Views, ideas, inspiration, vision and practical tips for a better more prosperous Malawi

Stocktaking: 24 pressing problems impeding Africa’s Economic Development

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It is an obvious fact that Africa’s problems are bigger for one country, government or corporation to tackle. That although much has been done over the years in way of addressing some of the problems Africans have to live with every day, including efforts (some of which involved pouring hundreds of millions of dollars of aid into governments, causes, charities and other concerns within Africa) by numerous individuals, leaders, companies and countries, the mantle of developing Africa  was always going to be heavier, the task rather gargantuan and complex, requiring a creative approach.

Neither the Gates Foundation, nor several other high-profile billionaires and millionaires, or for that matter anybody else who over the years has/had expressed strong desire and acted to help Africa, would be able to tackle African problems alone. Not without concerted and determined effort from Africans themselves. Which minimally probably shows that tackling the problems was never a linear equation: You couldn’t pour in loads of cash, then presto! –  a developed Africa comes out the other end.

Thankfully, most of these people and organisations working for the advancement of Africa are smart enough to acknowledge that. Knowing that the problems are deeper, often multi-faceted and complex, giving a challenge that is probably as tricky to resolve as it is inviting. Philanthropists are also practical enough to realise that while essentially it’s a ‘war’ against a long list of challenges, they may never win all the ‘battles’ in that war.

However, what is surprising is that few Africans realise the extent and level of effort that is required to transform their continent, and many take it for granted that civil wars, corruption, HIV/Aids and poverty are the main problems in Africa. In addition, it is disconcerting to note that some philanthropists continue on the same aid path or approach which hasn’t worked the last 50+ years.

There have been many books written about African development [1,  234 and 5 to name a few], many articles too [including 1,  23 and 4 ], numerous videos [like 1, 2, 3], speeches, all of which are informative and worthwhile their time and content. But even they seem to have received a coy reception, certainly have not been given the attention they deserve, their advice not widely embraced by most political leaders and other stake holders on the continent, which begs the question: If the techniques of the past haven’t worked, and the new one’s being suggested are not being adopted, or at least not tried out, why should the old tactics somehow produce different results this time around? Proponents of the old aid model argue that Africa is now at a different place, where factors such as improved telecommunications and transportation links have empowered local people, meaning the old methods of disbursement of aid have a better chance of being effective now than they previously did before – when the integers were absent. This to an extent is true.

But what does bringing development to Africa actually mean? Is increasing the numbers of people living on $2 or more a day development? Or is it eradicating Malaria, Tuberculosis, H.I.V, Cholera, typhoid and other health threats? Is supplying truckloads of pharmaceutical equipment a form of development? Or is building a pharmaceutical company to synthesize drugs within Africa a form of development? What about reducing unemployment and providing more opportunities for further education? Or achieving the kind of relative peacetime  prosperity seen in North America or Europe in recent times? As you can see, all these could be said to be tenets of Development.

What makes the task of ushering in economic development more complex is that not only are the many obstacles impeding the implementation of policies that could transform Africa inter-related, but some of those obstacles do not appear to be obvious to those who have the power to effect change. To put it figuratively, it’s difficult to fight a war, any war, unless all, or at least most of your generals AND soldiers clearly understand the enemy (and their tactics).

Thus, in my view, Africa’s 24 most pressing problems (in no particular order) include:

1 – Far too many imports from outside of Africa and not enough high value Exports to balance the trade deficits. Not only is there a reluctance to delve in to hi-tech industries with potentially large earnings, but it appears like African countries are content to import things from Asia, Europe and the US and few people are asking the questions of:-

(i) whether it is possible to make some of these products within Africa?

(ii) Whether there may be an alternative product on the continent, which can be used in place of a foreign product?

