Ever since the Chairman of the United Bank for Africa (UBA), Mr Tony Elumelu, began to proclaim his Africapitalism phrase, I had developed a cynical disposition to what I saw as another meaningless jargon. While I share in the ideal that African businessmen with immense financial capital should help with long-term investments to create both economic prosperity and social wealth on the continent–and I consider it commendable that Elumelu would invest $100 million (N21 billion) in pursuit of that objective–I have always dismissed the whole campaign as hollow. That was until I read the book, “Africans Investing in Africa: Understanding Business and Trade, Sector by Sector” edited by Terence McNamee, Mark Pearson and Wiebe Boer.
The book is a product of a project conceived four years ago by the Elumelu Foundation in collaboration with the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation founded by Jonathan Oppenheimer. According to the Editor’s note, “a detailed research template, structured around key questions relevant across all economic and business sectors under consideration, was devised and 15 case studies by leading academic and policy experts—affiliated to universities and institutions in the United States, Europe and Africa—were commissioned”.
Among the world-renowned academic and policy experts assembled for the project are Prof. Paul Collier, co-Director for the Centre of African Economies at Oxford University; Dr Albert Butare, a former Rwandan Minister of State for Infrastructure and founder of Africa Energy Services Group Limited; Dr. Jacqueline Chimhanzi, a Senior Strategist at the South African Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), Dr Lite Nartey, an assistant professor, Dala School of Business, University of South Carolina, United States and Dr. Bitange Ndemo, a former Permanent Secretary in the Kenyan Ministry of Information and Communication. Others include Andrian Kitimbo, Dianna Games, Eric Kacou, Nicholas Khune, Stuart Doran, John Endres, Wiebe Boer, Terence McNamee, Moses Ochonu, Muriuki Murenthi, Mark Pearson, David Rice, Daniella Sachs and Lyal White.
The essence of the project, according to the promoters, Elumelu and Oppenheime, is not only to come up with “innovative ways to move beyond regional differences and competition, in order to forge lasting ties so that Africans at all levels become the primary beneficiaries of the continent’s economic growth” but also “to demonstrate the diversity of sectors that are engaged in cross-border economic activity across the continent”.
In the introduction, Collier argues that “until recently, the only feasible route by which indigenous Africans could become wealthy was through acquiring political power and then abusing it for personal gain. Now while the political route has been discredited, Africa abounds in role models of business success.” Even when he concedes that the character is changing, Collier still bemoans the fact that “the gap between citizens and rulers is dramatically wider in Africa than anywhere else in the world. It will not remain so, and a younger generation of African leaders will have fresh priorities.”
What particularly makes the book instructive is that over the years, stories of ‘Africa Rising’ have been told from one conference to another, especially in Europe. However, perhaps because they apply wrong paradigms, there has not been a clear understanding of what is actually happening within the continent and for that reason, it has been difficult to leverage on such understanding for the advancement of the societies. It is on this backdrop that the African story as told essentially by Africans is important. Interestingly, the book is coming at a time the resolve by Africans to take control of the development in the continent is on the front burner.
The book highlights the difficulties connected to doing business in Africa as it relates to government policies and regional influences. Africa’s economic growth will bring about its development only when all and sundry are involved in the processes that will eventual give birth to the Africa everyone is craving to see. On that score, the writers make a compelling argument for an integrated economy that will address the critical issues affecting doing business on the continent as well as the impediments to harnessing the skills of the people and the potentials that abound.
In part one, for instance,the writers present a case study of ‘The Wangara Trading Network’, touching every aspect of the business model. To change the trans-national economic concepts in Africa to the positives, according to the writers, opportunities within the continent must be explored so as to create space for more collaboration between the 52 countries. In addition, this part of the book discusses the role of government in the actualisation of such ideas through enacting the right policies for the creation of more employment opportunities for citizens.
The campaign for regional integration, the writers contend, cannot wait. This is because Africa is almost out of time to actually dominate global conversation in terms of economic growth and smooth regional relationships. They therefore recommend that current barriers be removed to open the region to sufficient trade opportunities. The area of infrastructure deficit currently experienced in Africa also needs to be addressed with appropriate measures. African nations, they advice, should focus the continent’s infrastructure development plans towards economic instead of political path.
The bottomline, as the writers argue, is that Africa’s economic growth cannot be guaranteed from outside; hence the various governments within the continent (and at all levels) must begin to put in place the right policies that will encourage investors to look within. But to conquer the world, Africa must develop brands that are equally accepted in the regions with quality to compete in the world.
The writers are of the opinion that the retail sector is also one key area which African investors should and must look into as a way of expanding the quality of services being rendered to meet international standards and also, addressing the need to enforce a common trade culture in the region. Indeed, Africa can compete with the international retail sector if the right steps are taken, as presented in the book and as is also being demonstrated by Alhaji Aliko Dangote whose cement projects across the continent features prominently as an example of Africapitalism.
This same approach and demand for growth should also be spread to the information and communication (ICT) sector, entertainment and media which appear to have more youths involved. The future of Africa lies within the strength and skills of the youths. The book then discusses key new areas of investment hubs that would change the face of Africa in the nearest future. These investment hubs such as petroleum and mining are seen from the perspective of ever-green channel of opportunities.
The easiest way to encourage more African involvement in growing the economy of the region, policies and strategic road maps, according to the writers, should be to address the unprecedented challenges associated with investing or doing business on African soil. Also, the governments should encourage strategic programmes for the development of skills of the people within the region.
At the end, the message from the book is simple: For sustainability, Africa should look within and grow within as such a framework would help in breaking down some old barriers so as to provide a level-playing ground for African investors regardless of their original country. And now that I understand what Elumelu has been saying with the book that touches every aspects of private sector development on the continent, creating jobs is the only way African governments and policy makers can stem the tide of young people leaving the continent in droves on a one-way ticket that mostly end either at sea or in modern-day slavery abroad.
In a continent where lack of access to finance and limited linkages to markets have imposed critical constraints on small and big entrepreneurs with poverty a direct consequence, the thesis of Elumelu, as aptly captured in the book, “Africans Investing in Africa”, is that with investment in social capital and critical infrastructure, many of the issues driving our young men and women to flee their countries would be resolved.
By launching the $100 million Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme (TEEP) to provide mentoring, training, networking and funding for 1,000 African start-ups per annum for the next ten years, Elumelu is showing the way on what needs to be done to reposition our continent. As Dayo Ogunsola, the Lead Organiser for Africa Infrastructure Development Partnership (AFIDEP) that is holding a global convention in Zurich, Switzerland next month says, “when there are no economic opportunities at home, the risk of losing one’s life on the journey to Europe becomes worth it.”
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