Inside the Mind of an African: Winning the War Against Poverty and Perception
“Knowledge without wisdom is like water in the sand,” this African proverb sends one fundamental message – to knowledge, always add wisdom – or better, knowledge in and of itself, is not enough.
The globe is at its most enlightened, with the rate of information exchange & explosion of new ideas at its highest. World changing innovations are occurring in Africa just as they do in other parts of the globe. From the financial sector, with the world beating “Mpesa” mobile money innovation in Kenya, to medicine, with innovations like the “biomedical jacket,” or the “touchscreen Cardio Pad” in Cameroon to transportation with “robot traffic wardens,” to 3D printing, naming but a few, Africa is leveraging and making use of the information age. This shows that Africa is neither immune nor lacking in knowledge.
But Africa’s current predicament as a third-tier player in the global economy raises many questions. How it is, that a people with access to all the knowledge that there is, seem to come up way short. It reminds of a story told of an African returning home after successfully earning a PhD from a famous European university. Upon receiving his PhD, one of his classmates, a European, reminded him that Africans graduating with the same PhDs as Europeans continue to depend on Europeans with basic bachelor’s degrees. A paradox difficult to refute. In Africa, it is difficult to reconcile papers and academic qualifications with the holder.
Getting to the root of this dilemma
“Do not look at where you fell but where you slipped.” Putting this proverb in context, this African proverb calls all Africans to undertake a thorough soul searching – one aimed at establishing how it is, that Africa, which is in the most resourced region of the globe ends up last in this age of knowledge and information. This is necessary because the devastating challenges that have become synonymous to Africa, extreme hunger, poverty, disease, ridiculously high levels of youth unemployment, exist alongside immense natural wealth.
Africa is the world’s second-largest continent, having not only the best weather but holding a huge proportion of the world’s resources, both renewable and non-renewable. From gold to chromium, platinum, cobalt, diamonds, uranium, oil & gas, these minerals drive major key industries across the globe including telecommunications, defence, aviation, and energy. These contribute significantly to the $74 trillion worth global economy. However, despite this comparative advantage in resources, all 54 countries on this continent represent just about 1.5% of the global economy.
Beyond these non-renewable resources, Africa also holds 65% of the world’s arable land and the best solar resource on the planet – just 0.3% of the sunshine in the Sahara is equivalent to nearly all of Europe’s energy needs. These renewable resources position Africa with a significant comparative advantage towards creating, in less than 12 years, a $1 trillion dollar agro-industrial economy capable of unlocking no less than 17 million assorted jobs, spanning every sector & discipline, to gainfully engage the continent’s youth. Africa has every resource necessary to win in the 21st century. But in reality, Africa takes last place. Just to give an example, consider cocoa – a crop that is the primary ingredient of chocolates enjoyed the world over. While Africa is blessed with the privilege of being the largest producer globally, the entire continent gets a dismal 2% of the $100 billion worth global chocolates market. This means that potentially $98 billion worth of jobs, incomes, food secure homes, quality lives that would otherwise make Africa first – are lost.
A retrogressing Africa, misplaced priorities?
It is not only a failure to leverage what the continent has to get ahead but a clear trend of retrogression where others progress. During the independence dispensation of the 60s, South Korea’s then backwater economy was neck deep in sickly agriculture. Productivity was at an all-time low. So bad was the situation that the Korean population faced acute starvation, prompting goodwill from nations – including from Africa where Kenya, gave a $10,000 loan and relief food. The loan was later repaid. Fast-forward to today, South Korea, with no minerals and roughly five times smaller than many African countries, has an economy estimated at 15times the combined size of Africa’s economies. Its per capita income grew 275 times from $82 in 1960 to $26,204 in 2013. South Korea’s meteoric rise can be summed in one of my favourite African proverbs – that “he who has no pond should not breed crocodiles.”
The country focused on maximizing on strategic industries for which it held a comparative advantage and convening its human capital across all sectors, towards complementing productivity maximization & global competitiveness in this strategic area. Leveraging on comparative advantage sectors and strong human capital was how South Korea built a formidable economic foundation that allowed the country to build capital and invest in other sectors not directly aligned to its comparative advantage and proceeded to become competitive in those areas as well. It will be no different – Africa needs to prioritise engaging its human capital towards converting its comparative advantage in agriculture & clean energy into a global competitive edge as the foundation for meaningful economic growth.
Soul searching – what would it reveal?
“One whose seeds have not sprouted does not give up planting.” This African proverb admonishes us that considering the over 60 years of self-determined rule has not yielded many meaningful economic fruits. The sons and daughters of this continent must keep planting towards the blissful end of economic empowerment. But do so with hindsight in mind, born out of honest soul-searching. A thorough, honest soul searching, will lead us to one conclusion: Africa’s prioritization of material & financial resources over people, and the talents, skills, gifts they hold, of pricing how deep someone’s pockets are instead of the values they espouse, has been the major undoing.
