Africa: Marching to Utopia, They are Almost There

Beginning around 2010, the world’s mainstream pundits began to sing a triumphant refrain. They called it “The African Miracle,” and declared a new and booming Africa, a world investment magnet for the smart global investor. The song is still being sung — or is it being “whistled past the graveyard?”

On the one hand, one hears things like this:

Africa has outgrown the gloom and doom. Far from the misery-stricken place so often portrayed, Africa today is alive with rising urban centers, a growing consumer class, and sizzling business deals. It’s a land of opportunity.

…Africa has a bright future — you can bet on it, as countless businesses are doing every day. _African Miracle

On the other hand, more sobering assessments of Africa’s economy can be found closer to Africa:

… the continent’s economic growth and resilience during the 2008-2009 global financial crises were largely due to “new mineral discoveries, rising commodity prices and the recovery of domestic demand.” This growth trajectory is not sustainable because commodities are mostly exhaustible, and Africa has little control over disruptions in world demand and prices. _Africa Today

Many Africa optimists point to a rapid expansion in cell phone business and wireless communications concerns in African cities, as a sign of a burgeoning technology boom. But look closer at what is necessary for a sustainable tech boom and decide if Africa has what it takes:

The success of many African countries in addressing the digital divide masks a large, yawning hole into which many are about to fall. The more successful they are at addressing the digital divide, the more it turns into the power divide.

… There is no country in Sub-Saharan Africa that is not affected by the shortage of access to reliable electricity, whether simply generation capacity or where the power exists, transmission infrastructure issues.

… The kind of political focus that has been bought to bear on the digital divide just does not exist to address this problem. Kenya was the country that built an international fibre cable in a little under two years and rolled out a national fibre network. It continues to have ambitious plans to give each school student their own laptop with curriculum materials.

But on the power issue, Kenya, as with many other African countries, appears to be asleep at the wheel. Why? In ICT development terms, much of what had to be done could achieved by investment from the private sector. Energy is dominated by Governments that set long-term prices for electricity and control the utilities that are supposed to deliver it.

Speak to anyone in the business of raising finance to address the energy shortfall and it quickly becomes clear that the timetable for the gargantuan task of meeting the shortfall is being held up by the snail’s pace of work by African Governments. _Power Problems Widen Digital Divide

US President Obama has pledged to boost African development in electrical power generation. But having experienced the Obama administration’s attempt at a US “green power revolution” turn into a massive cash transfer to Obama political backers without the creation of either appreciable jobs or appreciable power — I think that most of us understand how Obama’s bold pledge to Africa will turn out. Take a look at the “fact sheet” above to get more clues.

79 percent of the people in the third world or 1.5 billion people mostly in Africa and Southern Asia have no access to electricity.

The problem is most acute in Africa, with several entire nations effectively non-electrified, and where in 11 countries more than 90 percent of people go without electricity…

The analysis makes a comparison that the amount of electricity consumed in one day in all Sub-Saharan Africa, minus South Africa, is almost equal to that consumed in New York City. _50 Years After Independence

The amount of electric power used over the majority of sub Saharan Africa is less than what is consumed in New York City. So it shouldn’t be difficult to improve on the supply. But Obama appears to be turning to wind and solar power to meet Africa’s power needs. Such intermittent energies are fine on the village level, where there is no grid connection. But throwing intermittent and unreliable big wind/solar energy on fragile power girds makes them unstable, creating unnecessary problems. Adding more problems to what Africans will have to deal with in the future is analogous to sending “coals to Newcastle.”

Even if outsiders were to build reliable power plants for Africans — such as gas, coal, hydro, and nuclear, plus a high quality power grid — the infrastructure must be kept maintained and functioning so that it will last. The history of infrastructure maintenance in Africa is dismal.

“As soon as we have problems, we ask someone else to take care of them for us,” Isaac continued. “We ask the Europeans. We ask the Americans. We ask the Chinese. We will run this train into the ground, and then we will tell the Chinese we need another one. This is not development.” I thought of the wreckage by the tracks. In China, there is no such thing as metallic waste. Armies of migrant workers scour the countryside with hammers and chisels, collecting and selling every scrap to the insatiable smelters that feed the country’s industries. Here, by contrast, was a land without industry.

