Africa News blog
African business, politics and lifestyle
There is still barely an investor conference on Africa which goes by without someone making negative reference to The Economist’s famous article from more than a decade ago which dubbed it the “Hopeless Continent”.
The article caused great offence to many and while the numerous and horrific civil wars of the time could alone have appeared to justify it, Africa was in fact heading into the greatest decade of growth since most of its countries became independent.
“A more hopeful continent” is the subtitle to an article in The Economist this week, which points out that six of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies over the past decade were in Africa and that the future looks even brighter.
Although the overall picture may be better than it has ever been, nobody could say Africa is out of the rainforest.
Anyone in Ghana wishing to buy a goat, an iPad or an “accident free” 2008 Hummer can now go to a Google site set up to link buyers and sellers who have access to the internet and SMS messages.
As Google’s presence grows everywhere, it isn’t neglecting Africa and is betting on the power the internet will bring to transform business and society on the continent – even if it remains one of the least connected parts of the world.
Last month, Google hired Ory Okolloh, co-founder of well-known Kenyan crisis mapping platform, Ushahidi, as its Policy Manager for Africa in a clear sign of its ambitions.
In October last year, the company launched Baraza, which serves as an online space where Africans can ask questions and post answers to others.
According to Product Manager, Aneto Okonkwo, “the goal of Google Baraza is to facilitate knowledge sharing among Africans about locally relevant topics.”
Questions include everything from “What is the economic impact of the tax increases in the Ghana 2011 budget ?” to “Is it safe to take charcoal tablets during pregnancy?” and “Where do grasshoppers come from?”
In December, Google launched its Trader service in Ghana, having started it earlier in Uganda. Google went all out for the launch in Ghana with flash mobs and an artiste singing a catchy jingle about the service on the streets of Accra.
Though internet penetration rates in sub Saharan Africa countries remain low, the recent launch of undersea fibre optic cables in East and Western Africa could significantly improve connectivity.
Google’s offerings in Africa also tie in closely with the SMS messaging services which have exploded across the continent with the spread of mobile phones and already give greater access.
Senior Google official Nelson Mattos has noted that any company that wants to be successful in Africa will have to do a good job at providing content relevant to the local market.
But will betting on the mass market prove successful for Google in Africa? What will the presence of the search giant mean for local or global competitors?
So South Africa has found a place with the BRICs – although as this story explains that appears to be more about political calculation than any reflection of its relatively puny economic weight.
If South Africa is joining the BRICs then it will certainly add to the debate over what the relevance of the group is both as a political club and as a buzzword for a bunch of dynamic emerging giants to which investors might want to shift some money – and there are now a collection of BRIC funds out there to help those who seek to.
One of the biggest obstacles to investing in African stock markets is the paucity of listed companies and the limited number of shares traded on them.
So the prospect of two fairly major delistings is not a particularly comfortable one for African exchanges at a time they are trying to encourage more companies to list and to capitalise on the growing investor appetite for Africa.
It may seem odd to ask the question only a day after he was sworn in, but will Guinea’s President Alpha Conde go when the time comes?
Long-suffering opposition leader Conde is the first freely-elected president of a country that has known dictatorship, with varying degrees of brutality and oppression, for pretty much the entire period since independence from France in 1958. And French rule wasn’t that much fun for Guineans either.
When I first began to cover Darfur in 2003 – nobody was interested. The story was all about the north-south peace talks in Naivasha. “Where’s Darfur again – is that in the south?” I would often hear.
But once Darfur’s conflict stalled the Naivasha talks to end Africa’s longest civil war, and reports of appalling atrocities in Sudan’s west began to seep into the public domain, Darfur became the only story. It overshadowed even the historic 2005 north-south peace deal named “comprehensive” because the negotiators said it would resolve all of Sudan’s problems.
There’s a fascinating (and rather beautiful) map of facebook connections around the world, which you can find here.
No surprise that looking at Africa, large areas are blank – there aren’t many facebook users in the Sahara Desert or Congo rainforests.
A new sort of hut could be popping up in parts of Africa soon – one serving pizza – as Yum! Brands becomes the latest global giant to announce ambitious plans for growth on a continent where nobody seemingly wants to be left behind.
While some may think African asset prices a bit overhyped, there is certainly plenty of appetite for the long term view that this will be a continent with growing business opportunities and an increasingly large number of people ready and able to splash out on Western brands.
Mediation has already started after another bad election in Africa.
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki was in Ivory Coast at the weekend to try to sort out the mess after election results ratified by the United Nations were rejected by the Constitutional Court, the army and incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, who had himself sworn in again as president quickly. His opponent Alassane Ouattara said he was president.
Mbeki, all smiles as he met Gbagbo, is used to brokering deals. He helped negotiate the deal for Zimbabwe’s unity government between President Robert Mugabe and now Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, ending months of turmoil at the time. Tsvangirai had led in the first round in early 2008 but boycotted the second after violence against his supporters.
In the bad old days of post-colonial Africa, dictators would hail their landslide re-elections as a demonstration of the will of an adoring people while international observers would dismiss the polls as electoral farce.
In the brave new Africa, it is often the other way round.
In Ivory Coast this week, the U.N. mission chief is going out of his way to hail the election as broadly democratic, while both incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and rival Alassane Ouattara have complained the vote has been marred by intimidation of their supporters.
So what is going on? Two things, at least.
Electorates are becoming more sophisticated and literate, although there is still often a big gap between urban and rural voters. Election monitoring, while still a tough job, has also improved. And even the most authoritarian of rulers knows donors will not be best pleased at any sign of meddling with monitors’ work. In Ivory Coast, there is particularly close scrutiny because the poll has costs donors $400 million and they want their money’s worth.
Put simply, it is harder to rig an election these days.
Secondly, much of the international strategy for dealing with post-crisis countries like Ivory Coast or perpetual-crisis countries like neighbouring Guinea rests is based on the hope that democratic elections will make things better.
The fear is that if the election turns out to be a joke, then the strategy falls apart. It is therefore in the interest of the internationals to defend the credibility of the vote.
The presidential race in Ivory Coast is an undeniably tight contest — neither Gbagbo nor Ouattara can hope to achieve the 96.7 percent score achieved last year by Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema in a much-criticised poll.
In that sense what is playing out in Abidjan at the moment is broadly positive — an attempt to stage a free and fair poll.
Yet what is troubling is the hiatus between the close of polls on Sunday and the announcement of preliminary results not due until Wednesday. The ballots should be pretty much in from the provinces and tallied up by now. So why the wait?
Speculation is inevitably mounting of behind-the-scenes wrangling over the vote. The local diplomatic corps is urging the two candidates to accept whatever result emerges. Perhaps there are well-meaning efforts going on to soften the blow for whomever has lost it — and reduce the risk of trouble.
The next couple of days will show just how ready for democracy Ivory Coast and its leaders really are.