Making of 21st century Africa: the Dubai circuit, university education, and running for glory (Part III)

Plus: a profile of the new, young, educated African that has been shaped by the forces making 21st century Africa

IN the first part of this series on Africa in the 21st century, Mail & Guardian Africa explored how the mobile and tech revolution changed social and economic dynamics in Africa, and the external conversation about the continent.

And in the second instalment, we revealed how “ordinary” commerce, the expansion of African airlines, digital satellite TV,  also left some surprising imprints on the shape of the  Africa in the 21st centur - so far.

The influence of one famous “son of Africa” – Barack Obama – is also undeniable, as has the confidence boost of Nollywood’s success, the rise of urban African music and art, including the Oscar win of South African film Tsotsi in 2005, and later, Lupita Nyongo’s success. We are fascinated by how these factors play out, because they are not crafted by central planners, and often accidentally as by-product of some innovation or event.

In the souks of Dubai

In this final instalment, we will explore other forces that have quietly been part of the building blocks of the continent in the past twenty years or so, and this part of the story starts in an unlikely place - the souks of Dubai.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s many African countries went through the controversial structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Part of the requirements imposed on African countries – and sometimes enthusiastically pursued by some African countries, notably Uganda – at the time was to remove foreign exchange controls, privatise state corporations, and liberalise the economy.

That led to massive job cuts, and rapid shrinking of the manufacturing sector in many African countries.

But it also led to the rise of a “formalised informal” economy, one which was lightly regulated by the state, often conducted in roughly-organised open air markets, but in which it was possible to get quality products from cheap overseas source markets such as Dubai, and later, China.

The pioneering class of Dubai merchants were women, many of whom were single or divorced who were happy to start very small. 

The liberalisation policies had decimated much of the economic power than had been in men’s hands until then – such as control over farmer cooperatives, distributorships of fertilisers and seeds, government-sanction wholesale shops, and employment in the public sector or state factories.

The rise of merchants

With men seeing their breadwinner role shrinking, some families broke down, the smart ones unlocked the energies of the women – and so it led to the rise of the women of the Dubai circuit, bringing in a few clothes, shoes, fragrances, and all manner of goods from the cheap markets of the Middle East, on airline tickets that were increasingly affordable.

This was made possible by a more competitive airline sector in Africa, spearheaded by Kenya Airways, South African Airways and Ethiopian Airlines, but also Middle Eastern carriers themselves like Emirates and Etihad, which needed to grow, and so introduced a visa regime that made it easier to travel to the UAE; visas could now be arranged by the airline on behalf of the traveller, without one having to camp at embassies.

With that, the informal/ flea markets that are characteristic of so many African cities, including Gikomba market in Nairobi, Owino market in Kampala, and Oshodi market in Lagos, sprang up, bringing typical the 21st century African shop in the big cities, called “kiosks” or “stalls”.

Not coincidentally, that time was also one of great crossover success of the mega hit “Nour El Ein” by Egyptian pop star Amr Diab – recognisable for its refrain “Habibi” – possibly the biggest cultural export from north to sub-Saharan Africa in recent times.

But the liberalisation of the economy also had another unforeseen consequence – it led to the surge of African universities, and particularly, professional courses such as MBAs.

Much of the demand undoubtedly came from natural demographic change, as most African countries are in the midst of a youth bulge; half or more of the continent’s population is under the age of 25.

Still, structural forces in the economy also had something to do with it. In the old, state-led economy, there was simply little demand for professional managerial skills that an MBA offers.

An academic race

But with the explosion of African and global multinationals on the continent in the wake of liberalisation, such as MTN, Airtel, SAB Miller and others, who needed a highly skilled, professional class, a new academic race arose.

This race was perhaps expressed most strongly in South Africa. The fall of apartheid in 1994 flung the door open for Anglophone African students to attend what are possibly the most prestigious universities on the continent, at a fraction of the cost of going to traditional destinations such as the US, UK and Australia.

Foreign students, especially from Africa, have become bread and butter for South Africa’s universities and the economy of, especially, the country’s richest province Gauteng. Today, for every for every 12 students that enter South Africa, one goes overseas; almost 18% of all African students studying abroad are currently studying in South Africa. 

The “academic race” has also played out in other African countries, with a vibrant Kenyan cross-border student population in Uganda, and a Tanzanian one in Kenya and Uganda.

Investing in sport

The story of 21st century Africa is also incomplete without the influence of the new wealth that African marathoners and footballers brought into their communities.

Their own participation was made possible by internal reforms, that allowed greater contact with the world and easier granting of passports - and new foreign exchange rules that allowed nationals to keep their dollar earnings for themselves.

With regard to athletics, the dominance of Kenyans and Ethiopians in the middle and long distance circuit has been theorised many times, but what is little appreciated is how much the new wealth changed the conversation about how money could be made in Africa.

For many families in East Africa, the possibility of one of their own bagging a million dollars in prize money was enough for them to approach sport as an investment.

Most rural families in the Rift Valley need the labour of their young sons and daughters to help in the farms, but they scrape together whatever they can, to feed and support their children as they do nothing but train, eat and sleep for months, or even years as they prepare for a big race.

The impact of that is that there were new ways of making a living, that were more ‘democratic’ and with fewer barriers to entry – the training camps high up in the Rift Valley in places like Iten are really quite Spartan.

It’s a similar case with football in West Africa, where one son getting a big contract in a European club can transform a local community just as comprehensively as it used to be in the old days, where villages would contribute money to send one of their own to university.

Profile of the ‘new African’

So where does that leave 21st century Africa and the 21st century African - the one who is not a creature of the state? The impact of the mobile, tech and internet revolution, expanded university opportunities, liberalised trade, better connectedness, and a distinct-yet-vague “African” identity has created a very different new young African.

A typical 30-year old who has a college education, and whose life has been shaped by these forces probably looks like this – she has a 9-5 job, is studying evenings for her Masters degree, and also has a “side hustle” selling second-hand clothes at a kiosk in the city, manned by a relative.

She is on the internet everyday on her Samsung phone, and at home, uses an Airtel or MTN dongle for internet. She drives a Toyota Vitz but dreams about owning a Golf GTI; she also takes Uber taxis to and from the airport as she travels to Guangzhou to restock her shop.

The last book she read was Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, listens to Mafikizolo and Wizkid, watches the Real Husbands of Hollywood on DStv for some laughs.

She wears designer kitenge to weddings and outdoor music festivals, helps her parents to pay school fees for a younger sister in a school in a neigbhouring country, and contributes $150 every month to her local investment club, in which she and five other friends are looking to pool their money together and build a block of flats…but they are still evolving. 

The forces of change on the continent are not done with them yet.


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