The Need to Unleash Africa’s Ideas

By David Stevens

This week marks the start of President Obama’s African Leadership Summit. The summit marks an effort to bring African business leaders, heads of state, entrepreneurs, and civil society together with their counterparts in the U.S.’s private and NGO sectors. As such, it represents an opportunity to bring Africa front-and-center as a region of tremendous potential. And while American business and political leaders should embrace this moment to explore new opportunities they must also seek to engage Africa in a mutually beneficial, long-term exchange of ideas.

Much has been made of Africa’s bright future. Statistics and talking points highlighting the continent’s transition from an investment no-go area to a center of diverse economic activity are often quoted. Attendance at investment conferences focused on Africa is steadily increasing as well. The consumer potential of Africa’s rising middle class, economic efficiencies brought on by increasing urbanization, and a demographic bulge that will see the population enter its most productive life stage, are all reasons for tracking opportunity in a growing consumer sector.

In addition, growing political stability and an improving business climate are chipping away at the persistent fear that Africa’s potential would be squandered though coups and corruption. Africa’s considerable infrastructure needs are now seen less as a liability and more as an opportunity to develop long-term projects in partnership with a willing public sector and international support.

Programs such as Power Africa and the work of organizations such as the International Finance Corporation, African Development Bank, and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation are working to develop roadmaps for the private sector to follow. All provide both capital and lessons-learned to help American business enter African markets.

These developments, along with the growth of what is already a robust resource sector, come together to provide an optimistic picture of Africa’s economic potential. Africa is increasingly seen a place where global private business can work with government and the local private sector to reap the rewards of imminent growth. And while there are reasons to be cautious of being overly optimistic—rampant and persistent inequality, severe deficits in educational capacity, ongoing conflict in key states, and continuing, if improving, governance issues—the general feeling is that these are challenges to be overcome rather than insurmountable roadblocks.

Leadership Unchained

At this week’s summit, the focus is on Africa’s up-and-coming leaders, not only in business, but in the cultural, social, and policy  spaces as well. Indeed, emphasis on leadership development is a key component of the administration’s approach to engaging Africa on a long-term basis. The Young African Leadership Initiative program is an example of this emphasis as it recently brought some of the continents top young talent to the U.S. for mentorship, training, and networking.

This long-term view of leadership development is important and is to be commended. However, simply developing leaders is not enough if the goal is sustained development of African markets, and profitable non-exploitative participation in those markets. Rather, the ways in which we engage Africa’s next generation, and our openness to learn from them, will be the key to long-term mutual benefit.

In 20 years, Africa’s next generation of leaders will have been on the cutting edge of innovation in the deployment of technology, not just to remedy “#firstworldproblems” such as slow pizza delivery or having to wait for a taxi, but to address the challenges that many around the world face daily: urban poverty, food insecurity and vulnerability, and climate change to name a few.

The questions for the U.S. and the West must be this: Are we willing to integrate African thought and innovation into our own models of thinking and learning, or will we continue to see Africa as a place that receives our money, ideas, and technology? Will African thought leadership truly influence the global ideas industry on it’s own terms? Will papers by African scientists and economists, be citied on the evening news as impacting our thinking and policy? In short, will we truly be willing to engage a rising Africa and all of the cutting edge ideas it is sure to unleash, or will the African continent continue be seen only as potential market for Western goods and services and a provider for our resource needs?

If we in the West are able to bring ourselves to fully integrate African thought into our worldview, then there is little doubt that a prosperous and mutually beneficial future is possible. If we don’t, we will be repeating mistakes that will not only hamper Africa’s growth, but will deprive ourselves of the opportunity to continue to flourish in a century that we will be less able to define.

Spurring Exchange, Not Just Growth

While there have been meaningful changes in discourse surrounding how best to work with Africa, the current emphasis on Africa’s potential as a consumer market does not, in and of itself, change the view of Africa as a region. Rather, it replicates a view that holds Africa as a place from which profit is to be taken. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The prospects for returns can certainly motivate the influx of foreign capital and technical know-how that the continent requires to turn it’s present potential into self-sustaining systems that can meaningfully elevate standards of living.

But if the current interest in Africa does not further greater integration of economies and an honest two-way street approach to growth, then conditions of exploitation are certain to reemerge. If Western interest in Africa’s long-term success is defined solely on it’s ability to produce and consume goods, then we will all be worse off. If however, Africa is fully embraced as a key contributor to the world of ideas-if the innovation, and the creativity of African scholars, business leaders, artisans, artists, and thought-leaders is taken seriously, we will all be better positioned to prosper in the coming century.



David Stevens is President of Fireside Research and a project leader at the World Policy Institute.

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