Abigail Keene-Babcock

Will Greed Save Africa?

BusinessWeek Africa cover

Some NextBillion readers may have noticed a rather provocatively titled piece that appeared recently as the cover article for BusinessWeek: “Can Greed Save Africa?

What a way to cut to the chase! The article probably makes most development and aid activists squirm. After all, Renier van Rooyen, the South African on-site manager of ESV Biofuels, one of the investments featured in the piece, is quoted as saying, “I’d be the last person in the history books to go down as a philanthropist… But you cannot run a business when your workers are out with malaria or sick from dirty water.” This was his way of explaining changes in the village of Inhassune where, as a result of the jobs created by the a new biofuel plant, “mosquito control, power lines, and potable water have quickly arisen from a barren stretch of bush” and people are registering to vote (with newly issued government ID cards) for the first time in their lives. But, beneath the glorification of opportunism and hungry investors jetting around Africa and making wide profit margins, I find far more in the article that speaks to exactly what NextBillion is all about: market-based models that provide paths out of poverty. Building a biofuels plant where there was previously no economic option other than subsistence farming? Locally producing fertilizers that will address a severe continent-wide shortage? Microfinance institutions that have the bandwidth and Wall Street backing to expand from three to nine countries in a year? Doing all of this profitably? Sounds familiar – sounds like development a la BoP might be catching on.

(Side note: Malawi’s fertilizer program recently made international news for its success in increasing farmer productivity and reversing dependence on food aid).

“Can Greed Save Africa?” makes one point clear: altruism is not a pre-condition for development. It is the results, not the intent, that translate into growth and greater opportunity. Re-envisioning Africa as a multi-dimensional land of untapped wealth and possibilities (and not just in the style of China’s massive investments in extractive industries), instead of a basket-case of intractable poverty – this is important for empowering countries and individuals to push past the stigma and dependence of the last half-century.

Africa Men and TruckThe entire premise of BoP theory is that filling market gaps to employ and serve the poor is profitable – so why did the article still cause me to hesitate? Well, a bit of d?j? vu, for one. I started to wonder just how easily the featured investment schemes might begin to smack of neocolonialism in certain contexts. In a few years, more polemical development rhetoric might easily read: “Carpet-bagging international investors repatriate majority of profits and leave local economies with the short end of the stick when interest is lost.” What then of the jobs, the village school, the malaria programs? It’s interesting to note that EVC’s fertilizer plant in Nigeria is built from the remains of an abandoned factory (points for use of brown-field sites, but also possibly indicative of previous ventures that failed to spark the local economy). Will a bad quarter lead to a half-finished school?

So, are we looking at the emergence of “Bio-fuel Republics”? I think not. Even if the investors in BusinessWeek aren’t framing their work in terms of “sustainability” – which they could easily do with some creative PR – I think this type of investment is different than, say, China’s current mass investments in African extractive industries. The Chinese may be building infrastructure, but this is a case of “all roads lead to the mines.” They may be pouring money into the country, but it’s overwhelmingly Chinese workers who are running operations. Technology and knowledge transfer are limited, spillover is minimal, and corruption is likely.

There is the risk that the biofuels, fertilizer, and microfinance operations won’t be done in a socially or environmentally sustainable way, that they will take advantage of their position of monopoly on local job markets, and that they may fail. But there’s a value-add element, and a focus on profitable production for the African market that is entirely absent in China’s activities in Africa.

“Greed” is a pretty powerful word to blanket “investments.” Interesting-catching for sure, and a new way of spinning the story to those skeptical of anything that mentions a so-called triple bottom line. What I’d look forward to, though, would be a follow-up article in a year or two, reporting on what these investors have been up to, how their investments have evolved, and what their presence has meant for all stakeholders.