In contrast, most European countries have large volumes of inter-trade amongst themselves, and when the EU has  set carbon emission targets, there’s a growing trend in some countries that something is to be imported from afar only if it can’t be cost-effectively produced locally, if it can’t be shipped, or if it can’t be imported from a nearby country. This point is related to the next point:-

2 – There is not enough trade amongst African countries. Consider this statement:

“…These costs are most acute for landlocked countries, which are heavily reliant on neighbour states to reach international export markets. The World Bank has estimated that upgrading road linkages between the Central African Republic and the DRC could increase intra-African trade by between $10 billion and $30 billion a year.” and here “…At the moment, the vast majority of goods are being imported from abroad. So if anything, rather import those goods from South Africa, and lock in some of the revenue in the region, than import them from abroad.” (Africa’s grand free trade area and what it will mean for business, by Jaco Maritz, www.howwemadeitinafrica.com )

3 – Archaic agricultural practices in much need of efficiency vectors  (i.e. Trucks, ploughing, planting and harvesting machinery, pesticides, availability of cheap manure / fertilisers, modern Silos (not the thatched ones made from sticks, string and mud- which arguably results in loss of a high % of the harvest / yield through rotting and attack from pests [mice,termites, etc]), widespread adoption of irrigation  and such like,  all of which will have significant benefits to African agricultural capacity and the quality of yield–> potentially ending hunger/ food shortages within Africa) [New farming practices grow healthier children]

4 – Bad and underdeveloped infrastructure:

” Distances in Africa are usually great, with rivers seldom being navigable, making long railroads the most efficient alternative. However, many companies have had difficulty maintaining output on the limited system. Rio Tinto, the third largest mining company in the world, has recently demonstrated the effect a lack of infrastructure can have on mining operations. This month it was revealed that the company had to devaluate its coal exploiting operation in the Tete province of Mozambique by 3 Billion US$. All in all, Rio Tinto carried out write-downs amounting to 14 Billion US$, forcing its boss, Tom Albenese, to step down. An insufficient transport infrastructure has been mentioned several times as the central reason for the company’s losses. While Rio Tinto’s coal operations in that area have production capacities of about 10 million tons a year, the respective railway connection to the sea can only cope with between 3 and 4 million tons a year.” – Fabian Scherer, Political Analysis South Africa.

Africa needs bigger, longer, better Roads & Railway lines:- why isn’t Johannesburg connected to Nairobi by high speed rail? Or Addis Ababa to Kinshasa via Kampala by high speed rail? Who is going to create this infrastructure that could prove pivotal in transforming Africa’s fortunes, if not Africans themselves? Isn’t it obvious that creating transportation links [which would provide thousands of people with jobs] between the big cities of Africa will improve trade [opening up national markets to local traders, reduce turnaround times]  and reduce the cost of travel [thereby encouraging tourism and movement of ideas], all of which are positives for spurring economic development?

Africa needs 21st Century Airports [of the standard of King Shaka]  to allow travel between Africa and major international cities and give a positive first impression to international visitors. Not only airports, but modern hotels fit for the 21st century, upgrading the archaic and run-down buildings that define most African cities and constructing newer, more suitable buildings to attract business; we should put an end to unreliable power supply, water cuts and build business centres equipped with modern facilities as those found in western countries; Real investment into the Tourism industry – why should African tourism be expected to be mediocre? Below average and generally not up to scratch? A few years ago, a family friend who had visited Mozambique and Tanzania hinted of her displeasure when she found cockroaches and spiders in some of the rooms in the resorts she and her friend stayed in; the brown stains in the bathrooms, and scents in the rooms. This is even before we get to the aircon. Talk of ‘African standards’, which is really an excuse for not maintaining high standards.

We have to upgrade our infrastructure and facilities to a high standard, only then will we be confident to compete with cities in Asia and South America and other emerging business destinations which are fast becoming popular places of investment. In any case, just because we have been resigned to living with pot-holes, experiencing intermittent power cuts and working in buildings without air conditioning doesn’t mean that investors / visitors will tolerate the absence of such basic things, and return / recommend us to their friends.

5 – Under-educated, incompetent, power-hungry, corrupt and spineless leaders: Africa has too many leaders with no vision, who are extravagant, out of touch with the people and having no sense of urgency regarding the gravity of the problems their countries face and their far-reaching effects. It appears as though there is lack of understanding as to how economies develop within the leadership of some countries in Africa. The reasons for this may include stubbornness, and ignorance of the developmental histories of countries such as Russia, the US, Britain, Germany, China, Canada and Brazil. It may also be because of political pressure from donors, whose aid has strings attached, and arguably restricts the kind of sustainable development policies which are much in need.

