Thursday, 20 February 2014

A glimpse of another Africa


You're all familiar with the Oxfam picture of Africa. The starving children, the smiling farmers kept from death's door by the good work of one or other 'aid programme', the wells dug and the women with bundles on their heads.

This is the Africa of development charity marketing and of the politicians' justification for the international aid budget. It's a rural, poor Africa where food crises are only a dry month away and where fair trade evangelists bring the good news - you can stay on your smallholding barely scraping a living for another year!

And the image is something of an insult - dare I say it, a rather neo-colonial insult. The implication is that, without the expertise of us rich, clever Europeans those Africans are condemned to a life of malnutrition, disease and desolation. It is wrong.

Think back to the terrible events in Kenya back in October - not the terrorism but the target of the terrorists. It was a Westfield shopping mall. Hardly the Oxfam image of Africa. This is another Africa, an urban Africa that isn't filled with subsistence farmers and big-eyed hungry children but with trade, with making, buying and selling things and with entrepreneurs:

I present to you Africa’s brightest young entrepreneurs. These are the ones who are making the most dramatic impact in Africa today in manufacturing, technology, real estate, media & entertainment, financial services, agriculture, fashion and the service industry. They are impatient to explore new possibilities and slowly but surely, they are building empires. 

OK, it's a bit gushing but this is a positive, exciting, growing Africa not the supposed basket case that the likes of Oxfam would have us believe. An Africa with people like Christian Ngan:

After working in financial services in France, first as an analyst at French investment bank Quilvest Group and as an associate at Findercord in Paris, Christian Ngan returned home to Cameroon to start his own business in 2012. With $3,000 of his savings, he founded Madlyn Cazalis, an African hand-made bio cosmetic company that produces body oils, natural lotions, creams, scrubs, masks and soaps. Madlyn Cazalis products are sold and distributed across more than 30 chemist stores, beauty institutes and retail outlets in Cameroon and neighboring countries in Central Africa. 

And with Seth Akumani:

Akumani, 30 is a co-founder of ClaimSync, an end-to-end claims processing software that enables hospitals, clinics and other healthcare facilities all over the world to automate patients’ medical records and to process records electronically. Claimsync’s solution allows these healthcare providers to easily prepare medical claims and send electronically to health insurance companies. In 2013 ClaimSync was the sole African company to participate in the high-profile, IBM, Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline backed Accelerator program HealthXL in Dublin. ClaimSync was recently acquired by GenKey, a Dutch-based biometrics company.

These men and women - more than all the international aid, fair trade campaigns and guilt-tripping charity appeals - are the future hope for Africa. But we never talk about them preferring instead our cosy little colonial myth. Believing it when we're told - again and again - that Africa is filled with poor farmers whose only protection and hope is the caring, kind and white face of Oxfam. That somehow the sort of society we enjoy - of urban wealth rather than rural poverty - is not something Africa can attain.

Africa has a long way to go - it's still too rural and too poor. But the answer isn't propping up poverty with subsidy but rather promoting business, entrepreneurship and trade. Backing the continent's entrepreneurs to do what entrepreneurs did for Europe, Japan and the USA - make us all, compared to today's Africans - rich.


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