The African continent is one of many opportunities. However, due to many internal issues, it cannot flourish on its own without the help of foreign countries. Due to frequent instances of corruption, government to government diplomacy might not be the best way to go. Modern diplomacy is not something only for the political elite, but it is about inspiring a nation. A bottom-up approach can therefore inspire much more, such as by sending business angels to help entrepreneurial activities that, in turn, will solve key issues in current society. There are two main categories to support: the youth, who have the aspirations, but not the opportunities, and the women, where entrepreneurship will help diminish the current discrimination that they face on a daily basis.
One of the main issues in Africa is the lack of money available to governments. In the case of South Africa, this lack is not very surprising as it needs to support over 17 million people, a result of the persistent high gap between low and high-income people in the country. Still, if the government does not support the people, riots could very well break out. Interesting enough, in other African countries, where political instability is also brewing, this difference does not yet seem to be as prominent. Instead of providing financial support, the South African government would do well to look into finding a long-term solution. As mentioned above, one way would be to stimulate entrepreneurship, moving a workforce instead of moving a government.
Another interesting sector within Africa is the agricultural sector, since investing in this sector will go a long way toward solving multiple other problems. One of the current global trends is urbanization, but African cities are not quite ready for this due to a lack of infrastructure and planning. In addition, although many youths move towards the cities in the hope of finding a better future, this future is usually not much better than in the places they left. However, once farming is transformed to be more lucrative, it will attract the unemployed youth who will then have a greater incentive to remain in the rural areas, as they will be earning a decent income working on a farm.
In addition to providing the people with a job and keeping the land liveable, better farming techniques will also solve another major issue: that of Africa importing most of its food. This is in spite of the fact that African countries themselves have the capacity to feed not just their own, but the rest of the continent’s population as well. Even better, improved farming also brings a new export opportunity; Africa is a continent with enzyme rich lands that are very viable for farming, yet it throws away this opportunity. Worse, it spends valuable money on importing food. The people are there, the land is there; all that is needed, is a little bit more incentive and better know-how.
Apart from becoming a bigger player in the agricultural sector, Africa could also be the new provider of low cost production, but this means that a lot of investments will be required. Since wages are rising within the various low-cost countries, such as China, India and Thailand, these countries will, in time, become too expensive and move from simple labour to skilled production. Low-cost production will become a gap that Africa could easily fill. In fact, China is already encouraging its own businesses to move their plants to the African continent, creating job and opportunities for Africa’s workforce. However, this also indicates that Chinese influence is growing, which might not be for the greater good. Guiding Africa to become self-reliant and stand on its own, should be the main focus, not vying for profit. This has been done already in the past and not exactly proven to be successful.
Although focusing on providing low cost production and exporting resources are key, Africa should also look into unique opportunities to add value. There are still unexplored options for them, for example, in the cocoa production industry. Currently Africa is the biggest exporter of cocoa, yet they only gain six percent of the profit. They would do well to look into ways of increasing their profit, such as by making intermediary products. If they start engaging in more parts of the supply chain. The end product might not be viable, but the intermediate products certainly are. This process has to be guided by business angels though, namely investors willing to determine what demand Africa can still fulfil. As always in Africa, the potential is surely there.
To make this all happen, one of the requirements is providing and improving education and training, technical education in particular. Opportunities lie here by working together with technical universities and colleges. Those who support the training of the unemployed population and invest in plants or infrastructure, will be able to help bring about low wage employees. Creating policies that accomplish stability and encourage companies and investors to invest in and guide Africa towards its future, will result in a thriving middle class. It is this middle class that will then become the driving force of Africa, and pave the way for an inspired and more hopeful lower class.
Another highly important sector is electricity: as Africa cannot use coal –the impact on global warming would be disastrous – the focus should be on renewable energy. This is so not only because Africa just does not have the money to invest in other resources, or does not even have those resources, but also because using non-renewable resources would put way too much pressure on the carbon footprint, especially since most other continents are leveraging it already. It would be far better to provide education and knowledge to help Africa make better use of the resources that are already there in abundance, such as wind, the sun and water. Another, maybe more futuristic, opportunity is looking at waste-to-energy, where energy is extracted from waste, thus also reducing end waste. The development of this particular form of gaining energy would not only lead to benefits for Africa, but also contribute towards providing a possible solution to the global warming problem we are all facing.
In sum, although money is an important factor in the development of Africa, it is not the be all and end all: it is about money in combination with knowledge and guidance. It is about creating personal connections and opportunities for the people who are willing to take them. It is about focusing on a more practical approach towards education, in such a way that Africa can rebuild itself. The opportunities are there; the problem is that the people, as well as the businesses, have to explore them, and they need guidance to do so. This is where cultural diplomacy plays a big role: finding the right investors and mentors for the right entrepreneurs. This is about finding the people willing to share their knowledge and who are as passionate as the people they share it with, people willing to inspire a continent to start moving by itself.
This is not to say that economic diplomacy is not just as important. Moving businesses to Africa, helping the continent by investing money, but also by sending out knowledge and guiding Africa towards the opportunities within the production cycle, remains a priority on the agenda. And we should not forget that providing solutions and help for Africa ultimately works both ways. Reducing overall global warming, resolving the issue of fossil resources, and solving world hunger, thereby creating another stable and thriving continent that can be a team player instead of a burden, will be beneficial not just to Africa, but to the rest of the world as well.
The Netherlands is among the top entrepreneurial countries in the world. We also have excellent technical education and ample expertise in water management. Connecting business angels that will guide the African unemployed to prosperity, is one way to participate. Creating an aspirational society that has the political stability to encourage Dutch companies to move their production to Africa is another. If we start with the less corrupt countries, this might inspire and pave the way for the more corrupt ones to get back on the straight and the narrow. This will help to change the continent of Africa, one country at a time.
Floor Soomers is an exchange student from Maastricht University School of Business and Economics in the Netherlands at Nanyang Business School in Singapore. This article was written specifically for the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies.
Published: 9 November 2017