Often it appears as though trying to remain in power and acquire wealth are much greater priorities than good governance, and there are few examples of cross-party inclusion in governments. Also, I doubt how many African politicians know the real meaning of good governance.

Unless Africans unite to put their leaders to task, so that they deliver what the continent needs, or else be shown the door out, development will struggle to come by. This point is also related to point 13 below–which is related to points 15 and 19.

This is because it is difficult for Africans to vote out their corrupt politicians when most people in the rural areas -who form the majority in most African countries – live in poverty, and are often ‘palm greased‘ with handouts (including free food [maize], livestock and money) in an attempt to seduce them into voting for the same corrupt officials the continent does not need.

6 – Security: If I can’t send a smartphone via ordinary post from Manchester to Lilongwe without it going missing, what does that say of our security? Irrespective of where in Africa it went off the radar, is that good enough for Africa? How come electronic products destined to the US (or coming from Asia) get to their destinations? Will that be good enough for investors? Doesn’t such influence postage prices to be high — which in itself pushes up the cost of doing business? Africa must improve its security on all levels to attract investment. From ensuring that visitors feel safe to safeguarding our borders against infiltration of terrorists and drugs, there are no two ways about this.

7 – Low self-confidence and lack of assertiveness. If it is true that the oil troubles in Nigeria are costing Nigeria over $1 billion each month,  and have much to do with opposition to foreign corporations, why doesn’t the Nigerian government task the local oil companies to join forces with the foreign corporations under joint ventures to collectively exploit Nigeria’s resources? And in the midst of such theft, why is the increased security to prevent and stop the wastage – and bring to book those who are responsible for theft  – not forthcoming?

8 – Ageism and under-investment in Young people

9 –Lack of sufficient Capital Investment for major projects with potentially large yields [Why Africa May Never Produce a Facebook Groupon Zynga or Google]

10 – Electoral processes that are not free and that are prone to abuse

11 – Media that is not free and that is not representative

12 – Poor Healthcare  and under-investment in Women’s Health: If investors are to invest in your continent/ country, do you have hospitals of a good standard for them to use if they, their families or their staff fall sick? Or are you expecting them to build their own hospitals??? Maybe their own schools and shops?? What is the general state of your country’s  maternity health? Do you have medicines and safe surgery facilities in your hospitals? Competent doctors and nurses?

How can economic development occur when the basic health facilities are not firmly in place?

13 – RegionalismRacism, Nepotism and ethnic discrimination.

14 –   Leaders obsessed with  luxury items

15 – Low standard of Education and low investment in high-quality Education. And it’s not just education for African children. If we send our children to learn in Europe, America, Asia, Russia, Japan and other places,  why couldn’t we create Universities and schools to attract ‘International’ students–those from outside of Africa? Maybe firstly partnerships or collaborations with European and US Universities (Univ of Nottingham in MalaysiaWeill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, Virginia Tech University-India, Technische Universität Berlin – Egypt ) could pave the way for speclialist learning institutions on African soil?  In any case, in an information age as we live in, employing and training teachers / lecturers from across the globe wouldn’t be an issue. Further, African born professors are teaching in some of the world’s top Universities across the world, why couldn’t we attract some of them, or at least use their services to train lecturers/ teachers of the same calibre, to provide educational instruction to African and non-African students, within Africa?

In addition, when webcasting technology is relatively cheap and accessible, surely there must be some lecturers around the world who for a set fee, would be open to providing an hour or two long lectures every week, in their subject of specialisation, during term time. This means it may be possible to run a University level course partly using ‘remote’ lecturers who are infact not physically present in the classroom, but are miles away, at MIT, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge, etc.

16 – Export Trade barriers (including protectionist measures by not only Western countries [who are buyers of African raw materials such as agricultural produce and precious metals] but also within regions in Africa). Unfortunately this factor is not entirely of our doing. Use of diplomatic channels or filing complaints at the WTO/ AU could go some way to resolve some of these obstructionist barriers to trade, but there are no guarantees that such would have any success, and essentially it boils down to diplomacy. However, bilateral treaties and widespread membership of organisations such as Fairtrade, including encouraging ‘supply chain ownership’ in certain industries may be viable alternatives. In addition, African companies should aim to have a presence in major cities such as London, New York, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Paris, Tokyo, Rome,  Berlin, Frankfurt, Madrid, and Moscow and aim to float on the stock markets. Another suggestion is the establishment of Trade and Industry organisations (like UKTI) whose sole aim would be to represent African companies in these cities, assisting them with finding markets, vetting of suppliers, etc.

