Beyond the Hype: Reframing Our Ideas About Africa’s Future

This post was written by Lyndon Sam. ♦

I recently stumbled upon an argument on Facebook that was started by the claim that, from a GDP perspective, Africa was irrelevant on the global scene. It wasn’t an afro-pessimistic jab but a call to action for those who, having fallen under the illusory spell of the Africa Rising narrative, refuse to acknowledge that the continent is indeed lagging behind in many key areas. As these arguments go, many reacted to this claim by either questioning the validity of GDP as a measure of economic health or pointing to the one or two areas (such as population and natural resources) where Africa is still a powerhouse. I could soon detect that most of the responses echoed an almost dogmatic belief that Africa is strong and relevant. I found this dogma interesting, especially since it agrees only partially with reality, and so I decided to deconstruct it a bit to see what I could learn and share.

While few will explicitly deny that Sub-Saharan Africa is the poorest region in the world, many afro-hyper-optimists (I’ll call them ‘afro-hypers’ from now on) believe that its high potential for growth makes up for this poverty.  The term ‘growth’ has been thrown around so much in the discourse on Africa’s future that it is almost becoming an empty buzzword, like ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’. Judging from the way it’s used in this context, however, ‘growth’ appears to refer to a steady population increase and/or a continuation of the economic prosperity that some African nations have experienced in recent years.

The claim about population growth is well-founded; in Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty predicted that Africa will have a demographic growth rate of 1.9% per year from 2012-2050, compared to 0.6% and -0.1% for America and Europe respectively. The UN forecast for Africa’s population growth estimates that by 2050, ‘annual increases will exceed 42 million people per year and total population will have doubled to 2.4 billion. […] This comes to 3.5 million more people per month, or 80 additional people per minute.’ The more the merrier, they say, but how soon before the merriment gives way to unease?

The numbers may be dazzling, but population growth is often a mixed blessing. More people does not necessarily mean more economic growth. It is fair to assume that, at the very least, population growth is only a plus when it is commensurate with the available resources and the rate of infrastructural growth.  Unfortunately, many urban centers around the continent are already nearly bursting at the seams from overpopulation. Meandering traffic jams, sprawling slums and legions of unemployed people seem to be the early signs of an oncoming Malthusian disaster. While such overpopulation in African metropoles may be stimulated by rural-urban migration, it is a precursory symptom of what could happen continent-wide if population growth continues to outstrip infrastructural growth over the next few decades.

This bleak picture need not be the case for Africa, especially since the nature of the population boom presents unique opportunities for the future. Africa currently has one of the largest youthful populations in the world, and this demographic trend shows no sign of stopping. According to the UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs: “In 2015, 226 million youth aged 15-24 lived in Africa, accounting for 19 per cent of the global youth population. By 2030, it is projected that the number of youth in Africa will have increased by 42 per cent. Africa’s youth population is expected to continue to grow throughout the remainder of the 21st century, more than doubling from current levels by 2055.” This is in sharp contrast to Japan and the majority of Europe where the population is aging faster overall (often coupled with negative population growth rates, as is the case in Spain). If Africa is to rise, the policy response to the swelling numbers should focus more on education, job creation and enabling entrepreneurship in order to capitalize on (rather than crack under) the growing influx of young people. There is no underestimating the power of a well-trained, well-equipped and youthful workforce, and organizations such as African Leadership Unleashed , the Higherlife Foundation , The Tony Elumelu Foundation  and Ashesi University  are already setting the pace. With more institutions like these, driven by both the public and the private sector, we can have faith that the elixir of youth will restore Africa’s strength.

