Mobilising to mainstream: Changing Africa’s future starts in our minds

How can Africa generate an economic trajectory of growth and prosperity? A change of mindset is needed, say Rajneesh Narula and Jon Foster Pedley.

Opinion by

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There’s a challenge at the heart of Africa. Depending on which way you look at it, you may see an insurmountable obstacle, or immense opportunity. To launch the continent on an economic trajectory of growth and prosperity that is equal to its population growth, Africa needs to generate around 1m new jobs a month. Currently, there are only 3m being produced each year. That’s a 9m job deficit – obstacle or opportunity?

Let’s add one more number to the equation: 18. That’s the average age of Africans. In contrast, the average age in Europe is more than double, at 42 years. In North America, it is 35, and for our closest continent in age, there’s a tie: the median age in Asia and South America is 31. One way of looking at this is to marvel at the experience in the more developed parts of the world. The other way is to think that Africa has more than a 10-year head start on our nearest continental competitor. What can each person do in those 10 years?

Of course, numbers don’t tell the whole story. The type of new jobs that have to be created and the calibre of the skills to fill them will have to have a certain edge. Many jobs, perhaps most, will need to be generated from entrepreneurs and small businesses; that rate of job creation will not come from incremental growth of established big businesses.

And not just any entrepreneurs either. A key part of entrepreneurship – the core that makes it tick, and which makes it so powerful – is innovation. New businesses, and therefore, new jobs, will need to come about to service new and old problems and a new generation of skilled Africans will need to step forward to drive the process.

To achieve all this, a shift in mindset is needed, both in how we think about the continent and in the current models of producing job seekers, to one that produces job creators.

Back to the basics: 3 priorities to end Africa’s marginalisation

Innovation in our modern, complex world, requires two things above all: technology – the application of scientific knowledge to practical purposes – and quality education.

In a recent conversation hosted by the Dunning Africa Centre at Henley Business School Africa, Dr Frank Aswani, CEO of the Africa Venture Philanthropy Alliance and previous VP at the African Leadership Academy (ALA), emphasised the importance of education in shaping the future of Africa.

He pointed out that we rarely ask the “So what?” of education. “To put it bluntly,” he said, “education is producing products; are we preparing them for what the world wants?” In other words, is our education in Africa relevant to our needs? Until we emphatically answer that question with a resounding “yes”, the world will race ahead and leave us behind.

Education improves the quality and value of human capital. It is the enabler that unlocks the potential of Africa’s people. Dr Aswani has seen first-hand what investment in Africa’s human capital can do – around 77% of ALA alumni are now running enterprises across the continent. It’s an example of what time, money and effort can do. What leaders need to understand is that every cent of investment in human capital will potentially bring exponential returns. It just makes investment sense, over and above the social good.

Investment, however, needs to be mobilised locally, and not entirely through international means. Borrowing money from beyond our borders is expensive, with forex costs and high interest rates. Of course, the role of foreign investment has not diminished, especially where it is a catalyst for creating linkages with domestic entrepreneurs and acts as a conduit to bring in knowledge and expertise. But at the end of the day, Africa needs to invest in Africa – the business case is there, we need to trust in its potential.

Effectively engaging with the private sector will be key to this. We need to stop depending upon governments for everything. Investment will not, and perhaps should not, come only from governments. There needs to be collaboration and a new generation of public-private partnerships to leverage the power and expertise of both stakeholders. If both win, we all win.

Finally, neither investment capital, nor a new model of education can deliver the sustainable growth we need without confronting the issue of infrastructure. Much of Africa sorely lacks quality infrastructure, and businesses must absorb the cost of investing in providing their own public goods.

This makes the African businesses uncompetitive relative to their global peers. In many parts of Nigeria, for example, banks close by 1pm to avoid the exorbitant costs of running diesel generators in the afternoon to keep the lights on.

“If banks are struggling with the costs of electricity,” asked Muhammad Sani Abdullahi – former Chief of Staff to the Kaduna State Governor in Nigeria – during the Henley conversation, “what does it mean for the manufacturing sector charged with firing our economic growth engine?”

The same is true for businesses across South Africa, with loadshedding heading more towards being regular than rare. A stable supply of electricity, good water management, public transport, and safe and secure communal places are essential. Africa needs to take responsibility for getting these basics right if we want to move forward with any momentum.

As Ebun Jackson-Adekola, CEO of Marsh Africa, controversially, yet eloquently, challenged: “Is Africa marginalised, or have we marginalised ourselves?”

Obstacle or opportunity? You decide

Without minimising the work that is needed to overcome these challenges, it’s plain to see the immense potential, too. Much of the distinction between these opposing views of the same reality depend on how you choose to perceive them. We need to change our mindset to reframe the issues at hand and drive positive change.

Aloysius Newenham-Kahindi, associate member at the Dunning Africa Centre at Henley, laid down the challenge during the discussion. Reflecting on his work with young people he said: “they don’t want to talk about colonialism and the past, they want to think about the future, and see action!”

Africa’s revolution starts in your mind – where do you want to take it?

Rajneesh Narula is the director of the Dunning Africa Centre and Jon Foster Pedley is the dean and director of Henley Business School, Africa. The two recently hosted a webinar conversation on African Marginalisation as part of the Dunning Africa Centre webinar series. To join future conversations click here.

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