Africa: This way forward

UnknownYou’ve heard a variation of the following story many times. How so and so was sent an email promising a share of the sender’s recent financial legacy on payment of a donation to ‘free up’ said cash from a bribe-seeking official. The money was duly wired over and, lo! yet another Nigerian 419 scammer vanished into cyberspace laughing all the way to the bank.

According to the FBI, millions of dollars are lost each year to such scams, which have reinforced Nigeria’s notoriety for general dodgy dealing, unfairly perhaps as they do not all emanate from there. But while she does not condone such criminality, Dayo Olopade can’t help but be impressed. These ‘Yahoo Boys’ are often the smartest kids on the block who, were their circumstances more favourable, would probably be successful entrepreneurs on legit street.

Equipped with only a computer, an email address and excellent communication skills, they have solved the common experience of economic stagnation in Africa, “proving that you can make something from nothing at all”. Olopade, a Nigerian American journalist, calls this ‘kanju’, a Yoruba word meaning to hustle or make do but which embodies what she sees as the spirit of creativity born of African difficulty.

The Accra street vendors who regard fed up commuters trapped in traffic jams as a huge captive market, a Cameroonian computer programmer’s transformation of the humble Nokia 1100 into a smart phone, the conversion of two abandoned shipping containers into a women’s health clinic in a South African township – these are further examples of how entrepreneurship, imagination and sheer nerve defy the media image of Africa as a hopeless, downtrodden continent in desperate need of aid and guidance from the west.

In her just published book The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules & Making Change in Modern Africa (Duckworth Overlook, London, New York) Olopade shows how this kanju spirit underpins the explosion of commercial opportunities and technological innovations, which enabled Africa to weather the financial storms of 2008 that brought the western world to its knees.

While African governments often fail, most spectacularly in the case of Somalia, its people have developed tools to successfully work around dysfunctional institutions: “Where political freedom, social protections and economic opportunities have failed to materialise, ordinary people have taken ownership of their fate – tearing down the assumption that states matter more than their alternative arrangements.”

If they are to engage effectively with Africa, global institutions would do well to examine what’s happening on the ground and work from the inside out instead of the other way round, she says, offering five ‘maps’ to guide them – family, technology, commerce, nature and youth, which together “are building Africa’s bright future”.

For example, she dubs the family “as the original social network”, manifesting itself in communal caregiving and phenomenon like the Somalian money transfer service Dahabshiil that allows users to drop off cash in Minneapolis and pick it up in Mogadishu or wherever.

And in the chapter on technology, sub-headed, ‘Lessons in Leapfrogging’, she describes a communications revolution that has side stepped the lack of landlines, lack of bank accounts, lack of reliable energy supply with a flood of unprecedented innovations in the mobile phone and computer technology.

As the one of the people behind Ushahidi, the now global citizens’ networking platform set up in response to Kenya’s post-election violence of 2007, tells her: “As participants in the new knowledge economy [we] have the opportunity to create apps that serve the needs of everybody – and we’re not going to wait for Western developers to create apps for us, we’re going to do it ourselves.”

After a brief examination of why states so often fail and then railing against ‘SWEDO’ – Stuff We Don’t Want – like the cast-off clothes imported from Europe that have helped to destroy the textile industry in parts of Africa, Olodape, who has reported for the New York Times and Washington Post, warms to her theme, drawing on her extensive travels in 17 African countries.

But in her enthusiasm for alternative arrangements and networks, she often lets the state off the hook altogether, seeing for example, the explosion in private schools as a positive development. Private education may be a stop-gap solution to the overcrowded and underfunded state sector but it is not the answer as Sweden, which tried to privatise its education system, has learned. There are a lot of other simplistic notions such as this in the book, including the central idea that kanju is uniquely African.

It is also a pity that, while professing herself to be a “proud pan-African”, she ignores north Africa. The map on the book’s cover shows the entire continent and failing to examine it as a whole falls to easily into the divisions created by the latter day colonisers and present day technocrats she criticises.

That said, Olodapo’s book is a refreshing read, one that joins the conversation started by the likes of Dambisa Moyo, who in Dead Aid argues for a new approach to development. Not only that, says Olodapo, in these lean global times, the west has plenty to learn from Africa in charting its own course.
Article first published in October 2014 edition of NewsAfrica magazine

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