Africa: the New Edge, the New Green

Progressives rightly want to help those less fortunate than themselves, and most of the population of Africa are certainly less fortunate. Twenty-five of the world's thirty poorest nations are in Sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, a disproportionate share of the world's violent conflict has taken place in Africa; the recent Congo civil war is the most fatal conflict since WW II, and as many people have died in African wars in the past fifty years as in all other wars around the world combined.

Progressive academics blame the legacies of colonialism and slavery for these tragedies, but this form of blaming helps precisely no one living in Africa today. Often the blame is then used to leverage guilt in order to promote the giving of more foreign aid to Africa, but an increasing number of Africans are asking that the foreign aid stop.

Here one should make a sharp distinction between humanitarian aid delivered directly to those in need, such as food and medical care to refugees, on the one hand, vs. "aid" given to African governments, on the other hand. Ghanaian economist George Ayittey estimates that African leaders have skimmed from foreign aid in the past the following:

  • General Sani Abacha of Nigeria: $20 billion
  • President Félix Houphoüet-Boigny of Ivory Coast: $6 billion
  • General Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria: $5 billion
  • President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire: $4 billion
  • President Mousa Traore of Mali: $2 billion
  • President Henri Bedie of Ivory Coast: $300 million
  • President Denis N'guesso of Congo: $200 million
  • President Omar Bongo of Gabon: $80 million
  • President Paul Biya of Cameroon: $70 million
  • President Haile Mariam of Ethiopia: $30 million

In total, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo estimated, "corrupt African leaders have stolen at least $140 billion from their people in the [four] decades since independence." An increasing number of Africans refer to their governments as "vampire states." One can see why many Africans are not enthusiastic about government-to-government foreign aid.

At the same time, the economist Paul Collier makes the case that Africa can't compete in global trade because Asia has such a head start in terms of low-cost manufacturing; and he is probably correct. Is Africa doomed to decades of dependence on resource extraction, which feeds the violence, and on foreign aid, however flawed?

There is another route that has not been recognized by the world's experts. Adina World Beverages, founded by one of us, Magatte Wade, was originally inspired by an indigenous Senegalese Hibiscus drink that was one of our first products. The hibiscus industry had almost vanished at the time as the young people of Senegal had turned to western soft drinks rather than their traditional beverage. Because traditional farming techniques in Senegal are organic, and because women's co-ops have long harvested hibiscus in Senegal, we were able to obtain organic and Fair Trade certifications for our hibiscus beverage and sell our beverages through Whole Foods Market and other retailers catering to the cultural creative demographic. Now the Senegalese hibiscus industry is stronger than it has ever been, and based on organic and Fair Trade principles, even though Adina no longer carries the original hibiscus drink. We were successful in stimulating an entire industry that now employs hundreds of women.

Based on this experience, Magatte is now creating a new lifestyle brand, selling fashion accessories and body care products, also based on socially and environmentally responsible production techniques and marketed to the cultural creative demographic in the U.S. The cultural creative demographic is estimated to be as large as one third of the U.S. population and growing. This doesn't mean that all of these people buy certified organic produce; there are various degrees of interest and commitment to conscious consuming. But it does represent a large and growing market of people whose values do influence their purchasing decisions.

Africa should not want to compete with China by means of taking harmful short-cuts with respect to the environment and human rights. At the same time, if Africa wants to develop, if Africa is ever to escape the morass of poverty and war, if Africans are ever going to be respected as equals around the world, Africa needs to create business enterprises that can compete head-to-head, based on quality, with the best businesses on the planet. At present the only African brand that is listed among the top global brands is South African Airways; hardly an indigenous African brand.

Progressives have traditionally been among the vanguard in fighting racism. And yet as long as Africa is primarily perceived as a land to which "we" should give charity, Africa and Africans will never be respected as equals. Imagine, instead, an Africa that was producing some of the coolest products and services on the planet. People respect Apple and Whole Foods because they love their products, not because they feel sorry for them. President Obama is an African who is loved and respected because he is amazing, not because he is pitied.

So how can we help Africans develop companies that produce some of the coolest products and services on the planet, while producing them in a socially and environmentally responsible way? We can:

  1. Buy from companies that produce such goods.
  2. Invest in companies that produce such goods.
  3. Mentor African entrepreneurs, inventors, and designers so that they can produce such goods and create such companies.
  4. Support high-end creative and entrepreneurial education programs so that the next generation of Africans can compete globally.

What? You don't know of African companies that produce some of the coolest goods and services on the planet?

Right. Well, then we need to talk. We can introduce you to Africa, a land of new possibilities. An Africa that you can respect as a peer, not as an object of pity.