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African Tigers: Prospects for Growth amongst the Bottom Billion"
Wednesday 17th April 2013 6.30pm
St Mary le Bow
Ray Sowah of the Bank of Ghana introduced Richard Dowden (Director of the Royal Africa Society) and Rob Wilson (Social Entrepreneur and Author of On the Up) as 'two passionate authors on Africa' and invited them to share their views on Africa's prospects for growth.
Richard began by noting that there are two conflicting popular narratives about Africa: is it poor (war, drought, famine) or is it rich (gold, oil, minerals)? He identified three signs of hope for its future growth:
The role of China. There are differing views of China's motives and impact in investing so heavily in Africa at present, but certainly its decision to sources it raw materials from Africa had brought much money to the continent. How far the majority of the population will benefit remains to be seen.
An emerging middle class. The classic trajectory of economic development indicates that an emerging middle class is a hopeful sign of future growth.
The role of mobile phones and technology. 93% of Kenyans use mobile phones - an even higher percentage than the UK. New technologies are giving rural farmers access to market information and power to trade more and on better terms.
However, he also argued that there is less positive evidence too. Governance may be improving compared with the 1990s when no fewer than 24 wars occurred on the continent, but it remains challenged in many countries. There are estimated to be between 6,000 and 10,000 political units in Africa and more than 2,000 languages spoken. Country boundaries were set arbitrarily by European colonisers and there is small wonder that political conflicts persist especially in the face of economic hardship.
The World Bank's Structural Adjustment Policies caused much economic damage in a continent which had already struggled through colonialism, independence and Cold War power struggles. Today, unfair trading terms and a lack of transparency over tax and off-shoring contribute to the continuing economic struggles, and the lack of any emerging manufacturing industries in Africa is a cause for concern too. It seems rather ironic that the West calla on Africa to be less corrupt whilst many Western corporates are less than transparent over their own tax affairs in order to reduce their tax bills. Were the G8 to tackle tax transparency and transfer pricing this year, more income could flow into Africa through that alone than through the entire aid system.
Contrasting with Richard's macro-perspective, Rob Wilson offered the micro-perspective of individual social entrepreneurs he had met on a journey from Cape Town to Cairo, documented in his book: 'On the Up.'
Rob had set out to find and tell the stories of individual African entrepreneurs up and down the continent and he shared some of them with the audience: A businessman who had single-handedly challenged mining companies in Zambia over their human rights and environmental records, retraining as a lawyer in the process and ultimately becoming a consultant to these very companies who eventually realised it was cheaper to pay for his consultancy on how to mine more responsibly rather than constantly fighting him in court; A couple who had pioneered a transport route for dysentery medication - packaging it in the gaps in coke distribution crates. Coke makes its way into the remotest villages across Africa; thanks to the inspiration to package medication in containers which exactly fit the gaps in coke-crates, now life-saving medication can reach the remotest villages too; Ecotoilets; Solar panels - there were endless examples to give hope of Africa's future. Rob's book sought to share these more positive stories to combat the negative images of Africa often peddled by the media, as well as to inspire young people to drive change through social enterprise in the UK as well as internationally.
So what are Africa's prospects for growth over the coming years? The audience remained undecided but conversations continued over Fairtrade wine