Why so many people are optimistic about Africa right now

REUTERS/Francis Kokoroko
A member of the kitchen staff poses for a picture at Azmera Restaurant in Accra. Restaurant owner Afua Asante is one of a new breed of restaurant owners in Ghana's capital, serving a middle class that is expanding.

Ebola has killed thousands. Boko Haram threatens to become the next Islamic militant group to carve out its own territory. Somalia seems only marginally more governable than it has for the past couple of decades. Trouble spots like eastern Congo seem to be inexhaustible sources of conflict.

On the surface, sub-Saharan Africa may look as hopeless as ever. And yet, for all of its woes, there is a stronger sense of optimism about the continent than there has been in a very long time.

Tales of common people trying their best to overcome war and poverty are always compelling. But it’s the less visceral economic stories that will shine a light on the way forward. There is already a catch phrase for this optimism in the international development community: “Africa Rising.” After the Asian ‘tiger’ economies, some are talking about the African ‘lion.’

Growth rates for a number of African countries have been among the best in the world for several years now, and remain strong even though the world economy is struggling.

Investment is increasing and Africans are focused on ways of fixing infrastructure bottlenecks. Tech incubators are creating home-grown solutions to unique African problems instead of importing off-the-shelf software from Europe or America. Add to that the very striking marker that the Gates Foundation laid down in its annual report last week: Within 15 years, Africa ought to be able to feed itself.

Let’s take a look at the reporting on some of these issues. 

First, it’s worth acknowledging that Africa has a long way to go. Any growth takes place on a small base, so the numbers can make it seem better than it actually is.

Growth isn’t on par with China or India, but still, as this World Bank report indicates, sub-Saharan Africa’s economies are growing faster than many – and the growth isn’t limited to exports of commodities such as oil. 

The World Bank last week acknowledged that the Ebola epidemic would have a dramatic effect on the economies of the three countries that have suffered most: Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. But overall, it said the effect across Africa would be not nearly as bad as once feared

The economy of the region’s most populous country, chaotic Nigeria, is growing strongly, too, despite the increasing strength of Boko Haram in the north – and the inability of the country’s politicians or military leaders to combat it.

The World Bank indicates Nigeria is starting to find its way around the “oil curse” that captures so many petroleum-producing countries in a web of dependence, easy money and corruption. Services now account for more than half of GDP.

Meantime, investment is becoming an important issue. Infrastructure is a big problem. As the Gates Foundation pointed out this past week, the entire Democratic Republic of Congo, which covers as much territory as Western Europe, has about the same number of miles of paved roads as a mid-sized European town. It then cites the example of Ghana, which drastically cut internal travel time by widening a main road.

It can be hard to find private investors with the patience to wait for a payback on infrastructure projects. But the Economist notes that private equity investors are discovering Africa.

So are the young and tech-minded. For some years now, an area of Nairobi has been a magnet for tech startups, and the incubator bug has caught on in many cities across the continent. Because the infrastructure has been so weak for so long, many Africans have hopscotched directly to cellphone technology, and the focus has been on relatively simple mobile apps that allow a farmer, for instance, to check commodity prices.

For some young Americans, this has become the new frontier of the tech world, and a place to do some good. Plenty wash out after a short period. And in this compelling short video, an Kenyan artist asks hard questions about why Americans aren’t more keen on helping back home.

Gates, of course, is a champion do-gooder with very serious money behind his ideas.

As David Leonhardt points out here, one of the most striking things about the Gates Foundation initiatives in Africa is its emphasis in its annual letter on the continent being able to feed itself.

Seven in 10 sub-Saharan Africans are farmers, yet the continent must import food from rich countries. What Africans do grow is often not very nutritious, and it is difficult to move agricultural products to market. In addition, the population will almost certainly keep growing – by another 200 million in the next 15 years.  

The solution has many elements: better seed, fertilizer and farming techniques, infrastructure and market information.

The goal? “Food security” — Africa being able to feed itself  — by 2030. That would be quite a feat.

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