didn’t stop Africa from claiming him as its son – which he was, a single generation away from a village in western Kenya.

The psychological boost in confidence that the Obama victory had on Africa was immense. It demonstrated that global phenomenon could come from an Africa, that was just getting over decades of being put down as the “hopeless continent” in western media.

 And although Obama himself has vigorously avoided pushing an explicitly “African” agenda, his influence has been more subtle – yet powerful. Its full effect, is still unfolding.

It has led to more Africans standing out, offering excellence and thought leadership.

In the last and third part, we look at other factors shaping the 21st Century African, and paint a profile of what she’s like - Making of 21st century Africa: the Dubai circuit, university education, and running for glory (Part III)

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