The whole of last week, at different choice venues in London, bourgeois optimism about Africa was on display proclaiming Africa is ready for business and advertising various success stories of businesses across Africa. The occasion was the third African Diaspora Investment Forum 2005, jointly organised by Africa Recruit, NEPAD, Nigerian Stock Exchange, BEN Television and The African Business Roundtable.
Contrary to popular image of Africa, in the global Media as a 'basket case' constantly needing help of the rest of the world honest business people especially Western multi national corporations in the extractive industries, Airlines like B.A. , Virgin, or KLM, merchant houses in all kinds of consumables, Chinese and Indian traders, Western tourists and even their NGOS will tell you that Africa has always been and remains good for business with fantastic returns much better than most parts of the world. Western banks that are recipients of stolen billions from the public purses of many African countries know that all the Aid talk pales into insignificance side by side our looted assets in their vaults!
Leave aside the stolen assets, there are now mountains of evidence that more billions could be legitimately available to Africa by fairer reform of the unjust trading terms imposed on the rest of the world and disproportionately punitive towards Africa, by richer countries of the West.
For very strange reasons these Western businesses doing well in Africa who should be ambassadors for "Africa open for business' across the world remain diffident and deafeningly silent in the face of humanitarianism-driven Afropessimism that continues to dominate coverage of Africa that makes many to think that there is nothing else going on but wars, destitution and collapse. Why have Shell/BP, Barclays Bank, Standard Chartered bank, and so many other mega corporations who continue to make huge chunks of money for their investors from Africa not speaking up for
The Africa Diaspora Investment Forum has been trying to reverse this negative focus by showcasing African success stories. While not hiding from confronting some of the challenges in infrastructure, government bureaucracy, bad practices, etc, it packages the tremendous opportunities for investment and business partnership in all kinds of profitable ventures across Africa from manufacture to Film making / tourism and venture capital.
Some of the success stories highlighted included Rwenzori Coffee Company founded by my good friend, Andrew Rugasira, which is taking the UK caffeine industry by storm as a whole-owned African enterprise delivering quality product of the highest international quality. Africa Vukani, a wholly Black owned Investment Services Company in South Africa with a multi billion Dollar investment portfolio was another African business proudly showcased. There were presentations too on the fast growing businesses on the Nigerian Stock Exchange and a mega company being sponsored by a consortium of who is who in the organized private sector of Nigeria, Transnational Corporation of Nigeria (TRANSCORP).
Many participants gasped in awe and the budding capitalists in the audience salivated eagerly when Joke Jacobs, a leading figure in Nigeria's home video industry, (now known internationally as Nollywood) in an animated presentation showed the huge monies being made in the industry inside Nigeria alone in spite of piracy and lack proper copy right and intellectual rights protection in the country. Conservatively the industry is making a turn over of almost $4 billion Dollars annually, not to talk of the continental and Diaspora exports. Today Nollywood is only second (having overtaken Hollywood) to India's Bollywood in terms of quantity of production. However they remain at the level of home video while further money could be made from progressing into movies and tapping into the huge international possibilities across Africa and in the Diaspora.
The unique selling point of the African Diaspora Investment Forum is not just about selling Africa to the World but renewing hope, confidence and creativity of Africans in the Diaspora to invest in Africa by providing a platform for interaction and Interface between governments, the growing private sector in Africa and Africans in the Diaspora. Its Pan Africanist focus ensures that even if for one reason or the other you are unable to invest in your 'home'
Country you could take advantage of the Opportunities in other regions and countries of Africa where businesses are booming and the investment climate is increasingly attractive and highly profitable.
In the past few years, under the multiple pressures of the IMF/World Bank strictures, rampaging globalisation and domestic non-performance of many public parastatals and loss of public support, a neo-liberal counter revolution is transforming the economy of many countries.
Privatization and Liberalization have become the new mantra. While the reforms have not solved the perennial poverty of the masses and many of them have led to outright theft of public property and in many cases, bargain basement sale of national jewels to ruling cliques and their clients, there is no denying the fact that in some important areas the reforms have made life more livable, created jobs and opened up new opportunities. IT is now difficult to imagine how we functioned 10 -15 years ago without emails, mobile phones, etc. If you take a country like Nigeria only God knows how many lives have been saved and human hours gained and unnecessary deaths on the roads have been avoided, by the availability of mobile phones made possible by the deregulation of the communications industry.
Yes, they may still be very expensive compared to other countries in Africa but the discipline of the market and competition is now driving down prices of Sim packs from the ridiculous rip off of the early period when MTN enjoyed virtual monopoly. The same is true in other countries. I remember Uganda in the mid 19990s when mobile phones used to be the luxurious accessory of ministers, generals, and the tiny business elite of Kampala and Celtel (the only service provider then) required ridiculous deposits to give you lines. Today even School kids have mobile phones and parents can monitor their children's progress in schools by calling them on pay-as-you go mobile phones without having to travel to the schools. It is not only social activities that have been enhanced but also national, regional and International trade.
