Looking Back at the Decade of Africa, from 2022

“The Lion, the Giraffe and the Cellphone: Reflections on the Decade of Africa” was an essay featured at the conference: “Africa’s Turn? The Promise and Reality of the Global Economy’s ‘Final Frontier’,” organised by the Institute for Business in the Global Context at the Fletcher School, Tufts University in 2012, based on the following statement:

“Imagine you are writing an article for The Economist in the year 2022. Paint a picture of Africa and its place in the world.”

AfricaThe piece is a hopeful and bold look at the continent over the coming decade. The title is a reference to Shashi Tharoor’s The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone: Reflections on India in the Twenty-first Century.

The Lion, the Giraffe and the Cellphone

Reflections on the Decade of Africa

Sep 24th 2022

Ten years ago, there were no less than 7 African countries in the top 10 fastest growing economies in the world. It shouldn’t, therefore, come as a surprise, that it has been the decade of Africa.

There was a time when the African economy was based on petroleum and other raw materials as the “main drivers”. Since then, innovations in mobile technology in health, education, micropayments, renewable energy, agricultural ICT and social services has pushed many African nations in a leading role in these areas. Africa is now home to a new middle class emerging from this growth, which is in turn stimulating entrepreneurship and innovation in these areas.

While we worship technology and innovation, let us not forget that it was the new found political stability in Angola, Mozambique, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Ghana, Rwanda, Zambia and the Republic of Congo that created the investment climate which has enabled so much to happen.

Africa has bravely faced many of its challenges, especially the developmental concerns and the need to address corruption. Even though much still needs be done, increased government accountability has meant that funds have been more effectively diverted to the development of infrastructure, fighting poverty, developing services, creating access to education, and healthcare.

The Mobile Continent

Today, Africa is over 85% online. It has been interesting to see how the continent leapfrogged every realm of technology and service. The mobile phone today is what ATMs were years ago. This is something the western world has been struggling to adopt till date, and Kenya-based mPesa is now helping Verizon figure out how to enable the complete suite of mobile-faced financial applications for the American market.

Once they got people to trust the phones to be their banks, it was only a matter of time before it became the dominant mode of payment. Getting operators and service providers to sort out interoperability and connections with applications was tough, but after unified money transfer services were enabled, mobile money exploded. Africa is home to the fastest, most modern mobile telecommunications infrastructure deployments. Goods and services of all kinds are available via mCommerce, with multiple African companies now being counted alongside Amazon and eBay in online selling.

Swahili Lessons by Cellphone
Georgia Popplewell, “Swahili lessons by cell phone”, October 14, 2010 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution

But it’s more than just mobile money. Today, the mobile is a walking school. While a decade ago, we were trying to get every child a laptop, it was just one Rwandan social entrepreneur who figured out how a basic cellphone can be made a vehicle for learning in an affordable and realistic fashion. Mobile phones are now mandatory in most educational institutions, with pre-loaded education and learning applications instead of the traditional textbooks.

Similarly, mobile healthcare now enables data collection and fighting dangerous diseases. Combined with location-based apps, mobile technology is bringing access to medical services everywhere.

Most importantly, the web isn’t just for the affluent any more. Development of a sub-$100 smartphone, plummeting data prices, voice-based web access, and other multimodal interfaces have made ICT services available to illiterate and otherwise underprivileged across the continent, enabling the previously unconnected to connect more deeply.

And all of these services are driven by new innovative ‘killer’ apps coming from the first wave of companies born, bred and built in the sub-Saharan Africa context. Local entrepreneurs have emerged with innovative technology solutions to African problems, doing it more efficiently than foreign competitors. This was also because the African market for software was driven and dominated by mobile applications right from inception.

Similarly, the mobile phone’s role as a driver of social transformation cannot be ignored, enabling millions of people to use the mobile phone as an accessible platform for communication and expression. Once the power of data was out there, corruption was a losing battle, and it was only a matter of time before the tide of information availability and transparency enabled a mobile democracy. This was especially an important step because local governments now thrive on operator licenses, who are using these cash cows for driving development efforts.

Academic institutions, mobile handset manufacturers, business, government and development organizations are partnering more and more to improve training and skills for the mobile market.

The number of people who have used a mobile phone in last three months is estimated to be 95% of the population. In fact, the ubiquity of mobile has forced us to celebrate an African “Don’t Use Your Mobile Day” to remind us all of the value of real time, personal connection.

This spurt in connectivity has thus generated $200 billion in opportunities for networked sectors, and made ICT a major employer of skilled manpower.

Regional Integration

Africa had always needed bigger markets, and too many small states impeded the growth of cities. Regional integration thus became the most powerful and promising response, starting with East Africa and then sweeping across the continent.

The establishment of a Continental Free Trade Area has increased Africa’s intra-regional trade to US$40 billion, tackling a number of challenges, including poor conditions of trade-related infrastructure, burdensome customs, and legal procedures across countries.

Once countries looked beyond the short-term losses, a surge was seen in the establishment of Regional Economic Communities. Regional integration thus became a formidable instrument for sustaining the economic growth trends across Africa in the last decade.

Besides intra-trade, Africa’s greatest external injection for higher growth comes from other so-called emerging economies. Trade with BRIC countries has been growing exponentially, and helped reshape the global economic and political dynamics. Today, Africa looks more East and West, and less North.

The Middle Class Consumer

Today, roughly half of Africa’s billions live in cities, inundating its markets with consumers with more expendable income, thus affecting all major industries. Increasing urbanisation, infrastructure development, rebuilding of war-torn countries, public-private sector investment, the need for sustainable development, and improvements in healthcare have created opportunities for businesses to grow in the areas of health, water, housing, energy, information technology, oil and gas, transport, manufacturing and agriculture.

Africa’s developmental concerns of yesterday, are thriving markets today. Water and sanitation today accounts for $700-million. Similarly, the African market size is at $50-billion in the agricultural sector, $800-billion in the energy sector, $200-billion in the manufacturing sector, and $400-billion in infrastructure development.

And with greater regional integration, Africa’s 350 million middle class consumers, even though mostly based in West Africa, offer opportunities to business throughout the continent.

This has also lead to greater demand for private sector industries such as banking and telecommunications, as well as growing levels of education. Africa’s new middle class is a champion of the private sector, driving a more competitive economic environment attractive to foreign investment.

Drifting apart

Although Africa as a whole has experienced strong economic development over the decade, the continent has also drifted apart. Many nations remain in disarray. However, looking at the growth trends of Africa as a whole as they were a decade ago, it can be safely said that in the next few years to come, these nations shall emerge and join the rest of the continent in an exciting journey of further growth and development.

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