Although it’s problematic to generalise about a large, diverse place it’s fair to say that Africa is fast emerging as a consumer continent. It is populated by “Afropolitans”, who are sometimes also referred to as Pan-Africanists. These are young, urban, well educated people. They are willing to spend money on luxury goods.
However, these people are a relatively small middle class in a sea of poverty. They are unlikely to drive a classical “trickle down” improvement to Africa’s general economic picture.
It’s also worth noting that not much of what these young consumers covet is actually being produced on the continent. I would argue that Africa should be called the “borrowed continent” rather than a consumer continent. Its raw materials are exported, refined elsewhere and generate big profits for other countries. Researchers come, conduct their work and run their experiments. Then they leave again to write it all up.
How did people’s high hopes during the era of independence lead to this? And can those high hopes ever be resurrected? Can Africa discard the mantle of “borrowed continent”?
A history of control
To understand the situation that Africa finds itself in now, it’s worth looking back into the continent’s history.
The Monrovia group envisaged a continent whose controlling power remained with Western governments. Development would come through the exchange of resources with the western world, trading Africa’s vast mineral resources and agricultural produce.
The Casablanca group, meanwhile, envisaged a self-reliant continent that would be capable of governing itself through intra-continental trade. This continent would integrate socio-economic cultural values among all countries.
Although the two had different missions, they upheld a singular vision – the idea of a united Africa. Over time these aspirations were swept under the carpet and in May 1963 a partially unified body emerged: the Organisation of African Unity. This was relaunched as the African Union in 2001, at which time it adopted grandiose plans to improve governance in its member states through a process of peer review and monitoring. These plans haven’t been seriously implemented. Instead, the relative pluralism and openness witnessed during the late 1990s and early 2000s is being eroded by a new wave of authoritarianism.
Ordinary Africans have not enjoyed much of the oneness imagined by this “union”. Much of the blame for this lies with western powers that remain embedded on the continent. African leaders have also compromised notions of unity through grievous maladministration and systemic oppression of their own people. And so Africa remains little more than a test site for new scientific experiments and a place from which raw materials can be extracted. This is known as neo-colonialism.
Today the neo-colonialists are more likely to come from the East than the West. Against this backdrop, how can Africa shift its role from borrower to creator and producer?
The answers lie with integrating the continent’s people, tapping into existing indigenous knowledge and focusing on capacity development. Technology is key to all of this work.
Technology a great leveller and limiter
Technology can reform how people interact – think of cheap communication services like mobile phone and social media apps. It can be used to establish free, open, world class research facilities like physical and applied science laboratories and engineering installations. In these spaces, Africans can create their own products and services. Technology also has the power to reform governance by, for instance, offering online government services.
Digital copying and sharing cost next to nothing, which means that classical scarcity-based economic theory becomes less applicable. Also, when all but a country’s poorest people have the means of recording, sharing and publishing – in the form of a smartphone, tablet or laptop – classical methods of social control begin to fail.
On one hand, the classical path to industrialisation seems more distant than ever. Manufacturing is ever more automated worldwide. So much so, that some people are turning away from demanding job creation and protection to demanding basic income grants to alleviate mass unemployment. But on the other hand, the globalised economy is seeding its own destruction. High energy use is leading to climate change and its unnatural disasters. A growing global population is leading to conflict over resources.
It seems possible that rapid social change must not only aim for decentralisation, but use decentralisation as its method.
Paradoxically, the technology that brainwashes us for mass consumption can also help us to grapple with local survival and dignity. For instance, there’s a need to hybridise universal scientific knowledge with local indigenous wisdom, as well as local biodiversity – including traditional crops. This process mustn’t be propagated by wasteful bureaucratic agencies but by grassroots movements that are empowered by cheap instant communication and locally produced energy.
Of course technology does not come without risks or dangers. It’s important that ordinary people and their governments are well prepared to use technology effectively. In this, as in all endeavours related to turning Africa from borrowed continent to creator, it’s crucial that countries on the continent identify their weaknesses and strengths. This will help when setting and working towards common goals. There’s already a template countries can use for this work: the AU 2063 Agenda, whose call for seamless borders in Africa resonates to the new world.
Although the countries in the continent remain largely closed off, some – such as Namibia, Rwanda and Ghana) – are gradually opening their arms to accept other government officials and ordinary Africans using a “no visa” or visa on arrival policy.
All of these developments also progressively create a mental shift for Africans.