For Africa to be successful it needs to find models, methods and approaches that are uniquely suited to the continent and its needs.  As one of the world’s best travelled speakers and researchers (he visited 26 countries just last year), Graeme Codrington has some inkling of where these new ideas might come from, and where they could lead. 

I am an African.  In the words of that famous 1996 Thabo Mbeki speech, “I owe my being” to this glorious continent.  I am an African.  Maybe I need to say this more than once because of my British heritage (four generations ago), because of my white skin, because I married a British-born South African and have the right to a British passport, or because I spent four years living outside the wave-crashed shores of my mother Africa. Yes, I am proudly African: by birth AND by choice.

africa-the-futureAnd I am excited about the future of this continent.  Together with many other Africans – and an increasing number of people around the world – I am energised by the potential in Africa right now.  There is a growing consensus that over the next few decades, Africa’s billion inhabitants will emerge from poverty, conquer the many ills that beset them, and live in the fastest growing markets in the world.  Africa is the final frontier of human development.

You wouldn’t know this, though, if you pick up almost any newspaper across the continent.  From Cape Town to Cairo, and Dakar to Dar es Salaam, the radio stations and media – and many private conversations – are filled with rantings and ravings, doom and gloom, and pessimism about the state of the nations they represent.  They have many good reasons: corruption, unemployment, social ills and collapsing – or nonexistent – infrastructure.

That is the paradox of Africa: so much potential; so much tragedy.

And yet, as an African, I am hopeful about the near future.  I am hopeful that Africa will reach its potential by dreaming new dreams, establishing new visions, finding new approaches, and – maybe most importantly – developing new leaders.  These must not just be imported models and methods, but rather African-specific solutions, incorporating the best of who we are with the best of what is available in the world around us.  We must learn, adapt and adopt; but  we must also innovate, create and develop.

A Model Worth Watching

A few years ago I was watching a video produced by The Global Poverty Project, an organisation supporting charities that aim to eradicate extreme poverty within a generation.  It was an interview with a young South Korean woman, Andrea Choi, who was proudly talking about how far her country had developed in just a few short years.  Her grandparents had lived in simple houses made with their own hands, and no education.  Her parents were the first generation to live in apartments and have electricity and indoor plumbing.  And now she is a professional, living in an aluminum and glass high rise in bustling Seoul – a truly world class, modern city.  South Korea was the first aid recipient nation to become an aid donor.  Andrea’s story is echoed in many cities and countries across the Asia-Pacific region.

I have a simple thesis: where Asia has come from is almost identical to where Africa is now. And where Asia is now – the exciting, rapidly growing, shiny-new, pulsating place that everyone wants to be part of – is where Africa’s future can be.  By the end of the next decade.

The growth has begun.  Over the last few years, only a few countries in sub-Saharan Africa have experienced negative GDP growth (recession), and then only briefly (South Africa, for example, experienced negative growth for just three quarters in 2009). The average economic growth rate for sub-Saharan African countries is over 5%, with five of the countries experiencing near 10% growth.  For the period of 2001 to 2010, it was the fastest growing region in the world with six countries in the world’s top ten fastest growing economies over the decade.

Sub-Saharan Africa has also seen remarkable discoveries of natural resources over the past few years, for example Ghana opening up the second largest oil field in the world, Mozambique’s new coal fields and more recent discoveries of shale gas across the continent. But it’s not just energy – Africa has significant natural resources of all types that have not yet been developed as well as they can be.

On top of this, Africa’s people represent its greatest potential untapped resource. Like Asia two decades ago, many African countries have not developed their women, have inadequate education and healthcare, and have the potential to develop dramatically and fast.

Where Asia was, Africa is

But let me return to my thesis. If we consider South Asia, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and also look at The Philippines, India, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and possibly even Japan, we can draw strong parallels between where they were as a region thirty years ago and where sub-Saharan Africa is now.

Politically in Asia, there was a mixture of States, from emerging and hybrid democracies to dysfunctional governments and a few tinpot dictators. Most of the countries were aid recipients. Their industries were underdeveloped and the outputs of their economies derided as bad quality. Very few trusted brand names had yet emerged.

One or two of the larger countries were beginning to find their international voice, but were still largely ignored or sidelined.

