By Michelle Gatonye
Mpenzi wangu Afrika (Africa, my love)
It has been a while since I last saw you. Still, I get frequent updates from the media of your children dying of hunger and waterborne diseases and your people being ravaged by civil war and drought. I worry about the reports of poor leadership and dim economic prospects that inundate me everywhere I turn. According to the majority of experts on this side of the world, you cannot seem to get anything right. They are quickly growing weary of the slow pace of your economic, social and political progress.
In spite of these dark scenarios that surround me, I am extremely hopeful about your potential. I recently attended the Wharton Africa Business Forum where, for the first time in a long time, I encountered students, academicians and professionals in the business world who were hopeful, and, dare I say, upbeat, about your economic prospects. With a population close to 900 million, you represent one of the highest potential areas of growth in consumer demand in the world. According Thierry Tanoh, Vice President for Sub-Saharan Africa at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, your political stability and overall investment climate have improved in 2009. Although hampered by poor infrastructure and high transportation costs, exports have increased steadily while trade has improved significantly. He went on to note that, with the exception of South Africa, you were largely shielded from the financial crisis and even gained from the fall in oil and food prices. You have also benefited immensely from “brain gain”, the return of your highly educated people from far off lands where they had gone to seek education and greener pastures. It would seem that your grass is greener this time around!
There was also much evidence to be found at this conference that women are playing an increasingly important role in your economy as the greatest contributor of labor and as the greatest consumers. The “African Women in Business Leadership” workshop revealed a number of influential and inspirational women such as Anna Getaneh, the Founder and Managing Director of African Mosaique and Louisa Mojela, Group CEO of Women Investment Portfolio Holdings Ltd. These women have made great progress in their various fields, from fashion and finance to social entrepreneurship, and have utilized their position to further uplift your women. In recognition of the efforts of women such as these, Janet Nkubana, the Founder of Gahaya Links was named the Visionary Award Recipient for her role in empowering the women of Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide by providing global market access for their weaving and textile products. It was really encouraging to see how these individuals are making a difference in the lives of ordinary women all across the continent.
However, in spite of these substantial strides, a lot remains to be done. As I learned, one of the greatest challenges you face is that the majority of people, and especially investors, do not exactly view you favorably. While the international media has not done much to help this situation, you have also not tried to market yourself differently to the outside world. Therefore, you need to embark on a PR campaign to change the perception the world currently holds of you and spin it in a positive light. Let them see all the opportunities that abound in Africa, instead of just the problems. Tremendous potential exists in tourism, telecoms, financial services, entertainment industry and the list goes on. It’s also about time you got your infrastructure in order. If you are going to attract growth in these critical sectors, you need to have a stable, effective and well-maintained infrastructure. Otherwise all the gains you have made so far will be unsustainable in the long run as the cost of doing business continues to rise. Most importantly, you need to find proper leadership because the current crop does not have your best interests at heart. You need leaders who are focused on stimulating development and enhancing the lives of your people.
I hope that the next time I see you, you will have continued to build on your accomplishments. People may not be optimistic, but within every problem there lies an opportunity. Continue to seize these opportunities and you will surely improve your chances of success. Before you know it, you may manage to convince even the greatest skeptic that there is more to you than meets the eye!
Gatonye, a senior, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.