17 – Weak and under-resourced civil society organisations. This point is related to point 19 below. [A practitioner’s view of the UK social investment market ]

18 – Low proliferation/ penetration of information technology including TV’s, Computers and Internet connected mobile phones. While a lot of progress has been made in this regard, there’s still a long way to go.

19 – Misdirected Aid: Instead of providing aid only to charities, or to buy food and medicines for governments, philanthropists must begin to invest comparable sums in sustainable projects across Africa. This factor is related to point 9 above. Entrepreneurs who have the ideas, but not the capital need to be sought and those with sustainable ideas that have a market must be financed. This factor has the added advantage in that you are supporting independent trade (not linked by political ties) and ensuring that if corruption does occur in government — which 9/10 times it will, entrepreneurs are sufficiently resourced to continue providing jobs and creating infrastructure, and are not being victimized on ethnic or political lines. The opposite of this, which is common in Africa, is skilled and experienced entreprenuers being sidelined for not supporting a particular political party, or for not being of the same ethnicity, or clan as the ruling elite.

20 – Jealousy and lack of patronage for home-grown brands: It’s not only hundreds of thousands of people living in Manchester who support Manchester United. Even thousands of those who live in Nottingham, support Nottingham County, or Nottingham Forest. Probably not a perfect example, but in Britain (and many parts of  the developed world), home-grown is considered good. The local pub –not the one in town, the one just around the corner — is often  the place to wind down and have a drink. Irrespective of whether a yorkshire man, or an Irish chap owns the place. It’s the local pub, so a considerable proportion of people who live local will frequent it every now and again. And it’s not just about nationalities. Even the local curry (which will most likely be owned by an Asian) or the local Chinese (owned by a Chinese) is embraced, and favorited,  it’s about buying local. If there are  more than one local Asian takeaway / Chinese, some people take turns to visit each one every so often, or will patronise the one or two who appeal to their culinary tastes. One effect of supporting home-gown is that money is circulated within the local economy.

Unfortunately, in some parts of Africa, especially Southern Africa, this is not always the case. It is more likely that if a lakeshore resort is owned by a European, it will attract more business from Africans than if it is owned by a fellow African. While the reasons for such may be a lot more complicated, its effects couldn’t possibly be positive for African industry. In my view, Africans need to change this mindset.

21 – African achievers are not as visible, even in the internet age. Few high-profile role-models have been resourced or are willing to carry the flag of Africa across Africa with a positive message not only about their achievements, but about Africa itself. Often it’s left to celebrities, a handful of activists, some aid organisations, European rock stars and the foreign media to portray Africa’s reformed image- which they rarely do.

If you need evidence for this, you don’t have to do much: Ask any sample of young people aged between  14 – 18 in any  Town or village across Africa who they have heard of on this list: Koffi Annan, Kanye West, Dambisa Moyo, Will Smith, Youssou N’dour, Didier Drogba, Mo Ibrahim, David Beckham, Bob Marley, Femi Kuti, Haile Gebrselassie, Samuel Eto’o, Alek Wek, Wole Soyinka, K’Naan, Chimamanda Adichie, Omar al-Bashir, and Aliko Dangote.

The answers you get will be revealing, but probably not entirely surprising. It is more likely than not that most young people would have heard of a politician, British celebrity,  American actor/ musician or sports personality than an African businessman who had established a business empire in Africa. So Samuel Eto’o, or al-Bashir would probably be much more well-known than Mo Ibrahim. Further, young people are more likely to listen to Kanye West, K’Naan and Bob Marley, but have probably never heard of Dangote. Which probably means few young Africans know of the achievements of fellow-African outside politics, sports, music or the film industries.

