The Africa Rising Narrative
At the turn of the millennium, The Economist controversially described Africa on its front cover as The Hopeless Continent, but came up with the more optimistic cover line The Hopeful Continent last year.
Sven Grimm, director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University in Cape Town, says it is an encouraging development, even though people should not get carried away.
“You could argue that it is not difficult for these economies to grow because they are doing so from a very low base and they aren’t actually booming yet, but it has to be seen as positive news,” he says.
Grimm believes it would be difficult for Africa to replicate the China model of development because of the shortage of labor.
“Labor is not cheap in Africa, so it is difficult to manufacture. When it comes to attracting foreign direct investment, the markets are minuscule compared to those of China, where there is always the lure of a billion consumers. It is a very different starting base.”
Harry Verhoeven, a researcher in the department of politics and international relations at Oxford University and a convenor of the China-Africa Network there, says one of the key factors that kickstarted China’s huge growth was Deng Xiaoping’s land reforms in the 1970s, which has yet to take place in Africa.
“One of the main barriers to African development remains poor productivity of African agriculture in terms of output per acre. The other problem is the extreme dependence on commodity exports, which goes back to the colonial era and makes their economies extremely vulnerable to all kinds of price shocks.”
Verhoeven says countries that are dependent on oil and other commodities have no incentive to develop the economies, with political elites able to live off the rent from the foreign multinationals that move in.
“It is addictive. It is such easy money. You don’t have to work for it. You don’t need to do anything,” he says.
“You don’t need to develop productive enterprises because you don’t need the tax from them. The money gets channeled into real estate and consumption, particularly of foreign goods. I won’t say that all of Africa’s growth in recent years has been illusory, but I would caution against those who see Africa as the emerging next frontier.”
On the terrace of the Hotel Boulevard in Nairobi, Ngari Gituku, a journalist with the magazine Diplomat East Africa and vice-chairman of the Kenya China Friendship Association, believes it is difficult to foster a manufacturing culture in Africa.
“When you have a factory here owned by an Asian, most of the Africans who work there as machine operators do not take much notice about how this operation works. They just fit in, and that becomes their world. They don’t think they could set up a similar operation.
“We must try to find a way of bridging the gap. Africans have this belief that they are not born to industrialize, and this is something our education system needs to change,” he says.
Back in Addis Ababa, Shide insists Ethiopia, which is one African country that does have a nascent manufacturing base, is well aware of the need to develop human capital.
“We are focusing on the education system to produce the skill level the economy needs. That is why we want to ensure that 70 percent of our university intake studies mathematics, science and technology and just 30 percent humanities and sciences,” he says.
Many in Africa are hopeful that they will benefit like countries in Southeast Asia and pick up some of the 80 million manufacturing jobs to be shed by China over the next five years, according to a recent World Bank forecast.
Davies of Frontier Advisory, who is also a senior lecturer at the Gordon Institute of Business Science at the University of Pretoria, says that is the major question.
“Are we going to become the next Vietnam? It has taken Africa some 300 years of development to get to 10 million blue-collar manufacturing. If we were to pick up just 10 percent of the jobs leaving China that would almost double our manufacturing employment figures in less than a decade.
“It is not as straightforward as that, however. Manufacturing is not just about cheap labor anymore. We have had some successes in this area with countries like Kenya, in particular, doing well.”
Some argue that whatever path they take, Africans themselves are culturally different and cannot adapt to the work ethic that drives Western and Asian economies.
Verhoeven at Oxford University rejects this view.
“I don’t think there is an inherent cultural problem in African countries, that they appear to be lazy etc. I think all this has a lot to do with the conditions they find themselves in,” he says.
He says the problem for entrepreneurs is that they are operating in a market where regulations and the rule of law are often weak.
“I know some people who run a business who know that if they work harder, 95 percent of that money will be confiscated off them by a rival business elite which will get the court to take over their business. You cannot blame a guy for not working hard in that situation.”
Grimm at StellenboschUniversity says one of the reasons Africa will find it difficult to replicate the development that took place in China is that they lack the diaspora of wealthy of overseas Chinese, who played a major role in the early stages of China’s development after reform and opening up.
“The African diaspora tend to be younger and many of them don’t have wealth to invest. There are supposed to be more nurses in London from Malawi than there are actually in Malawi.
“There is some evidence of people returning to Ghana wherever there is an opportunity in their own country but the numbers are not great.”
With the tropical rain crashing down outside his office, one of Africa’s new generation of thinkers James Shikwati, director of the Inter Region Economic Network think tank, says Africa should not make any choice between a Western or Eastern mode of development.
“We are in a unique position to gain from both sides. If we are able to negotiate between them right we hit the goal,” he says.