Can Fashion Designer Ozwald Boateng Transform Africa?

What does a Savile Row fashion designer have in common with Africa's forthcoming industrial revolution? Well, in Ozwald Boateng's case, a lot.
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What does a Savile Row fashion designer have in common with Africa's forthcoming industrial revolution? Well, in Ozwald Boateng's case, a lot.

Boateng - the British-raised tailor who, as the first black designer of African descent on London's Savile Row, is famed for supplying the British elite and Hollywood A-Listers with bold, bespoke suits - spent the past week in Marrakech, Morocco, showcasing his vision and ideas about Africa's future to billionaires, financiers, bankers, African Development Bank officials and anyone else willing to listen. And listen they did.

In a time in which it is de rigeur for celebrities to align themselves with causes and social change projects, it would be easy to be cynical about what Boateng is doing. With his friends in tow in Morocco - he brought in actor and rapper Mos Def, Youssou N'Dour, John Legend and producer/singer Akon to perform at the African Bankers Awards held at the majestic Taj Palace Hotel on Wednesday night - there is no doubt that Boateng is using his high profile and status to make an impression. Nevertheless, this does not seem to be a vanity project.

Boateng's Made in Africa Foundation, started in 2011, is committed to playing a key role in developing Africa's infrastructure, something which Boateng and many others in the know believe is critical to Africa's future development. Along with him are a number of serious and seasoned business people, such as businessman Kola Aluko, who are determined to see the vision become reality and, more importantly, who appear to have the clout and experience to do so.

Infrastructure is also a key focal point for the African Development Bank, who through its Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA) initiative is aiming to reduce poverty and promote regional and continental development. The Bank announced in Marrakech that it would be creating a large fund dedicated to infrastructure projects.

It's no longer a secret that Africa is the continent to watch. Indeed, the "Africa is rising" meme has been spreading like wildfire across the Western for the past couple of years as Europe and America, hard hit by recession, have watched in surprise as the economies of African countries have grown at unforeseen rates, sometimes in double digits.

While just thirteen years ago The Economist declared that Africa was "the hopeless continent", it has since done a swift about turn, consistently referring to Africa today as "the hopeful continent". It is not only the western media that has begun to realize that the famine/HIV/corruption narrative is only one side of a much bigger African story: in 2010, the consulting firm McKinsey issued a report in which it declared that: "The rate of return on foreign investment is higher in Africa than in any other developing region. Global executives and investors must pay heed."

With a growing middle class, accelerating economies aided in part by a technology boom, an abundance of untapped opportunities and the majority of the world's natural resources, Africa is set to become one of the global powerhouses within the next 50 years. However, a host of basic issues - such as inconsistent power supplies in many countries, a lack of decent roads, poor sanitation, and inefficient transportation systems - threaten to undermine the continent's progress if not dealt with adequately and with alacrity. This is the problem that Boateng, through his Made in Africa Foundation, which will develop high quality feasibility studies and master plans, intends to solve.

"Enough is enough" said Boateng when I spoke to him about Africa. In other words, it is time for Africans to do something to push Africa forward.

There is no doubt that tackling Africa's infrastructure is an almighty undertaking and certainly not a task for the faint of heart. And there is also no doubt that it will take many different people working together effectively to not only develop the infrastructure, but to maintain it over time. However, I have to commend Boateng for trying. The future remains to be seen, but the will is certainly there. And, after all, as the saying goes, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

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