Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Conversations About Africa

Over the last year there have been important conversations about Africa. In June a report by the McKinsey Global Institute Lions on the Move painted an exciting and compelling picture of Africa’s economic prospects. By the numbers:
  • Africa’s collective GDP in 2008 of $1.6 trillion was roughly equal to Brazil’s or Russia’s. By 2020 that’s projected to increase to $2.6 trillion.
  • Combined consumer spending in Africa in the same year was $860 billion, and is expected to grow to $1.4 trillion in 2020.
  • 316 million new mobile phone subscribers have signed up in Africa since 2000.
  • 20 African companies have revenues of at least $3 billion.
  • African has 60% of the world’s total amount of uncultivated, arable land.
  • 128 million African households will have discretionary income in 2020.
Importantly, McKinsey’s report indicates that Africa’s growth is not purely driven by a boom in the prices countries can get for their natural resources, but also by growth in sectors like wholesale, retail, agriculture, telecommunications and manufacturing.

In September The Economist invited contributions from a group of respected economists on the question “Is Africa poised for rapid, steady growth?” Like McKinsey, the esteemed journal points out that in 2009, when the world economy shrank, sub-Saharan Africa continued to expand. And just recently The World Bank raised its forecast for economic growth in the region to 5.3 percent in 2011 as the global economy recovers.

Across the board the point is well made that Africa is not a single homogeneous state and that to speak of “Africa’s” future in any such way is fraught. Individual countries on the continent are faring very differently and face different challenges to varying degrees. Conflict, corruption and social fragmentation are among the biggest hurdles and won’t be put to rest easily.

That said, the (so far) peaceful secession of Southern Sudan from Northern Sudan to form the world’s newest country promises to be a very positive development, and after a decades-long civil war would be a bright point for the whole continent.

These conversations about Africa are helping to reframe the way that we think about it. There are still headlines about poverty and hostility. But there are also reports of promise and hope. Two years ago I spoke at the Royal Albert Hall between David Cameron and Bob Geldof, whose entire speech was about the possibilities of Africa – not as a market but as a movement.

If we can change the conversation into the positive there is also greater hope that Western policy makers will come to focus more on Africa as a continent that will benefit socially and economically from more trade rather than more aid. Greater flows of goods and services both to and from Africa will profit consumers everywhere. And if more of the lion’s share of the benefits can go to the lion economies of Africa in the process, that has to be a good thing.