Scott Anderson

Weekly Roundup – 3/22/14: Why it’s time to start feeling good about Africa

If the facts don’t fit the frame, all too often, those facts are disregarded. The facts about Africa’s economic and entrepreneurial growth continue to defy the frame of the “impoverished third world and therefore to be pitied” continent that, even now, remains fixed in the minds of many.

A couple of news items this week added a few more cracks to that tired old framing:

Reuters reported on a new A.T. Kearney study showing Rwanda and Nigeria are Africa’s most attractive markets for global retailers looking to expand. While Rwanda’s economic surge and pro-business environment are increasingly recognized, markets like Nigeria are at a tipping point, Mike Moriarty, a partner at A.T. Kearney and lead author of the firm’s African Retail Development Index, told The Wall Street Journal (subscription required).

“If personal security risks can stabilize, the next 10 years could be as dramatic for business development as the last 10 were for political development,” he said.

The story also notes that consumer growth isn’t limited to Africa’s burgeoning middle class, and is moving closer toward the lower income scale:

“… the African Development Bank says that a more-generous definition of nascent consumers, those who earn at least $4 a day and have some money to spend on items beyond sustenance, housing and transport, already includes about a third of the roughly 1 billion Africans. By 2060, the bank says, more than a billion Africans will have joined that class, about 40% of the continent’s population by then.”

Meanwhile at the Cards and Payments World Africa 2014 conference in Johannesburg, IOL reports that Mastercard is doing business in seven new African countries in just the last year. That makes 48 of the 55 countries in Africa with a Mastercard presence for merchants and consumers.

“It has become an industry as opposed to the next best thing,” Aaron Oliver, the head of emerging payments in the Middle East and Africa for the multinational firm, told IOL.

About 16 percent of adults used a cellphone to pay bills and send or receive money in the past year in sub-Saharan Africa, and there are 42 million active mobile money users, which represent about 70 percent of the global population of active users, Oliver told the publication.

Those increasingly typical stories might please Dayo Olopade, author of the book “The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa”. Olopade grew up in Chicago, a child of Nigerian parents. She brought this dual perspective with her as she traveled through 17 African countries over the course of two years.

She posits two persistent reasons why Africa doesn’t get due credit for its rapid economic growth. One is what she calls “poverty porn,” in which images of the needy are designed by sources (mostly well-meaning non-governmental organizations) “to make you feel bad about Africa.” One of the examples she gives is the winner of a United Nations poster competition which showed the leaders of the G8 from the waist up, and poor, presumably African children from the waist down.

The other is what she calls “formality bias.” While African nations are often ranked based on their government, fair elections and GDP, the innovations that thrive within the informal markets are overlooked. For instance, casual observers of a traffic clogged street in Lagos don’t see the vast informal marketplace, where from your car you can buy fruit, mobile phones, even luggage, Olopade notes.

“Far from seeing congested roads as an opportunity to feel self pity, people seize upon these as marketing opportunities,” she says in her talk at a recent Zocalo Public Square event.

She refers to Bridge Academies, Baobab Health and M-Pesa as examples of African business-minded solutions that, rather than being hatched in Geneva or New York, “met people where their needs were.” While those examples will be familiar to many NB readers, Olopade is a voice that needs to be heard and shared – one that’s creating one more crack in the outdated framing of Africa.

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