Regarding natural resources and economic growth, however, the story is a bit more checkered.  While every economy can expect to experience spurts and stagnations over time, many African economies have sinuated in a peculiar pattern. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, “the continent achieved average real annual GDP growth of 5.4% between 2000 and 2010, adding $78 billion annually to GDP (in 2015 prices). But growth slowed to 3.3%, or $69 billion, a year between 2010 and 2015.” Other reports reveal a similar trend, with the strength of African economies ebbing and flowing in tandem with the global commodities super cycle. This was fine until recently when, “a worldwide free-fall in demand for major commodities, namely crude oil, has left many of the world’s most promising emerging economies reeling in its wake”. The very volatility of economic growth on the continent gives reason to suspect that said growth has not been the result of strategic structural adjustment, but almost the result of coincidence. That is, when the world happens to desire the things that Africa happens to have handy, then the continent is in good shape economically. It makes me a bit squeamish when afro-hypers cite the continent’s vast mineral wealth as reason to expect continued economic growth. When oil continues to be the economic mainstay of countries such as Nigeria and Angola at a time when oil prices are low and clean energy is growing more popular, bragging about Africa’s oil reserves is rather short-sighted. Niger has been the unfortunate canary in the coalmine, with its economy sustaining almost irreparable damage since the 1980’s when uranium (which makes up about 70% of the country’s export revenue) lost its hot commodity status in the global market. For the foreseeable future, it appears that the world will continue to have need for Africa’s oil and minerals. However, we might wake up in future to find ourselves on the wrong end of the commodities cycle, or worse, on the wrong end of innovations in the energy sector.

With all these factors in consideration, we need to reframe the way we think about Africa’s economic future. It is still realistic to expect substantial economic growth over the next few decades; however, we should be looking less at oil and other minerals, and more at rising demand for consumer goods and services. KPMG’s 2015 report   shows that various factors such as demographics, urbanization, a growing middle class, and concomitant changes in overall spending patterns are driving explosive growth in the consumer and retail sector. McKinsey’s Consumer Insights Center   also notes similar macrotrends, estimating that the continent’s consumer-facing industries ‘are expected to grow by more than $400 billion by 2020’. Since there are already countless articles on how governments and businesses should work together to cash in on this trend, I won’t belabor that point here (I recommend the KPMG and McKinsey reports I referred to earlier). However, a few African countries have already gotten the memo: according to the McKinsey Global Institute , “The continent’s four most advanced economies—Egypt, Morocco, South Africa, and Tunisia—are already broadly diversified. Manufacturing and services together total 83 percent of their combined GDP. Domestic services, such as construction, banking, telecom, and retailing, have accounted for more than 70 percent of their growth since 2000. They are among the continent’s richest economies and have the least volatile GDP growth.”  It appears that the key to economic growth is not hidden at the bottom of an oil barrel, but in the pockets of a growing and ever-consuming urban middle-class.

The summary of my take on the economics aspect of the debate is that Africa has enormous potential to rise, but this growth will not occur automatically, nor will it occur in the ways that afro-hypers assume. Speaking of whom, let’s finally get to deconstructing their dogmatic belief that Africa is strong and relevant. Lest this comes off as a personal attack, I must say that I’m more interested in the thought than in the thinker, so this is more of a philosophical commentary than a critique on any group of individuals. If anything, Africa needs more diehard fans. However, our support should be based on a realistic assessment of where we are and where we could be, rather than on an obsessive fantasy.