The World Bank and the United Nations did surveys for a Tazara-like line in the early 1960s, and both concluded that such a railway would be neither economically feasible nor sustainable. But China built the line, between 1970 and 1975, at the behest of two African leaders: Julius Kambarage Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, who wanted to open up the remote south of his country and bolster his pan-African credentials; and President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, whose landlocked country was seeking an alternative to the trade routes south through white-ruled Rhodesia.

Within a decade, the line was suffering from repeated breakdowns, landslides, and management failures. Planners had envisioned running 17 trains a day, but by 1978 there were only two. Tanzanians and Zambians tend to lay the railway’s chronic operational problems at the doorstep of official corruption. Isaac and Daniel joked about this throughout the trip. For them, revenue-skimming explained every woe, from an unscheduled stop on our first night to replace a part, to an electrical short that plunged our stifling cabin into darkness after Daniel tried to turn on the cabin’s antiquated fan. _Atlantic

In South Africa, the problem of illegal electricity theft is ubiquitous and ongoing.

Africa is just as much a basket case as it was in the 1980s. Chinese investment is making several dictators and their cronies wealthier, and creating $billions of wasteful infrastructure to break down and decay in the future.

Zimbabwe is a particularly tragic case — a brutal and impoverished example of a prosperous nation turned into a sewer by typical third world democracy “one man one vote one time.” South Africa is on a parallel slow motion trajectory to devastation.

It is politically correct to laud “The African Miracle.” They are marching to Utopia, and will soon be there. They are building sparkling new cities shining in the sun, facing the future hand-in-hand . . .

Or are they building gigantic future slums for the most rapidly procreating populations in the world? What can a billion people of the future do with an average IQ of 75? Where will they turn for help when infrastructures collapse? Where will they go to find a better life away from the perpetual hopelessness, poverty, and violence?

“Light at Night”
The brightest lights to be seen in sub Saharan Africa are the lights associated with Nigerian oil production, being conducted by outside oilcos. Most Nigerians live on barely more than $1 a day, although top Nigerian government officials, friends, and family do quite well.

Africa coverage on original Al Fin blog

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4 Responses to Africa: Marching to Utopia, They are Almost There

  1. Abelard Lindsey says:

    It would be interesting to talk to Western and Chinese business managers who have experience in Africa. Find out from them what the situation on the ground truly is like. Are the problems limited to corruption and government excesses, like those of developing Asian countries? Or are the problem more deep-rooted such as cognitive limitations of the general population? Like China, I think the truth about Africa’s prospect lies somewhere between the optimists and the pessimists.

  2. neilfutureboy says:

    The point is that everybody except those developed countries dominated by “green” ecofascist government is growing at an unprecedented rate. Exclude the EU, USA and Japan and the AVERAGE world growth rate is above 6% a year.

    A rising tide raises all boats (at least all not chained to the ground) and Africa is rising considerably slower than Asia.

    Of course the EU & USA could rise that fast too (perhaps faster since historically the richest have grown fastest) if we were allowed to develop nuclear power, automated transport, GM & of course space industrialisation. All that would be required for all of these is that the state stop criminalising them.

  3. alfin2101 says:

    Growth can be measured in percent or in absolute numbers. A country that starts with an economy close to zero can grow very rapidly in percent terms, with just a small boost. Richer countries in demographic decline and deeply mired in entitlements such as the EU or the Anglospheric nations, will find it harder to grow in impressive percent terms. But if the governments stop penalizing invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship, they can produce impressive growth within specific sectors.

    If Obama had taken all the squandered billions he wasted on the “green stimulus” and invested it instead in the development of safer new generation nuclear reactors, the entire world could have benefited economically.

    They call it the Idiocracy, Neil. Get used to it.

    • neilfutureboy says:

      We agree that if the US/EU governments had invested wasted money we would have done better, indeed if the government had simply got out of the way the market would provide that investment (eg as with shale gas).

      However I disagree about the ease with which poor countries can grow. This is an excuse widely used by the ruling classes in rich western countries doing badly but history shows that rich countries develop faster. This is why the income discrepancy between the US & Senegal, which was about 3 fold in Franklin’s time is now 200 fold. Moore’s law and such only enhance the difference – 3rd world agriculture, till their prime industry, is improving yields but will never double every 18 months.

      The graph here is indicative – growth rates in the 3rd world have taken off because they were pushed into adopting the Washington Consensus, which is basically free marketism, while the developed world has, since 1958, been increasingly adopting Luddism, However neither is inherent and we could adopt free marketism at any time.

      As the graph shows, for quite a long time growth was consistently better in the developed countries.

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