Africa’s Emerging Markets

Tamba Kpakima: Strength and Honor

Tamba has graduated from university!!!

Some readers may know of Tamba Kpakima, a dear friend I met back in 2010 in Freetown, Sierra Leone. When we met, Tamba had just graduated from high school and was tutoring high school seniors preparing to take graduation exams. His main objective at the time was to attend university and get a degree in Accounting. Except his path to higher education was far from certain.


Tamba in 2010

Tamba grew up in the small village of Kaliyah in Kono District on the eastern border of the country. During the brutal civil war of the late 1990s, Tamba and his family were chased out of their village by rebel forces. They lost their home, their loved ones, and their crops as they fled on foot to a refugee camp in Guinea (a neighboring country) where they lived for two years. In Guinea, there was not enough food to go around, and they were constantly exposed to the elements since their small, plastic shelter did little to protect them. Needless to say, Tamba’s education took a back seat as basic survival became the primary family focus. Without basic books and supplies, the education gap in Tamba’s life was growing.

At the age of 14, Tamba had survived a brutal civil war, but he still lacked a basic primary school education. It was then that Tamba was sent to Freetown to live with his uncle. For a boy who had known nothing but village life, relocating to the capital city was quite an adjustment. Eventually, Tamba was given the opportunity to attend a missionary school where he started elementary school as a teenager. While in Freetown, he endured the death of his uncle, difficult living situations, and the challenge of having to play catch-up after so many years without schooling.

After all was said and done, he graduated from high school with a singular dream of getting a university degree…but no money to pay for it. Yet another mountain to climb in his life.Thankfully, the support of friends got him over the hurdle of paying for schooling and Tamba matriculated at the Institute of Public Administration and Management (IPAM).

Getting in to the university was half the battle though…Tamba still had to endure a whole host of challenges – sometimes school would shut down for long periods; money was always an issue; his health began to suffer; in 2014, the Ebola crisis caused the whole city to shut down for months, leaving him with nothing to do; the list goes on.

But in April of 2016, 5 years later, Tamba did it! He endured. He thrived. He achieved his first goal of earning a university degree, BSc Hons. in Applied Accounting.


Tamba on graduation day, with his beloved mother

Back in 2010, I asked him what he would do if he were not able to go to university. Tamba’s response surprised me: “There is no Plan B.” The reason for this response was due to the strong passion that Tamba has for education.

Here’s to there not being a “Plan B” Tamba! You did it. As your friend, I am proud of you, my brother. You are an inspiration. And I wish more people would know of you … and get to know you.

Twenty Years Later, One African’s Realistic Hope for Rwanda

Twenty years ago today, I was a junior (11th grade) in high school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA. Having lived in the US for just 6 years by that time, I was still “in between” two worlds. I had my African identity that, even if I wanted to, I could never shake. On the other hand, I had just become a US citizen and was beginning to pay attention to the significance of a new life in the greatest country in the world. Every day, I was reminded that in that small Alabama town, my background was truly uncommon and easily misunderstood by my peers. In the midst of my angst and confusion, I had a conversation with one of my sisters that liberated my teenage mind from the burden of not fitting in. She told me: “Remember. You were born in Ethiopia. You are African by origin.   That fact will never change.”

It’s amazing how freeing it is when you can truly own your facts.

That spring, I confronted my “facts” in an unexpectedly painful manner. From afar, I witnessed the tragic Rwandan genocide unfold.

Having, myself, come from a country in turmoil, I suppose it could have been yet another event in the history of a troubled continent. But, the intensity and pain felt by and inflicted by Rwandans troubled me thousands of miles away. I couldn’t put my finger on it, and there were certainly not many around me who could relate to what I was feeling. I wept for Rwanda and it has had a special place in my heart since.

The Rwandan genocide is a fact. It happened. And today, on the 20th anniversary of its beginning, there is no shortage of stories to commemorate. There are plenty of historical accounts that detail not just the trauma of brother killing brother, but also the tragedy and impotence of an international community to step in.

Two years ago, I made a few trips to Rwanda on business. Not knowing what to expect on my first trip, I truly experienced a sense of realistic hope during my time in Kigali (the capital city). The kind of realistic hope you want to champion and cheer and help make into a reality. The kind of hope you know can be a template for the rest of the continent. The kind of hope that can overshadow the horrible events that started on the night of April 7, 1994.