It has turned Africa into a continent of dependents instead of problem solvers. A hotbed of treachery and disloyalty sometimes, instead of loyal patriots with Africa’s interests at heart. A continent of passive recipients of what others have done, instead of being an increasingly responsible citizenry that produces goods & services, that safeguard the interests of the continent in a highly competitive global space. At the centre of these shortcomings, is thinking across the continent that without money we cannot do anything.
This shortcoming is a common thread that permeates the entire African society. And if we don’t change it, the fortunes of Africa will remain unchanged. In fact, I have heard a very tasteless joke told about Africa – if you want an African to sell out & abandon his priorities, just flash some money. We should never ever elevate money above using our ideas, logic, skills to devise solutions to challenges we face in our countries & continent. For all this to change lies in what money can’t buy– it lies in you and me. It lies in the deepest recesses of the hearts & minds of Africans. It resides in a change of attitude and mindset- from one of dependency to being dependable. It lies in divesting from looking to others to solve our problems and starting to solve them ourselves since we are well blessed intellectually. The culture of being one another’s keeper that was nurtured for good reasons is now being abused to perpetuate dependency. We must, therefore, divest from the mindset of mental & emotional poverty to one of mental & emotional wealth where we can start to see progress and not retrogression.
The solution lies in what has been ignored
“Where the mind goes, the man follows.” Africa’s solutions reside in changing the mindsets of its citizenry. Among the most religious people in the globe, Africa’s solutions can be solved by applying the teachings & principles of diligence, honesty, hard work, integrity, and boldness which are among the key values taught constantly in houses of worship and prayer across the continent. It is in applying these lessons constantly that a change of attitude and mindset is born.
From dependency to being dependable. Divesting from looking to others to solve Africa’s problems and looking internally, to a people of changed mindsets, for solutions. A people driven by diligence, dedication, inspiration, determination, hopefulness, a sense of responsibility towards self & country, humility passion & readiness to continuously learn– these critical, but largely overlooked qualities are latent in each and every one of us and are the key to Africa’s assentation.
Such critical, but largely overlooked qualities must become part and parcel of the African psyche, for meaningful progress to break forth. These are the keys to ensure Africa leverages its comparative advantage to build globally competitive enterprises that will unlock inclusive wealth for all. These qualities, which are the foundation for progress in any venture in life can never be unlocked with material that society places the highest premium on. No salary, no amount of financial & material compensation, can ever unlock these most critical qualities in us.
What will is finding purpose. Finding and tapping into the purpose, especially so among the 720 million strong youthful population, expressed through the diversity of disciplines, skills, talents and initiatives, of each one of these youth and the young at heart, those ready to learn, and applying such purposeful pursuit, towards building globally competitive enterprises drawn from Africa’s areas of comparative advantage. Because let’s face it – if we go down the materialistic path, meaningfully actualizing the SDGs will cost dizzying sums of money, an estimated $4.5 trillion each year– an alternative route is needed. The diversity of skills, talents, disciplines, ongoing initiatives, temperaments & personalities represented in Africa’s people – and especially its 720 million strong youthful population, must be exercised through uncompromised, purposeful adherence to key values, to establish competitive enterprises that will unlock inclusive wealth for all. Only then can the continent make meaningful development but for this to happen we need to practice the following.
Treasure skills – not only money. “You have little power over what is not yours.” As youth, what will make you relevant- what will make you stand out for the long-run in this highly competitive globe space is not how you look, but what you can do. It will be Your skills.
Prioritise timeliness. The mockery of “African time” used as a joke in this continent must end. Each year accords each and every one of us 31.5 million seconds to start with. What distinguishes those who close the year with accomplishments over those who close it with stagnation, boils down to how we invest our time. Over 60 years, we have spent our time as though we have 60hrs a day. This fallacy must now end.
Cultivate a reading culture. If we don’t invest our time and energy in reading, we will not know and without knowledge, we cannot be number one. Without knowledge, we cannot lead because readers are leaders. Failure to read amounts to self-punishment. It is tantamount to being selfish. I admonish us all here today to befriend books. Instead of embracing a culture of gossip, that is increasingly wasting the time of youth on social media, let us embrace a reading culture to align with scripture
“Milk and honey have different colours, but they share the same house peacefully” – while Africa’s sovereign capital, its people, do not share tribe, creed or religion, they share a common interest to build a prosperous Africa and a common interest to create inclusive wealth opportunities for all. This is the icing on the cake, the glue that will bind the continent at all levels, towards making strides in an environment of a transformed mindset to make meaningful economic growth.
Sixty years is a long time to wait, and especially so considering the multitude of lessons, the successes & failures, of other countries and regions that have progressed economically and that Africa can learn from. Sixty years is a long time to wait for progress, in this information age. It is time for all in Africa to transform their minds, arise and live a life of accountability. This will accelerate Africa’s ascension from rock bottom to leadership in the 21st century. Yes, it is possible because we can.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the authors are associated.