It seems that, at the foundation of their beliefs, afro-hypers conflate a blind faith in Africa with patriotism. They believe that aggressively insisting that Africa is strong and rising, even in the face of contradicting evidence, is a display of how deeply they love the continent. Au contraire, I’d argue that this attitude is not love, but a fair-weather friendship. They only praise the parts of Africa that look appealing, and can only embrace the continent after covering the parts that they don’t want to see. The examples of this bias are countless, but a good visual representation of it is the tendency to share beautiful pictures of cities like Lagos and Kigali (with captions like ‘Africa is beautiful’ or ‘The Africa they don’t want you to see’) while condemning Western media for portraying the continent negatively. This is a bit of a hairy area, so I’ll tread carefully with my analysis: Africa does need all the good PR it can get, given its long history as ‘the dark continent’ in the global consciousness. It’s thus well-intentioned to celebrate iconic African cities and share all the good that the continent has to offer. But in this age of technology, where the lines between constructed digital identities and reality are blurred, it is easy to deceive ourselves into thinking that Africa is more utopian than it is. First off, it is hypocritical to combat the skewed and caricatured portrayal of Africa in Western media with another skewed and caricatured portrayal. Secondly, this self-deception comes with real risks, in that it can deceive the people with the power to change things into thinking that there is less to change. As long as there are squalid slums and actual starving children in the same countries as these pretty cities, we do the continent a disservice by pretending that everything is fine. It is more ethical (dare I say more patriotic) to acknowledge that the continent is in a complicated place, and thus needs the concerted efforts of all Africans to make sure that the rest of Africa looks like the best of Africa. Cornell University’s ‘I, Africa’   page is doing some amazing work along these lines, and it is high time that afro-hypers embrace Africa’s beauty with all its complexity.

The other argument, that Africa is somehow too unique to be measured by conventional global performance indices, is also problematic. The argument about GDP not being a good measure of a nation’s economic health is neither here nor there; GDP is an estimate of domestic production, and doesn’t assign any other normative value to the region in question. Underlying the afro-hypers’ anti- GDP cry is the discomfort of being at the bottom of the GDP totem pole. If an African country somehow catapulted to the top of the hierarchy (in terms of GDP, achieving the Millennium Development Goals or some other metric), that statistic would be on the front of every magazine and mentioned in every manifesto. For example, when Ghana was ranked lowest in OECD’s global school rankings of 76 countries, many were quick to dispute the OECD’s data collection methods and objectives. Yet, when Transparency International ranked Ghana as one of the top-ten least corrupt African nations, this data point was welcomed with open arms. Why accept the measures that make Africa look good, but question the ones that don’t? Here again we have the fair-weather friendship that afro-hypers have with the continent, and it is contradictory at best and unscrupulous at worst. Rather than shifting the goalpost, we should be working on finding better strategies to win the match.

Admittedly, the West has had a disproportionately large hand in both steering and writing world history, and it has often steered in the wrong direction with its colonies and neocolonies in tow. So I concede that many of these ‘global standards’ put African nations far behind many of their Western counterparts. Yet, even within this rigged game, many countries that have historically lagged behind have managed to move up the ladder at a remarkable pace. China, India and Singapore have already shown how ‘Global South’ doesn’t mean global bottom-half, and African nations could experience similar upward mobility by capitalizing on all the earlier-mentioned opportunities for growth that the future presents. Thus our attitude towards internationally-used performance indices should be neither denial nor self-congratulation, but a redoubled effort to achieve success across the board. As a good friend once told me, ‘don’t lower your standards; raise your game’.

At the end of the day, whether it’s taboo to say so or not, Africa really is irrelevant on the global scene in terms of GDP. Not only that, but Africa is in a bad way in terms of literacy, maternal health, food security, electrification and disease prevention. These realities may be difficult to look at, yet if we close our eyes we will see neither the substantial progress that has been made nor the light of hope at the end of the tunnel. By understanding what the future holds and reframing our strategies for seizing it, we can craft a new socio-economic reality for the continent that lives up to all the afro-hype. It isn’t enough to assume that progress will roll in on what Martin Luther King Jr. called ‘the wheels of inevitability’; it is our efforts, not our hyper-optimism, that will close the gap between the status quo and the utopia we crave. Let us therefore properly acknowledge where we are, with all the good and bad, so we can chart out the path towards where we need to be.


Lyndon Sam on sablinkedin
Lyndon Sam
Lyndon Sam
Lyndon Sam is a budding thought leader and social entrepreneur from Ghana. He holds a BA in Political Science from Yale University, where he was an Alexander P. Hixon Fellow, and has experience in policy analysis, research and commercial litigation. He writes from New Haven, Connecticut.