Of the many hopeful things going on in Rwanda, I want to share these three:

  1. Agaciro Development Fund – this fund was established as the country’s first sovereign wealth fund. Its main purpose is to ensure that Rwanda’s economic development can continue with as much independence from external influence as possible. Citizens of Rwanda, Rwandans living abroad, friends of Rwanda, and corporations are all contributors.   The word “Agaciro” is translated as “dignity”.
    A very fitting word to illustrate the need for Rwanda, and other African nations, to achieve economic growth AND freedom from a complicated foreign aid regime that limps alongside the aspirations of the continent.
  2. Umuganda – on the last Saturday of each month, Rwandans in every city, community, and neighborhood gather for a few hours to do community service. Umuganda means “community service”. Participation in Umuganda is mandatory for all able-bodied citizens between the ages of 18 and 65 and includes activities like street cleaning, care for the vulnerable, and even free medical care for that day.

    President Paul Kagame participating in Umuganda

    From my time in Rwanda and my conversations with people from all walks of life, Umuganda is regarded as not only a vehicle to implement needed public services but also a way to establish unity among Rwandans. As a result of the culture of Umuganda, the streets of Kigali (and likely other cities) are clean, orderly, and inviting. It’s easy to overlook the psychological relevance but imagine being a little kid growing up in a community where public services function and there is a philosophy of unity, order, and care for your community. How does that impact a generation? How can that help to ensure the future of the country?

  3. World Alliance Against Youth Unemployment (WAYU)– a few months ago, I had a conversation with the CEO of WAYU, Aloys Ntezimana. He is overseeing the development of WAYU to address the serious issue of youth unemployment in Rwanda. Through entrepreneurship training programs and investment mechanisms for student-led businesses, WAYU hopes to transform the future of Rwanda’s economy. Rwanda is a very young country, with the majority of the population now of working age. Compound this with the fact that it has one of the highest population densities on the continent, and you start to see why the work of WAYU is extremely crucial and deserves the attention and partnership of key people and organizations around the world. I look forward to working with WAYU in the near future.

Hope is realistic when juxtaposed next to potential pitfalls. And to be clear, there are many issues that Rwanda has to overcome to realize its potential. But I encourage anyone reading this to explore the facts and truly grasp what is happening. That is the only way to champion realistic hope for the beautiful country of Rwanda.

Rwanda owns its facts along with its future!

Why Western Feminists Should Aspire to African Standards

With the exception of the caveman who holds on to the belief that a woman is an inferior reflection of himself, I think it’s safe to say that we all desire gender equity.   Here in the US, there is a constant drumbeat for addressing a litany of women’s rights issues – pay gaps between men and women (who are doing the same job), the lack of females in leadership positions, the unfair (often implicit) limiting policies that punish women for having children.

equal pay

I am currently consulting with a university to help develop a diversity management course and gender diversity is one of the topics I address.  In the course of my work, I have come to learn quite a bit about this topic. Those who know me well would not necessarily peg me as a feminist; but I firmly hold on to the notion of productive feminism, and believe that every other rationally minded male should as well.

I am a husband to a very talented woman whose skill and expertise in her field is truly top notch (or Top 5%, as I like to say).  She is in a wonderful job and career at the moment and absolutely crushing it.  But we live in an age where it is entirely possible that her achievements would not be rewarded and/or recognized to the same degree that a male peer’s would.  That frustrates me.

Many women in the workplace, “Top 5%” or not, are presented with far fewer opportunities than their male counterparts for promotions and receive comparatively limited access to career-making assignments, not to mention the 77 cents they earn for every dollar their male colleagues make.  The data is out there…this is not just an opinion.  McKinsey came out with a report in 2013 showing that of the Fortune 1000 companies, close to half have one or no women on the leadership top teams.  Put another way, a pathetic 4.2% of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies are women.  This despite the fact that women have long outnumbered men in universities!!

As always, I like to look at things from a global perspective…and particularly consider the situation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In Africa and the rest of the developing world, women’s empowerment needs are far more basic – poverty levels among women are markedly higher than among men, female illiteracy rates are sometimes double that of men, access to basic elementary education for women is severely limited.  Despite these facts (and perhaps because of them), there is a laundry list of NGOs, foundations, and governmental ministries who have gender-specific mandates.  Great.  But believe it or not, in some cases Africa is more progressive than the West when it comes to gender equity.  Some amazing things have already happened and the following are a few examples.

