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Africa is "next," but who will benefit?

Updated on October 7, 2016

It is a statement that dominates headlines and discussions more often than not; that “Africa is next…” Africa is the next growth frontier. Africa is the next big thing. Africa is the next Silicon Valley and even Africa is the next superpower. These and other sentiments have been used to describe the potential Africa holds, mostly in terms of investment opportunity and economic growth. While this is undoubtedly the case for the second largest continent by landmass and population, it is imperative to consider which actors stand to benefit the most.

For this young continent, growth has been slow, characterized by unfettered love for donor funding. Embezzlement of these monies has been a recurrent theme regardless of regimes in power, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. The ineffectiveness of aid has however not stopped most African countries from borrowing more. This alongside conditionality, sanctions and political instability have slackened Africa’s quest for growth. Many at times the blame is directed to the West. While one has to acknowledge the deeply rooted impacts of colonization, it is equally important to recognize the flaws that occur from within, caused by both leaders and the populace (who in cases of free and fair elections, elect the leaders). At this point in time it ought to be more about what can be done to improve the continent’s plight from within before pointing fingers to frenemies abroad.

At the moment, China is Africa’s darling. Markets have opened up to all kinds of Chinese products, with quality not being a major concern. This has intensified to an extent that some locally made products can’t compete. So what next in years to come? Due to Africa’s lack of technological prowess, the potential of most if not all sectors is exploited by everyone else, but Africans. As much as Africa has vast amounts of oil and gas, you find the Americans, Canadians or the British and the Dutch facilitating harnessing of these resources. The same applies in information technology, telecommunications and manufacturing industries. At the end of it all, these foreign countries will siphon the wealth amassed from their respective trades back to their native countries, which is only normal. What Africa gets in return is few employment opportunities, processed products and arguably decent services which are mere peanuts in the long term.

In terms of sustained economic growth, this is a very raw deal! It is only natural for whoever is investing more their money and know-how to benefit the most. I mean, one can’t expect to gain for doing nothing. This is exactly the position most of Africa is in; a situation perpetuated by its so called leaders who for over 50 years know nothing beyond a culture of handouts and lack a vision for the future.

While other countries do most of the manufacturing, production and innovation, African countries play the role of the consumer. They make. It is shipped to Africa. We buy. The cycle is repeated. If this is all Africa can put on the table, the many benefits it has to offer will not be realized. The popular notion maintains that Africa gains by acquiring goods and services that change the quality of lives of its people. This is not necessarily false but if that is the only role African countries will play in the global economic value chain, then the future is bleak. This however is the fate for most middle and lower income Africans as our “leaders” are usually shrewd and cunning enough to cut deals that safeguard their interests. This could be kickbacks for allowing foreign countries to operate in the continent and see to it that they are awarded tenders that local companies of equal competence are denied.

In some cases, these so called leaders negotiate for the spread of their interests beyond local boundaries. This could be in the form of expanding personal or family owned business empires in other territories in exchange for deals that open up markets for foreign products and services. Eventually this tradeoff ends up curtailing growth of local businesses as the financial might of foreign companies belittles their efforts. So while Africa is “next” very few are likely to enjoy the benefits with recipients of the lucrative rewards being politicians, affiliated business men (who in some cases fund their political campaigns) and foreign companies.

If this situation persists, then in the years to come Africa will remain at the bottom of the global economy despite realizing its own potential. The appalling short-term thinking held by most African leaders to this day leaves the continent in a state of stagnation. Sadly, not a lot is being done in terms of implementation of policies that would change the situation. There is a lot of talk, but little action.

In addition, it is astonishing that Africa is yet to take a more dominant role in manufacturing-led growth and intra-Africa trade. Without the advancement of these two areas coupled with support for local innovation and scientific research solely addressing the continent’s problems, any potential Africa has will be tapped only by myopic politicians, their cronies and foreign companies.

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