Switching Viewpoints: Africa Is Not a Victim of Nature; It Is a Victor of Nature.

In the new Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), developed by Oxford University to replace the UN's Human Poverty Index, African countries were again ranked as the poorest of the poor.

In that Index, the ten poorest countries in the world, starting from the poorest were: (1) Niger, (2) Ethiopia, (3) Mali, (4) Central African Republic, (5) Burundi, (6) Liberia, (7) Burkina Faso, (8) Guinea, (9) Sierra Leone, and (10) Rwanda. This takes us back to the age-old question: Will Africa's poverty ever be eliminated?

In a recent book, I argue that poverty in Africa will be eradicated only if the world takes radically different approaches. A good start for doing so would be to see Africa for what it really is. It is not a victim of nature that has to beg for handouts to survive but a victor of nature that can thrive by learning how to create value and wealth using its abundant natural resources.

Every African country has strengths that it can exploit to create wealth. To see these strengths and learn how to use them, people have to change their mentality of Africa. I will use the two poorest countries in the world--Niger and Ethiopia--to illustrate the stacking differences between the two mentalities and why one--Africa as victim of nature--is very wrong for Africa.

I start with Niger. When one uses the victim of nature lens, one sees Niger as a landlocked African country, 80% of which is desert (the Sahara), prone to droughts, grasshopper invasions, and full of disease. These conditions would then explain why, according to the MPI, Niger is the poorest country in the world with 92.7% of it citizens living in poverty, 65.9% on $1.25 or less a day, and 89.5% are deprived of sanitation. This would then suggest that more handouts of food, medicines, etc would help the country.

A victor of nature mentality would see things differently. Although 80% of the country is desert, the remaining 20% has the Niger River, Africa's third largest, flowing through it, and this portion is larger than North and South Korea combined, or all of the United Kingdom. And all of that land for only 16 million people compared to 74 million for the Koreas and 62 million for the United Kingdom. And that 80% that is desert? Well, a very small fraction of it has enough solar energy potential to supply all the electrical energy needs of the European Union. Besides, a good part of the 80% desert can be reclaimed by planting trees.

More important, the country is loaded with natural resources such as gold, oil, uranium, coal, iron ore, tin phosphates, gypsum, salt and molybdenum despite only superficial exploration. Of these, only uranium has been exploited considerably. Most of the uranium is mined by French firms and exported to France, Niger's former colonial master, where more than 70% of the country's electricity is produced using uranium.

Imagine what would have happened if a program had been put in place for Nigeriens to learn how to add value to their natural resources and export more finished products. Imagine how much of the desert would be reclaimed if each Nigerien planted a tree a year. Dropping surplus white flour or corn on Niger annually may feed some hungry children in the short term but does not lift Nigeriens out of poverty. Teaching them how to create wealth using their abundant natural will.

For Case #2, Ethiopia, I start in India. According to Professor Jeffrey Sachs, "India is a civilization of great river systems and large-scale irrigation, thanks to the Himalayan snowmelt and glacier melt and the annual monsoon rains. Africa is a continent of rain-fed (non-irrigation) agriculture." Thus, when the rains do not come, victims of geography like Ethiopia have to turn to the West for help.

What is remarkable is that, since 2000, Indian firms have been spending billions of dollars on hundreds of thousands of hectares of arable African land, including some $1.5 billion spent by 80 different Indian firms on Ethiopian land to grow rice, lentils, and other foods to export back to India and other countries.

Somehow India, which has been blessed with natural irrigation systems, has been buying land in Ethiopia, which is not as blessed, to grow water-hogging crops such as rice and export them to India and elsewhere. The question is, why couldn't Ethiopia grow these foods, feed its own people, and export the rest to India and other countries, creating jobs and wealth for Ethiopians in the process?

With at least 80 million people living in Ethiopia, it is difficult to believe that one could not find a few hundred people out of these millions or the hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians living abroad, who are capable and willing to learn how to run large-scale farms. Ethiopia is blessed with enough land and hardworking people to feed itself and many other countries. It also has many other natural resources including gold, platinum, copper, potash, natural gas, and hydroelectric power potential. And don't forget the high elevations that can be used as training venues for athletes, especially long distance runners.

There is no reason why Niger and Ethiopia should be the two poorest counties in the world. Africa is not a victim of nature. It is a victor of nature that should get to work and create wealth using its abundant resources. Fortunately for Africa, China is willing to work with Niger and other African countries to help them do what the West has failed to do since it went to Africa for slaves: Help Africa lift itself out of poverty.

Allan Afuah is Associate Professor of Strategy at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Dr. Afuah's latest book is The African Paradox: Is China the Solution?