In 2003, a group of women in Liberia directly challenged the warlord-turned-dictator Charles Taylor and managed to bring peace to a country that had been suffering through a terrible civil war.  These women helped to usher in Liberia’s and Africa’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  One of many more we hope.  There is a wonderful documentary about the women who changed Liberia called Pray the Devil Back to Hell.


On the other side of the continent, in Rwanda, women hold 64% of the seats in the national Parliament.  Did you know Rwanda has the highest percentage of women elected to parliament…in the world! And that 4 of the top 10 countries in terms of female participation in government are African countries?  The US ranks 83rd…right above the United Arab Emirates.  And oh, by the way, Africa now has its second female head of state – Joyce Banda of Malawi.

It is truly exciting to see other African women rise to prominence:

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

  • Aminata Toure, the football-playing “Iron Lady” was recently appointed as the Prime Minister of Senegal.  She was responsible for bringing down the corrupt son of the former president of Senegal.


  • Acting President Catherine Samba-Panza of the war-torn Central African Republic interestingly finds herself in a similar position to President Johnson-Sirleaf by inheriting a colossal mess and trying to change a nation.


Just a few examples, albeit all in the public sector but there are many more in other fields that I will write about later.

These women and the progress they represent are not free of skepticism and criticism.  But progress, even messy progress, is progress.  I am a strong believer in the transformative power that women in leadership can have in Africa.  Whether Africa or Asia or the US or anywhere else, the notion (as confirmed by historical and current statistics) that leadership positions should be held by men is totally ridiculous.  In fact, this study published on the Harvard Business Review site states that women are better leaders than men.

Look, it’s silly to argue one point or the other.  Leadership, whether by nature or nurture, is a quality equally likely to be possessed by men and women…we just need to work on making the numbers reflect this…in Rwanda, Senegal, the CAR, the US, all over the world.

Here in the US, Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook’s COO) came up with a “manifesto” to encourage women to compete and thrive in leadership positions by taking a seat at the table.   Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead got a lot of attention when it first came out.sandberg

Then several people started to point to the unrealistic and intensely difficult position Lean In’s encouragements place women.  Articles titled “Why I Won’t Lean In”, “Lean In, Trickle Down: The False Promise of Sheryl Sandberg’s Theory of Change”, or my favorite, “Recline! Why ‘leaning in’ is Killing Us” all seem to point to Sandberg’s tone deafness about the struggles of average women in corporate America.

I would only say this: Sandberg and other prominent Western feminists do not have a monopoly on the “women empowerment” market.  Although you would think they do by the way productive feminism is addressed in mainstream media – always a result of Western progressiveness, available for implementation in less progressive cultures of the world.

This unspoken bias and perception of Africa’s backwardness on gender issues needs some correction.  As mentioned earlier, there are certainly some basic hurdles to women’s rights that countries like the US have long ago navigated while Africa continues to struggle with today.  Nevertheless the truly remarkable achievements made by women throughout the continent can and should be models and inspirations for women right here in the US.  The Ellen Johnson Sirleafs of Africa would politely nod and applaud the “Lean In” movement in the West; but the reality is Western feminism is not entirely applicable within the myriad cultures of Africa.  Influential African women leaders have had to chart a totally new course in a uniquely inhospitable environment.

African feminists are not byproducts of Western influence…they are pioneers on a world stage, who in the course of overcoming difficult circumstances, are quietly building the collective confidence of Africa’s daughters.

Can we not expand and say they are helping to inspire women everywhere?

I believe so.

Is the African “Opportunity” for Africans, or for Everyone Else?

Last week, I gave a lecture at the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business (Atlanta, Georgia) entitled “Miracle or Mirage: Defining the African ‘Opportunity’”.  I spent some time discussing the various economic indicators that speak to the remarkable growth over the past two decades as well as the wonderful opportunities that exist in Africa today.  The main point of the presentation was that, when it comes to Africa, neither the blind optimist nor the doom-and-gloom commentator has correctly defined Africa as we know it today.  Rather, the true meaning of Africa lies somewhere in between these two narratives.


There is desperation and misery the likes of which most people here in the US have never seen.  But on the other side…optimism and startling affluence abound. The contrast of poverty and wealth, in close proximity, is jarring.  It takes a little getting used to…at first.  But then, it becomes part of the natural landscape.

We observe this dichotomy; it registers in our minds; we pay it homage with our words.  But we are consumed with our daily affairs and it all fades to the background.  I do this.  You do this.  We all do this, day-in and day-out.