Another visible example is the liberalization of the airwaves in many countries. A coup is difficult in many countries now not just because people will not accept them and the international environment is not readily accommodating (unless you are Mauritania whose Generals have been given discount by the Washington with supine complicity of the AU) but because coup plotters need more than just capturing the government Radio station. With all the FM stations in several cities in one country and their different political affiliations coup plotters will have a hard time making themselves heard and mobilizing public support.
Therefore even those of us who have ideological opposition to the fundamentalist free market Ideologues will concede some of these important gains.
However this does not mean that all privatisation and Liberalization is good. An underdeveloped economy like that of Africa cannot develop its full potentials and rapidly bring the benefit to a majority of its peoples on the basis of the market alone. Political will and progressive social engineering is needed to ensure that the ordinary people benefit meaningfully from these reforms.
Privatisation cannot educate our citizens and will not keep our hospitals functioning and available to people who need it rather than those who can afford it.
The other unfortunate character of the Privatisation in many African countries is that it has become synonymous with 'foreignisation' thereby creating a recolonised economy in which the majority of the people are losers. The governments are so sold to foreigners that they do not see their peoples at home and abroad as their first and most dependable source of capital. It is this colonial mentality that makes many of our policy makers to always think of so called experts, technical partners, consultants, investors, etc as being 'non African'!
This is one of the missing human resource linkages in our development infrastructure that the Africa Diaspora Investment Forum has been focusing on in a proactive way.
The week-long activities concentrated on leading African Players on the African scene and how the African Diaspora, and hitherto neglected source of high-level skill, experience and capital can be effective partners.
Until recent years the link between the two has been dominated by historical nostalgia (generally between Africa and African -Americans) and welfare economics (by new African migrants). The African Migrants (Kyeyo to Ugandans; Gburu to some Nigerians or Early morning to West Africans in General and assorted other African terms for the ODD Jobs that many of our migrants do) send money back home for School fees, funeral, wedding, baptism, repairing Family roofs, sick relatives, and other consumption needs. Increasingly they are shifting into real estate and other kinds of productive activities. Many African countries are beginning to recognise this by changing citizenship laws to accommodate dual or multiple nationality and redefining foreign investment drives to attract Africans in the Diaspora, both the historical Diaspora across the world, consequent to the Atlantic Slave Trade and the more contemporary Diaspora of political refugees and economic migrants. The fact is that remittances from Africans abroad have now become more significant than Aid in many African countries. Ghana is one of few countries to be attempting to tap into this reserve by establishing a Non-resident Ghanaian investment office.
The Forum provided good opportunity to nurture networks and lobby for policies that will enhance private African contribution and share of the opening up of Africa.
In a year during which Blair (whose Prime Ministership is grinding to an inevitable) has decided to become The Messiah for Africa thereby projecting Africa as needing to be saved by others this forum provides an African reality check, albeit in a small but very important terms, what Africans are already doing for themselves and the potentials being turned into reality. Maybe the need for a 'feel good' presentation is what weighed too heavily in favour of a mostly bank balancing and good hefty returns approach at the forum.
I was disappointed that amidst all the 'good news from Africa' from the private sector of Africa and the Diaspora and all the excellent Presentations and show cases which appealed to the Profit motifs and showed how huge profits are there to be extracted from Africa they failed to address issues of corporate social responsibility towards the communities from which they are making this money, compliance with standards of protection of the environment and sustainable development that will benefit majority of the peoples. If the African and African Diaspora investors cannot operate with a higher level of social responsibility towards Africa than the foreign companies that have continued to pilfer and exploit Africa, there is nothing to celebrate about their success because exploitation remains exploitation no matter who is doing it. If hefty bank balances in the accounts of business people alone will make a country to develop then Nigeria should be a paradise on earth not the hell hole that it is (in spite of all its riches) to majority of its peoples.
While it is true that too much of our politics and development debates since Independence have been dominated by distributive issues at the expense of production, the neo-liberal counter revolution that now emphasizes wealth creation without adequately responding to fair wealth sharing is not also sustainable in the long run. A society that sustains fabulous wealth for a minority of its citizens and excruciating poverty for the overwhelming majority of its people remains a society to be replaced. Our Wealth creators must sooner than later address wealth distribution and redistributive justice, if for nothing else but in their own enlightened self-interest for social peace that can legitimize their wealth and make it secure (instead of constantly fleeing the continent with it) in the long run. That way they can keep their cake while the masses will have their bread.