The pace of change on the African continent is bewildering. Africa’s development or modernization path will be different, unconventional compared to the trajectory of growth and change that might have been imagined just two decades ago.
About 20 years ago, Africa’s engagement with the rest of the world, through commerce and FDI was minuscule and unremarkable. The only way the rest of the world knew how to engage with Africa was through loans, most which were burdensome several years later, and aid. Africa was counted out.
Consider this. Today a majority of Africans have access to a cellphone; the pace of urbanization is dizzying; the large proportion of educated youth is unprecedented. Responding to the opportunities or confronting the challenges that will determine Africa’s progress in the 21st century and beyond will not rely in a large measure on lessons and experiences of the last 10 years or even the last couple of years. In my view Africa is a new place and development models formed in the paradigms of the 19th and 20th centuries just won’t do.
Something tells me that the aid and development community needs to understand and engage with Africa differently. For example, donors love to discuss the enormous opportunities presented by the fact that between 50-60 percent of land available for agricultural expansion is in Africa. Taken in combination with the reality that over 70 percent of Africa’s population is under 35 years, one would be forgiven to believe that the triple problems of Africa’s hunger, rural poverty and youth unemployment are easily solvable.
Per capita productivity on smallholder farms is depressingly low; the median age of the African farmer is estimated at about 60 years compared to just 16years in Uganda. The cellphone is perhaps the only piece of technology on a smallholder farm. Only 5-20 percent of youth in East Africa would consider a going into farming. A large proportion of youth who say they would start a business have no more than primary education. Rural areas present the least opportunities for women to prosper.
Moreover, Africa’s industrial output has been declining steadily over the last two decades. Over 80 percent of all new jobs created in Kenya in 2014 were created in the informal sector – retail, hospitality, transportation, and security. A huge proportion of FDI flows into Africa’s service sectors only generate low paying jobs in the informal sector. We must begin to evaluate the quality of FDI investments flows into the continent.
I believe that Africa’s history, present and its resources can be tapped to drive a uniquely African development pathway. But this will only happen if the African intelligentsia begins to take a more active role in defining development priorities for the continent. Over 40 percent of African children are stunted.
Going forward, all African stakeholders public, private, civil society and communities ought to play a stronger role in defining and directing development priorities. Africa must begin to engage with the rest of the world on its own terms, and with more grit and clear-headed self-interest.