Africa is colorful. Unique. Not uniform. Over one billion people. 54 independent states (as recognized by the UN). Almost 3,000 languages. Three times the size of Europe. A continent, not a country – sadly, a fact you have to emphasize. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, we can say “Africa”.
How comes we know so little about it?
In Africa it’s all the same. A mixture of primitive and original, dangerous and thrilling, desperate and buoyant. The son is a child soldier, the mother died from aids, the father escaped over the big sea in a nutshell. And all of this in front of a spectacular scenery: endless beaches, majestic lions, drums and music, terrific sunsets in the Savanna. “T.i.A. -This is Africa!” is what we think.
We either see white women in her mid-forties searching for meaning and self-fulfillment on huge farms in the middle of nowhere, or black barbarians fighting each other, killing women and children with machetes, burning down their own land, with an anger and cruelty far from any reason, resulting from seemingly nothing but a dark soul.
Over the centuries, Africa has suffered horrific abuse at the hands of foreigners. Let it be Europeans, Americans, Arabs. Everyone has been there, exploiting countries and their people, bashing scars that are difficult to heal.
Let us not be naïve, wounds that are hit into your flesh over centuries, cannot heal within a decade. The statistics on deep and unremitting poverty are not made up and cannot be ignored. It is too real that the continent still faces great challenges: The drought at the Horn of Africa, piracy in Somalia, enduring economical and political crisis in Zimbabwe, criminal court investigations after post-election violence in Kenya, a new state to build in South Sudan, the world’s highest aids rate in Swaziland, politicians beyond good and evil; fleecing, denying, relativizing, ruining, … All of these problems are too real.
However, the continent consists of more than 50 countries.
Seven of the world’s top ten fastest growing economies lie in Africa. It is growing faster than the OECD, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Without the continent’s natural resources, industrialized nations would not survive. It is Africa that provides the propellants to fuel the world’s growth engines. The continent could grow enough food to not only feed itself, but the whole planet. And its labor force could definitely power the next great industrial giant.
It could. Would be able to. Conditional. However, progress can actually be seen. Right now: Many African countries have started to encourage investment by laws and regulations realizing that investors need a secure, transparent environment. Between 2006 and 2011, 39 of them rose up the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” Index. Independent judicial systems are enforced. Capital markets are beginning to take off. In 2011, twenty African companies could claim revenues of at least $3 billion. Across the whole continent, there are some inspiring stories of both political and economic progress.
However, what is the story we hear, watch and read about the continent? When it comes to Africa, says Nigeria’s award-winning novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “only a single story is told by the media – a story of failure, famine and conflict. Thousands of other stories, of success, of heroism, of love, of courage, of life, are filtered out”.
Western media keeps on presenting that image of Africa as a faraway place where good people go hungry, bad people run government and where nothing of any worth can be done unless it is done by outsiders.
No one ever talks about an astonishing inventiveness in the face of the lack of prospects, an incredible love of life, faith against impossible odds, enthusiasm and sheer can-doism. Despite its undoubted poverty and hardship, Africa certainly is a continent of innovation, entrepreneurship and opportunity. It is not only that no one talks about that, but the fact that the constant negative reporting does not attract and even repels investors.
Africa has potential. Just ask the Chinese, the Indians, the Brazilian or the Russians. They are already there, investing, building up infrastructure, using local supply chains, helping develop workforce. According to John Battersby, UK country manager for the International Marketing Council of South Africa, “for major companies, a foothold in Africa is no longer a ‘maybe’, it is a must; Africa is where China was 30 years ago and those who missed out then are still on the fringes”.
When world markets reach saturation levels, Africa will be the next, maybe even the last big market. The continent has reached a crunch point. It is time for reasonable business. To generate deep-seated growth, not only quick wins. To scratch beneath the surface, go beyond CSR. It is a win-win situation for all sides, investing companies and local workforce.
In Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, you see people walking around in t-shirts saying “Your Pity is No Longer Required”. A strong statement. But maybe one we should start to think about. Cause in the end, Africa may not need presents, but investors.