Whenever I travel to Africa, the first few days in whatever city I am in are always bitter-sweet.  I enjoy the local fare – nyama choma and ugali in Dar es Salaam or yebeg tibs in Addis Ababa.  The music is everywhere. Youssou N’Dour, Oliver Mtukudzi, Lucky Dube, or Ali Farka Toure sound off from a taxi or hole-in-the-wall joint.  I feel at home. It’s a beautiful thing.  But the fact that it is not all beautiful bothers me.  Sometimes I question the optimism surrounding Africa.  I hear about the African middle class and the continent’s growth spurt, but the reality on the ground draws my attention to the sad irony.

Where is the African middle class?

There is significant confusion regarding its true size, in population numbers.  Nevertheless, consumer spending continues to rise.  Global brands criss-cross the continent to access this consumer market.  But talk to anyone on the ground and they will tell you a variation of this story – one that points at the ever-widening gap in incomes.  They will point to the fact that those who spend discretionary income do so from a perch of vulnerability – desperately trying to buy into (pun intended) the dream of economic prosperity.  Of course, the fact that there are more people who have discretionary income is a sign of progress.  Everything else, one can argue, is the noise that makes the whole matter “messy”.

But are we trading in real progress for messy progress?  Are we settling for mediocrity?

We congratulate ourselves for the messy progress, often times failing to grapple with the long-term impact of the sustained dichotomy that is African society today.

As consumerism grows and the gap between the rich and poor with it, how will the stability profile of African nations change?  Mass unrest, on the scale of what is going on in Turkey, Brazil, Thailand and other emerging markets, middleclass protestif it were to happen in Africa, would significantly shake some political establishments already tenuous and lead to more chaos.

Or, maybe, the better question is: how can African nations leverage consumer spending power (expected to reach $1 trillion by 2020) to the benefit all of their citizens, and not just the consuming few?  How can African nations, as richly endowed as they are, become price makers and not just price takers?

I believe part of the answer to this is in shifting the narrative about Africa’s “opportunity” away from the perspective of the outside investor to a more internal and sustainable discussion about how the growth of the middle class can have a far-reaching influence on poverty reduction, good governance, and geopolitical stability in Africa.

Make no mistake, Africa is heading in the right direction.  With stronger regional ties, cohesive societies demanding government accountability, and beneficial partnerships between the private and public sectors, we will start to witness the African “opportunity” materializing for Africans.

Are Regional Blocs the Future for Africa’s Relevance in the World Market?

The East African Community (EAC) is made up of 5 member nations – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi.  South Sudan has submitted an application to join.  The EAC, like other trading blocs around the world such as MERCOSUR (Latin America), ECOWAS (West Africa), and of course, the well-known European Union (EU), tries to leverage the individual strengths and resources of member countries by creating a united front in global competition while also facilitating member-to-member trade.

Lately, the EAC has been making some meaningful progress in terms of implementing its mandate.  Three of its members, Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda, have taken the lead in the use of national identity cards, student ID cards, and voters cards as official documents of travel among the member states.  In fact, for a summit being held in Uganda this month, both President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, for the first time, called attention to this progress when they used their national identity cards for travel. This is significant because it paves the way for many other features of the EAC community, some of which may be controversial.

According to the EAC’s Common Market Protocol, the member states aim to develop a regional bloc that, in function, is similar to the EU through the “removal of restrictions on the movement of goods, persons, labour, services and capital, and the rights of establishment and residence.” Tourists and other foreign visitors will only pay for one single visa to travel among the EAC member nations; students will easily enroll in universities outside their country through “learning mobility”; and merchants and business services will access a wider customer base through the free flow of goods.

The provision of the EAC protocol that will be very interesting to watch is the free flow of labor.  As it stands, the Protocol specifically delineates “high skilled” professionals (managers and executives) as the labor category being granted access to work freely within the EAC borders.

But how will this impact the members with a smaller pool of “high skilled” professionals?  As I have written about in previous entries, the economic prospects of East Africa are quite promising and the level of foreign direct investment (FDI) will likely speed up.  Will we see EAC states with weaker pools of talent lose out to those slightly more advanced?  Will the influx of professionals from neighboring countries lead to a public backlash or will it translate to meaningful investment in human capital development in the home country?  Perhaps a member’s disadvantage in human capital will be balanced by the access to better education the Protocol affords its citizens.

