Book review: The Bright Continent by Dayo Olopade

Modern diaspora engagement, in all its manifestations, retains what the author says is a “burning stake” in Africa’s fortunes. She quotes former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who stated that diasporas “are, frankly, our Peace Corps, our USAID, our OPIC, our State Department rolled into one”. “Family, loosely defined, carries built-in incentives and efficiencies,” […]

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Modern diaspora engagement, in all its manifestations, retains what the author says is a “burning stake” in Africa’s fortunes. She quotes former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who stated that diasporas “are, frankly, our Peace Corps, our USAID, our OPIC, our State Department rolled into one”.

“Family, loosely defined, carries built-in incentives and efficiencies,” Olopade observes. “It is both weapon and shield. And luckily, it’s abundant and free. While it’s the least objective and thus the most mired in challenges, it is also one of the oldest non-state networks in Africa.”

And, as she notes, one of the youngest networks is found by examining the technology map. In a chapter that carries the sub-heading ‘Lessons in leapfrogging’, Olopade makes the point that like so many other aspects of the kanju ecosystem, individual adoption of mobiles [cellphones] has come out of necessity – the dire state of Africa’s land-line infrastructure.

 

But once that adoption took place, it was as if a genie had been released from a bottle, and that has had an incredible impact on the continent – not least the way that money now moves across countries, regions and Africa. However, the whole tech phenomenon goes much further in driving innovation.

“There are plenty of whizz-bang tech hubs the world over,” Olopade argues, “but in African tech communities, the fail state makes clustering particularly effective.”

For example, ActivSpaces, a co-working hub in Buea, Cameroon, allows programmers, marketers, and quants [quantitative analysts] to share space and talents.

The chapter that deals with the ‘commerce map’ is similarly positive. It can be best summed up by a section that reads: “When it comes to human development, African commerce has three built-in advantages. In the first place, commerce is both common – both widespread and shared. Even the least well-off can join in the supply and demand for goods and services.

“Second, commerce is accountable, in every sense of the word. Parties to even the smallest roadside transaction agree to specific terms for which both are responsible. It’s a banal fact but, in the context of distortionary charity flows, important to recognise.

“Last, commerce is a proven tool to create jobs and distribute goods in Africa – including ‘development’.”

The following, penultimate chapter deals with the ‘nature map’ – the ongoing challenge to feed, fuel and build Africa’s future. It is arguably the most complex of all the questions that are referred to in this book, but is firmly linked with the final map, the youth map, and how to cope with the demographic dividend that sees the median age in Africa at 19-years being both a challenge and an opportunity.

Here we learn of a new term – ‘waithood’ – which refers to what the Mozambican anthropologist, Dr Alcinda Honwana describes as “a kind of purgatory, for young people who are no longer children in need of care, but still unable to become independent adults”.

As the ILO notes: “This is tantamount to a denial of economic citizenship and gives rise to despair and resentment.” And Olomade warns: “Africa’s youth are ignored at everyone’s peril”.

Unusually, this book neither serves up a “Pollyanna”, romantic view of Africa’s future, nor a suffocating pessimism with regard to the continent’s prospects. It goes to show that you neither have to subscribe to, or be in denial of, the ‘Africa rising’ thesis. Far better to see ‘Africa rising’ as describing a journey, or a work in progress. And as this book successfully illustrates, the continent is following a trajectory that, despite all the ongoing challenges, is steadily in ascendance.

 

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