This year at Davos, the party everyone was talking about was not hosted by a big American technology firm or a major Western government, but by the Nigerian authorities. Their party beat the competition from hundreds of other events to draw the most impressive and vibrant crowd. This would not have happened a few years ago. Clearly, Africa is entering into a new era.
In 2013, Africa was the continent with the highest economic growth. While many recognise its unparalleled potential, proper understanding of Africa is often found lacking. Some of the most common misconceptions are the following:
1. Africa is a homogeneous continent
This is as false as saying that all European countries, from Germany to Bosnia, face the same challenges. There is very little in common between Morocco, South Africa, Senegal, Ethiopia and Gabon in terms of history, culture, democratic governance and economic model of development.
2. Africa is a continent at war
The number of African countries facing security and military issues is very limited and has been declining sharply. There were one-third fewer wars in sub-Saharan Africa during the 2000s than in the early 1990s, and this was already many fewer than in the Cold War period that saw Africa used as a proxy battleground between the US and the USSR.
3. Africa is stuck in poverty
The stereotypical images of widespread suffering in Africa are misleading. Although one cannot deny that the continent still faces severe problems with poverty, there are countless instances of economic development. A middle class is emerging in many African countries. Over the past 15 years, poverty in Ghana and Senegal and severe poverty in Guinea, Uganda and Burkina Faso decreased by between 40 and 60 per cent.
4. The African economy is mostly based on extractive industries
Africa’s growth story is hardly limited to the extractive industries. Agriculture is Africa’s largest economic sector, representing 15 per cent of the continent’s total GDP. As many as 200 million Africans will enter the consumer goods market by 2015. Banking and telecommunications are growing rapidly too, and infrastructure expenditures are rising significantly faster in Africa than in the rest of the world. Ethiopia has averaged more than 10 per cent GDP growth between 2004 and 2012, with an economy that is not based on energy or natural resources. Kenya’s economy is driven overwhelmingly (79 per cent) by private consumption. The Internet contributes 3.3 per cent of Senegal’s GDP, placing it in the top ten of countries for the Internet as a percentage of GDP, ahead of both France and Germany.
5. Africa is characterised by autocracy, bad governance and corruption
In reality, the democratic tradition is alive and well across the continent. Many African countries are actually more advanced than some Eastern or South-Eastern European states in terms of good governance. According to Freedom House, the number of sub-Saharan African countries labelled ‘free’ or ‘partially free’ has risen from 41 per cent in 1983 to almost 60 per cent presently. Countries such as Senegal, Ghana and Botswana exhibit vibrant and diverse media, fair elections and peaceful political transitions. Rwanda ranks above countries such as Israel, France and Chile for the ease of doing business according to the World Bank.
Overcoming some of these fundamental misconceptions requires both the West and Africa to adopt a different approach – it takes two to tango. The West needs to view Africa as an equal and not adopt a purely charity-based, post-colonial approach which is often condescending. If the West is unable to make this shift, it will not have a substantive role in Africa’s future. With South-to-South exchanges increasing dramatically, China, India and the Middle East will be more likely to capitalise on Africa’s development instead.
On the other hand, it also requires African governments to project themselves differently to the world. To a certain extent, Africa’s image deficit is propagated by the failure of some African governments to effectively communicate a compelling narrative about their contribution to the world.
The first African countries to effectively recognise and remedy this communication challenge will triumph in the winner-takes-all game of international investment, growth and prosperity. These countries will become the go-to place for international investors who want to do business in Africa, but currently do not know how or where to do so.
Do you know how Parisians learn that there is an African president in town? When the media kiosks along the Champs-Elysées are covered by pictures of an African leader on the front cover of an obscure magazine that few have ever heard of. This doesn’t help to improve the image of the continent – on the contrary. Africa deserves better.