If the EAC can put aside political motivations, it could become a strong negotiating power to counter the influence of foreign and corporate interests…thereby delivering maximum benefits for the citizens of its member countries.

If It Happens In The US Then It Happens In Africa

On January 9, 2014, a potentially dangerous chemical called 4-methylcyclohexane (MCHM) (MCHM is used in processing coal) spilled out of 17 storage tanks into the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia (USA), just under 2 miles from the city’s only fresh water intake.


An estimated 10,000 gallons of MCHM leaked into the river causing 300,000 residents of the area to go without water for over a month.  President Obama declared this a federal emergency and US National Guard troops delivered bottled water to residents to sustain them through the rest of the clean up.

Bloomberg Businessweek has an excellent account of the event along with the background of corporate negligence and lack of regulatory oversight that contributed to yet another environmental disaster.

Although chemical spills happen every day (literally…last year we had 3,885 self-reported spills from 76 different publicly traded companies in the US), when one of this magnitude happens, I can’t help but think about what may be happening outside the public’s view in places less accustomed to 24-7 media and accountability.

I make the connection to the energy sector in Africa.

The oil & gas industry is heavily dependent on chemicals through all stages, using and processing compounds that aid in drilling, cementing, completion, and production.  An article published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (a federally funded research foundation) notes that “the occupational hazards of exposure to [oil & gas chemicals] has received little attention.”

This is in the US where we have a well-developed environmental protection and public health research framework.  It is no revelation that environmental regulation in resource rich African nations is often unable to match the political clout and professional credibility of the energy industry.  This translates to double standards and unhindered negligent (sometimes criminal) behavior on the part of companies.

Some years ago, I worked as an environmental consultant in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and I remember talking with a manager of the Environmental Protection Authority who was frustrated by the lack of capacity within his organization.  He told me it was like fighting a battle with one hand tied behind his back.  This is a tough fight no matter whom you face; but particularly when dealing with the well-resourced energy sector.

East Africa is the next big focus for the oil and gas industry.  Significant deposits have been discovered in countries like Tanzania and Uganda.  The concern of the “resource curse” notwithstanding, many people believe that this industry will pay off for the region.  And I agree; I believe it SHOULD pay off!  But, as highlighted, there are characteristics of this industry that can have a negative bearing on the population.

Oil & gas and other resource extraction industries are by no means the only sources of environmental concern. But their contribution to the issue points to a desperate need that countries have to develop their environmental regulation capacities to proactively guide the sustainable development of the extractive industries.

This is the reason I feel very strongly about human capital development on the African continent.  It is the most critical component of Africa’s development process.  Of course, a competitive and well-developed labor pool is central for economic development.  But in the context of sustainability and resource protection, it will help ensure that there is capacity, in organizations like Ethiopia’s EPA, to guard against intended and unintended impacts of an ineffectively regulated private sector.

A Surprising Link Between U.S. Military Drone Attacks and Africa’s Unemployed Youth

According to a Stanford-NYU joint report entitled Living Under Drones, the United States military has been using unmanned and remotely controlled aerial vehicles (drones) for targeted killings since 2004.

droneThese drones are a component of the US military’s fight against extremism and terrorism around the world, particularly in terrorist “hot spots” like northwest Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen.  Despite objections to their use due to numerous killings of innocent civilians, there is no indication that the US will abandon drones as a strategic weapon against violent radicals around the world…at least not anytime soon.

In January 2012, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) held a conference in Kigali, Rwanda called Preventing Youth Radicalization in East Africa.  The conference brought together representatives from 11 East African countries as well as the US and the UK to discuss strategies to mitigate the impact of violent extremist organizations in the region.  The region is facing what some politicians have called “a ticking time bomb” in that as high as 60% of the population is under the age of 25 and as much as 75% of these young are unemployed.  That is a significant and troubling statistic to contend with.  Troubling for East Africa’s growth prospects, for sure.  But what about spill over?  27_1_youth_opp_3Many other African nations contend with high youth unemployment, lack of opportunities, and large numbers of educated young people who find their toil in the secondary and tertiary educational systems unrewarded.  According to McKinsey Global Institute, by 2040, Africa will be home to the largest working age population in the world – over 1.1 billion!