In my view this is not a desirable scenario because it gives a false impression of African success. That the only professions or fields in which an African can truly excel is in the world of Sports, Music or Acting. Also, it deprives young Africans of the story as to how people like Dangote and Mo Ibrahim made their wealth.

Ideally if African achievers spoke out more of their success, and the large media houses broadcasted more of such stories, frequently, there’s probably a higher possibility that such could have an effect on the career choices more Young Africans make later in life, a factor that could influence development on the continent.

22 – Declining work ethic and lack of discipline.

23 – Religious Fundamentalism: Why are Al-shabab and Boko Haram which are terrorist organisations passed off as ‘islamic’ militant groups? And what of the Lord’s Resistance Army, why the semi-religious veneer? Or to put it differently, is it surprising that Mali, Nigeria, Uganda and Somalia, countries who have notorious militant groups also share common denominators of ethnic or religious divisions and extreme poverty? [see here] African leaders must address religious fundamentalism. One solution may be to encourage education and have more educational endeavours in the villages / rural areas. Thus, this point is related to point 15 above, in that as more people in the rural areas become educated, it is likely that acts of religious fanaticsm will greatly reduce.

24. Foreign Corporations:

Dozens of Western multinationals have made millions of pounds in profits from exploiting African bio-resources taken from some of the poorest nations on earth, with not a penny offered in return.” declared Andrew Buncome in the Independent.

It’s impossible to overemphasize this point:- Foreign corporations do not come to Africa to develop the continent. They come to make a profit, and often a very large profit. Usually, this money does not remain in Africa, to be used for development purposes or suchlike, but instead it is wired out to be paid to their own investors and shareholders, eventually trickling into their own economies in Europe, the US, etc. Yet the resource that makes the profits possible is African, belonging to Africans. Why then don’t Africans benefit from it? Because foreign corporations -who have the  technology to exploit those natural resources – do not come to Africa to develop the continent. But to make themselves a Profit. Ask anyone with half a Brain about this sorry fact, and they’ll tell you the same thing.

Africans must learn this simple yet obvious fact. It must be ‘engraved on the palms of every African’

Just as the Chinese (the list is long and includes South Koreans, Brazil, Argentina and others) are now developing their own natural resources and those of other countries, using their own companies, and controversially in the case of China, their own labour, Africans have no option but to gain the much-needed confidence to exploit their own resources using African companies and African labour. There is no other way around this if economic development is to be effected, and you can return to this article in 20 years time, and this fact will most certainly not have changed.

Further, lack of expertise, equipment or experience are not excuses. Equipment can be bought, trainers with experience sought and hired to provide training, and experience obtained through practice in industries as diverse as Mining, Oil extraction and Bio-technology. To put it in a different way, what can African industry learn from National Iranian Oil Company which is run by Iranians, for the benefit of Iran?

Another similar view:

“Africa has lost significant revenue over the years through its failure to adequately capture proceeds from resource extraction on the continent.” – Annie Chikwanha, Resource Nationalism in Africa and Beyond, Africa Protal

And here:

The corporations use the labor and land, the people pay the price. It is absolutely modern day slavery. It is exploitation and makes you think about a 500 year history of exploitation of the African continent from its people during the days of slavery and now its resources”  – Emira Woods, director of Foreign Policy in Focus, Institute for Policy Studies.

What more can one say.

Yet if all of the above were addressed, it is not difficult to see how life on the continent could be significantly improved. But that’s not to say that all problems can be resolved overnight. Not at all, but when some of Africa’s problems have been around for over 50 years, surely if the right approach was being undertaken, it would have borne some kind of tangible fruit in all those years?

While an idyllic state of wealth, health and comfort is not achievable anywhere (even Europe has a fair share of ailing economies, let alone Eastern Europe), with even rich countries having sections of their population who languish in debt and poverty, but wouldn’t you say that if most of the above problems were addressed,  most African economies would have achieved some admirable form of economic development?

Similar links:

1. The BRICS and Africa’s growth dilemma

2. Lack Of Clean Water In Africa Documentary

3. Meet The 14-Year-Old Girl Who Developed A Low-Cost Water Purification System

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About Sang N.

Writer, Entrepreneur & Activist. Interests: History, Entrepreneurship, Business, Motors, Architecture, Aviation, Travel, Food and Art.

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