Infrastructure was ageing or non-existent and public spending on development erratic and strategically deficient. Dodgy politicians enriched themselves, and corruption was rampant.

Socially, the societies were majority rural, undereducated, underskilled, subsistence minded and lacking in confidence to compete in the global market. Family planning didn’t exist (except in China), maternal health was bad, life expectancy low, healthcare almost non-existent and a profusion of non-Western languages and cultures made the region feel inaccessible and even dangerous to the world’s business leaders.

But since then, this region has leapt into the global spotlight. They have turned around the negative indicators and are currently the engine for the world’s economy.  It’s not uniformly good, but it’s better than it used to be. By far.

I believe that there are paths in Asia that Africa needs to follow. And I believe that Africa can move even faster than Asia did.  In fact, in many issues it should be possible for Africa to leapfrog other nations.

What must we do to get where they are?

There are no one-size-fits-all-solutions that will work across the continent, but there are some principles that Africa needs to consider.  Here are just a few:

Vision:  Almost every one of the successful Asian countries has a vision statement that reaches down through society and provides individuals and organisations with guiding principles for behaviour.  In simple terms, these countries know who and what they want to be.  Very few African countries have such a vision.  There are some examples, most notably Ghana: recently rich from oil revenues, the country has set itself a vision of becoming the first African nation to become an aid donor instead of aid recipient.  And it seems that this vision is on everyone’s lips throughout the country, from CEOs to security guards alike.  It may seem too easy, but this is definitely the correct starting point.

Technology: Africa may have more cellphones than any other continent, but slow speeds and high costs of data restrict the adoption of technology.  Asian countries made this a priority, with both Japan and South Korea recognised world leaders.

Leapfrogging: Africa should not be aiming to “catch up” with the rest of the world, but rather to find ways to bypass some of the dead-ends and detours taken by other countries.  This can happen especially with technology implementation, but also in education, healthcare and social policies.  It’s a matter of mindset.  Which is an issue of leadership.

Leadership attitudes: there isn’t a single style of leadership that works best in Asia – or anywhere else: some countries have had single parties ruling them since independence, others have no democracy at all, and still others apply religious law.  Hybrid systems abound.  The lesson for Africa is therefore not in the choice of leadership model, but rather in the attitude of the leaders themselves.  One example stands out for me: when asked what kept him up at night, the CEO of Petronas, Malaysia’s state-owned oil company said simply that it was his responsibility to the nation.  Knowing that the revenues from his company’s profits contributed a significant percentage to the country’s coffers, any slip by him or his team would mean less schools, less hospitals, less drinking water for the people of Malaysia.

There are two lessons here for Africa’s leaders:  we need our leaders to have both the big visions and the ability to reduce those visions down to tangible issues that affect every day life, and, secondly we need less of the “big man” type African leaders and more of the “father of the nation” types.

New economic models: Their economies also exhibit remarkable diversity. Unfortunately for rabid supporters of free market capitalism, some of the better performing Asian countries have nationalized key industries.  But, they typically let them run under professional, world class leaders without interference, and they find leaders who the nation-building mindset suggested above.

Trade:  Trading with rich nations is obviously first prize.  But even trading with each other adds significant value.  Africa should follow Asia in promoting intra-region trade partnerships.

Of course, this is not a comprehensive list.  And a topic of this significance deserves a more detailed study than this short article allows.  But I believe that this is the correct approach for Africa.  We need to look at the rest of the world and learn lessons from where others have been.  Then we need to adapt these insights for Africa, and prepare to move quickly and decisively in the right direction.

This requires leadership, and this is possibly the resource that Africa seems to be missing most right now.

Worth It

Africa’s rise will not happen overnight, or in a simplistic A-B-C programme. The change comes from government, from business, from civil society, from young and from old, from every part of society slowly shifting mindsets, attitudes and actions.

Possibly above all it is about self-belief. What stories are we telling our young people in Africa? Are we telling them the stories of Asia? Or of a lost continent? Are we filling them with the visions of what Africa could be? I choose to believe in the brightest possible future for Africa.  I choose to believe it’s the Last Frontier of development on our planet.  And as Thabo Mbeki said on 8 May, 1996, on the day South Africa adopted one of the best Constitutions ever written for a country, “Today it feels good to be an African.”  Indeed it still does.

* Article first published in WITS Business School’s NEPAD Journal in April 2013

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