Being of “working age” and, yet…not working.  And then we have a continually widening income gap.  The African Development Bank’s Briefing Note on Income Inequality (2012) and a Business Insider article both indicate that the top 6 most unequal countries in the world are in Africa.380_76799682income-inequality

It’s easy to see how there is concern within governments and among external observers that these indicators could lead to widespread discontent among disaffected young Africans who may become targets for terrorist and extremist ideologies proclaimed by organizations known to be hostile to the United States.

And if history is an indication, the brand of terrorism that invites the full might and power of the US military is one with overt anti-American ideologies.  What we might see in the coming decades is a slight shift in counter-terrorism efforts, such as drone strikes, from the well-known hotspots (mentioned earlier) to the African continent.  This has already started to happen in Somalia against groups like Al-Shabab.  Unfortunately, this may translate to terrible collateral damage and an all too familiar cycle:


To be clear, I am not trying to be an alarmist…just laying out logical potential situations based on current events and trends.

But the reality is that the future for Africa does not have to be this morbid.  The large and expanding population of youth should be looked at as an opportunity for a transformation, not an invitation for military conflict.  In fact, this demographic trend could usher in the type of advancement we have seen in Asian countries.


The demographic dividend.  In a later post, I will talk about how African countries are urgently trying to realize the continent’s potential demographic dividend to ensure a better tomorrow.

Pay attention to the bottom line: Developing and providing opportunities for Africa’s human capital, particularly the youth population, is a high stakes affair.  It is on the top of the priority lists of just about every government and external stakeholder…the US included…

My own passion is to contribute in the effort to develop Africa’s “Youth Capital”.

I hope to work with many others of like mind.

How Western Intellectuals Become “Better” Experts On Africa…Than Africans

In a knowledge-based economy like that of the US, the term “thought leader” or “thought leadership” is a pretty big deal.  If one is referred to as a thought leader, then that’s money in the bank, clients in the roster, likes on the Facebook page, and, yes, followers on the blog.  A thought leader is the go-to guy or gal for all things the person thinks and writes about.  A thought leader is an authority on a subject…an expert with answers.  Having spent time diving deep into a topic, this person knows a whole lot about something.  He’s coming up with new ideas in his sleep.


That’s not to say that a thought leader’s ideas and pontifications are greater and more valid than anyone else’s in a similar field.  For the most part, it just means that a thought leader has figured out a way to communicate a topic in a forum and in a way that catches the eye of the masses.  In other words, she has managed to disseminate her ideas, make them go viral, and get rewarded handsomely.  Suffice it to say, thought leadership pays and everyone here seems to be seeking that title!

What about in the developing world?  What about in Africa?  Who are the experts and authorities on African development, African business, African economies, African history, African politics, African conflicts?  Would you expect that among a group of well-known experts and “thought leaders” on Africa, the majority would actually be African?

Here’s my challenge to you: google “experts on Africa” and browse through the first 3 or 4 results; and if you find that the noted “experts” identified on the various pages of organizations are predominantly African thought leaders, leave me a comment at the bottom of this page with the following words: “You missed the mark, Yosef”.

I am an American citizen and love the US, but being originally from Ethiopia, I reserve the right to put on my African hat from time to time.  So let me say this: we Africans, among the many hurdles to overcome, have to address the blatant exclusion and/or absence from leadership in thought regarding matters affecting our Africa.  It is truly a peculiar thing.

Why is it that the well-known scholarly works about African history are written by non-Africans?  Or that the media commentary about African issues tends to be done by non-Africans?  Or that the leadership of Africa-focused NGOs are primarily made up of charismatic, globetrotting non-African millennials?

This goes back to the concept of thought leadership and how one achieves this pinnacle.   As a Westerner, becoming a thought leader on Africa does involve the requisite media savvy-ness but upstream of the self-promotion (term NOT being used in a disparaging way) phase, you are likely to find an individual who has benefited from several key affiliations with African leaders and indigenous experts who in turn have opened up the treasure trove of information necessary for the Western expert to build her reputation as an African expert.  Through years of “collaboration” and publishing, with the Western expert’s name the most visibly displayed, the goal of thought leadership is achieved and the adventurous Westerner who has braved harsh conditions and faced down multiple threats to life and limb “in search of the truth”, is now the go-to expert.  The Africans who were instrumental in this achievement?  Well, their names will be in the “Acknowledgment” section of his best-selling book…maybe even the Introduction.

I realize there is a heavy dose of cynicism in what I am writing…and part of it is to poke fun at the absurdity of the matter.  David Brooks of the New York Times does it better in an Op-ed piece about “thought leadership” were he lays out the development stages of a thought leader.

