Ndubuisi Ekekwe has kindly granted AfricanBrains permission to republish his article originally posted at Harvard Business Review on 11 Jan 2011.
While attending a UN-sponsored workshop last month in Freetown, Sierra Leone, I noticed an amazing transformation in that country, fuelled primarily by the Chinese. In my hotel, the TV remote controller was marked in Chinese. This is a nation where English is the official language, but I saw many young Chinese men, getting ready for work.
From Freetown to Brazzaville, this is the new Africa — Chinese investing massively in the continent, buying the mines to support their booming economy, despite restricting export of their rare earth metals. With influx of capital and improved democratic institutions across the continent, foreign investors are aggressively looking for opportunities there. But China’s style of giving cash in exchange for mine control has endeared it to most African leaders. This strategy has worked so well that an estimated one million Chinese are living in Africa today.
Though the traditional media continue to report wars, famine, and HIV, most business media showcase Africa as a continent with opportunities. There’s a growing middle class, expanded GDP, and general optimism in the region. Multinational companies are opening offices and investing in the continent. Africa has become a place where financial institutions are financing real estate projects.
Yet, is it possible to create a modern Africa without investing in knowledge? Is this growth sustainable, after the minerals are depleted? The educational institutions remain underfunded, so it’s difficult to to create knowledge and diversify the economies beyond minerals. Strikes in universities are common and quality remains very low, especially in technical education. Little shows that Africa is prepared for the post-mineral era. The current foreign investment model focuses on accelerating consumption and exploration of minerals. Few investors focus on building capacity. While the tech giants build factories and research centers in Asia, they open offices to sell products in Africa. The most common excuse for this is that African talents are not ready for research; yet, those talents are good enough when new mines are discovered.
There is a genuine optimism from many parts of the world that Africa is moving in the right path. Yet, few can explain the sustainability roadmap for the post-mineral era. Throughout human history, new ideas have built nations. Africa is not creating any. The British ruled the world with knowledge during the industrial revolution. The Americans took over through investments in science and technology; today, the greatness of the U.S. depends on its excellent technical universities. If the U.S. loses its abilities to create and innovate, within a generation it will cease to lead the world. Look at what the BRIC nations have accomplished: China has educated women, India has invested in technical education, and the literacy rate in Brazil is now quite high. Africa has not educated its women, the technical education is still outmoded, the illiteracy rate is still high, and the infrastructure remains broken. Yet, because the Chinese are in town with cash, the world sees an illusion of more progress than there really is. Our problem is that the world has not invested helpfully in Africa — few invest in education, infrastructure, and research. Throughout the continent, we still don’t have reliable electricity.
People will criticize me for taking this problem to the foreign investors. Nonetheless, I still ask: Why shouldn’t the multinational companies that build real estates and mines put a small percentage into African education? If you spend millions developing real estate in the continent, you may be disappointed when the Chinese leave after the mines have been exhausted. Unless you plan to follow them, now is the time for sustainable investment in Africa where companies, especially Western ones, commit a certain percentage of these investments into areas that can build capacity. Build research centers, invest in for-profit education, and help develop a new generation of African technical leaders that will keep this present momentum going. Think about this before you invest in the next mine or oil rig in Africa.
Ndubuisi Ekekwe is a founder of the non-profit African Institution of Technology. He recently edited Nanotechnology and Microelectronics: Global Diffusion, Economics and Policy.