The African Decade?

May, 2010
By Ilmas Futehally

I am just back to work after a weeklong workshop at the Bellagio Centre of the Rockefeller Foundation in Italy. Located on the banks of Lake Como, the Centre is a dream location for meeting people from all over the world and hearing different perspectives. Some of the things that I learnt there about Africa were very illuminating.

Talking about the hidden trends and surprises that are taking place in the African continent, especially in Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya, one of the participants referred to the quiet extinction of the African male. The impact of economic liberation of women alongside the collapse of agricultural commodities has led to the weakening of the economic conditions of men. This in turn has led to a situation where in urban areas there are more than 50 per cent of single women who are parents, and where having a son is seen as a disadvantage. The number of boys in orphanages is growing at a fast rate - currently there are between 66 to 90 per cent of boys in mixed orphanages.

Another surprising trend is the manner in which digital technologies have penetrated even the most rural areas of Africa. This has both a beneficial and a detrimental effect on society. New forms of e-commerce have literally changed the way commerce is carried out. One example is M-Pesa an innovative payment service for the unbanked. "Pesa" is the Swahili word for cash; the "M" is for mobile.  An M-Pesa customer can use his or her mobile phone to move money quickly, securely, and across great distances, directly to another mobile phone user. The customer does not need to have a bank account. Within the first month of its launch in 2007, more than 20,000 people in Kenya subscribed to the service. As of November 2009, M-Pesa has more than 8.5 million users, or about 25% of the Kenyan population. Monthly person to person transactions add up to over $320 million. The use of ATMs and banks in Kenya pales in comparison.

ICT technologies are also widely used in Africa for providing health and education services and for putting Africans in closer touch with the rest of the world. However, all uses of ICT are not necessarily empowering; they could also lead to higher levels of alienation, as well as fragmentation within societies.

It is known that in the courtship of Africa, China is the leader. However, other players like India and Brazil cannot be completely discounted at this stage as the Indian Diaspora is about 30 million in Africa; the Brazilian Diaspora is 80 million. There is a small Chinese Diaspora in Africa of about 250,000, mostly in South Africa, and most Chinese entrepreneurs and workers go back and forth between China and Africa.  There are over 750,000 Chinese nationals working and living for long periods in different African countries.

On the economic front, some countries in Africa are doing extremely well. While one cannot generalize about 50 countries together, some countries have achieved a steady growth rate of between 5-7 per cent in the last decade. However, as this has been driven mainly by services and not manufacturing or agriculture, it has been growth without jobs and without reduction in poverty levels. In fact, the food security crisis of 2008 which took place on the heels of the global financial crisis has pushed back 100 million people into food insecurity.

2010 marks an important year for Africa. For the first time the FIFA World Cup is to be hosted by an African nation, after South Africa beat Morocco and Egypt in an all-African bidding process. Many African countries will be celebrating the 50th year of their independence. These include Cameroon, Togo, Madagascar, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Chad, Central African Republic, Gabon, Senegal, Mail, Nigeria and Mauritania.  In the next five years, more than 20 African countries will go in for elections. Whether these elections are inclusive and free and are able to bring about a change in the style of governance or just bring back the sons and daughters of dynastic leaders will decide whether this is truly an African Decade, or a just another decade in Africa.

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