My characterization of the opportunistic Western Afro-phile will likely anger those who consider themselves true friends of Africa.  And I know plenty of people (some of my best friends are Afrophiles) who are genuine and who do adhere to equitable recognition for effort and contribution when conducting their work in Africa.  But the reality remains that Africans are not telling their own stories; it is being told through the lens of the West.  Regardless of the reasons for this, we have to reverse this trend.

In the two decades since my time at Stanford, I have seen a positive shift with more and more Africans becoming part of the thought leadership paradigm on Africa…across a wide range of topics and fields.  Like other concerns, this is one that will take time to address.

In the meantime, pay attention to the commentary about Africa, understand the source, insist on accuracy, and, by all means, be part of the conversation!  If you are African, chances are you are qualified to speak about Africa.

I would very much like to know your thoughts on this matter.

Is there an absence of African thought leadership on matters affecting Africa?

Do Western experts and Afro-philes have an unfair advantage over Africans in terms of building their reputation as authorities on African issues?

Do you feel the characterization about thought leadership on Africa is inaccurate?

If You’re Not Worried…You’re Not Paying Attention

In the next 10 years, 12 African countries will become major oil producers/exporters.  I wish I could be excited about the prospect of more African countries becoming oil producers.  But I can’t.  And the reason for that is simple: historically speaking, resources on or under African soil have meant distress to the local population and money in the West. Definitely not intuitive but history doesn’t lie. Image

Of course, the dynamics, when examined, tell a very sordid story of nepotism, corruption, backroom deals, and downright treachery…a collaborative making that involves not just Western corporate and government interests but local politicians and leaders of might.  Is this always the case?  Maybe not “always”, but this type of scenario has played out over and over again to the point that we now have a coined term, “resource curse”, when talking about the impact that abundant natural resources have on African economies.

An example that came to light recently involves the tiny West African country of Equatorial Guinea: population 700,000.  (You remember EG…the country made famous during the 2000 Summer Olympics by Eric the Eel – the ridiculously slow swimmer).  EG has Africa’s highest per capita GDP because it is one of the continent’s largest oil producers.  All that oil…all that revenue…yet still one of the lowest ranking nations on the UN’s Human Development Index.  About 75% of the population lives on less than $2 a day.  Where in the world is the money going?

In 2011, it became clear where all that money was going.  Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the son of EG’s “dictator for life” Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo became the target of a Department of Justice (USA) investigation as his $30M Malibu, California estate, along with a Maserati and 8 Ferraris, and other assets totaling in excess of $70M were targeted for forfeiture.  The excerpts of the official case filed by the DOJ can be found on this site

So, here we have yet another African poster child for the “resource curse” while we find it hard to pinpoint the corrupt neo-imperialists who actively participate.  Sure, we will hear that Exxon Mobil paid bribes to foreign officials, but that’s where it ends.  The public is left with the perception that this is a problem created solely by African greed.  But this is a topic for another time. 

I am worried…I worry for a country like Tanzania.  Stable and peaceful for so many decades post-independence; blessed with tourism assets second only to Brazil; and on the brink of an oil and gas era (as one of the 12 nations) that could further entrench under-development, corruption, and  mis-management.  But it doesn’t have to follow the “resource curse” model. 

A few weeks, it was reported that all Norwegians had become crown millionaires thanks to the country’s highly lucrative sovereign wealth fund buoyed by high oil prices.  Norway is one of the largest oil producers in the world.  In short, Norway has leveraged its resource abundance into a highly developed oil and gas industry and a quality of life benefit for its citizens.  You can’t juxtapose two models that are more starkly opposed than the Norwegian value-adding resource abundance and the African “resource curse.” 

We can philosophize as to why this variance exists and the reasons would be many.  But one critical difference, I believe, is the institutional voids and expertise deficiency that exists in many African, resource-rich nations…a scenario that creates an economic playground for the government and corporate interests of the rich nations and the traitorous government officials. 

So, pay attention to what happens to the newfound wealth under the ground.  Will it actually mean value for the citizens?

If you are inclined, check out an interesting essay that appeared in the September/October 2013 Foreign Affairs Journal by Larry Diamond and Jack Mosbacher – How to Escape the Resource Curse.  In it, the authors propose an “oil-to-cash” plan for the resource blessed African nations – “a direct distribution of a portion of oil revenues to citizens as taxable income.”  This approach is worth a read. 


Again, pay attention!