A New Focus on Africa

From Start Journal

It was 3:30 in the afternoon sometime in 2010 and I was just about to leave for Heathrow Terminal 5—virtually my second home—to catch a flight to Mozambique when my daughter loudly inquired, “Daddy, is everybody poor in Africa?”

I decided the taxi outside could wait for at least few more minutes. “Why are you asking such a  question my dear?” Her answer—“Because every time I see Africa on telly they don’t have nice clothes and their houses are really small and the children are all sad.”

For the next five minutes I tried to explain a few hundred years of a history of exploitation, sometimes questionable leadership, and economic choices. An impossible task. But at the same time, I wanted to leave her with the level of optimism and energy I experience when I visit Botswana, Tanzania, Kenya and elsewhere across Africa. My thoughts boiled down to a single question: Who owns Africa’s image? It’s a question that is relevant and compelling, regardless of your response.

Over the past few years a silent revolution has been occurring across Africa. Some people are very much aware of it, while others are just coming to the realisation. But there are still others who are stuck in an old view of Africa and its challenges. The fact that most of the fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa is lost on them.

For some in the media, Africa is still a corrupt incompetent at the mercy of the random benevolence of  rock musicians or Hollywood stars who care more about African children than Africans themselves. These tiresome stereotypes of day-to-day life in Africa are not only outdated but increasingly irrelevant to an emerging continent.

Some networks seem obsessed with stories of child witches and feed us with a constant diet of war weary, famine stricken lives. In 2009 I was asked by the BBC to anchor a new television program about Africa called Africa Business Report. For the next 2 and a half years, I racked up close to 200,000 air miles travelling to Uranium mines in the Namibian desert, diamond centres in Botswana, fish markets in Dar es Salaam, oil rigs off the coast of Ghana, real estate projects in Rwanda. I held conversations with bankers, businessmen and women, entrepreneurs and politicians, as well as a few African billionaires. I visited 22 countries in total that captured the real meaning of Africa’s rise.

I have made new friends and heard fascinating stories. For every city I visited I make it a personal point to find my way to the top of a skyscraper, just so I can observe that city in motion. I know it’s a cliché to say but it’s true—the vibe is different in Africa. The minute I touch down—Dar, Nairobi, Lusaka, Lagos, Gaborone, Jo’burg—I get the sense of a different energy, a different flow.

You see, since the independence era of the 1960’s Africa has been viewed through the prism (some say prison) of its underdevelopment. So the typical story from the continent has featured the same tired characters—the African strongman, the corrupt bureaucrat, the pot-bellied, bribe-taking policeman, the inefficient public servant or the taxi driver who gleefully tells you “what the problem is with Africa”. And without a doubt elements of these characters exist in varying degrees in some places in Africa.

But this stereotypical, headline-grabbing interpretation of Africa is for me a myopic one. Africa Business Report was a new pair of glasses through which viewers could observe Africa—a better perspective with a more balanced view. There are two stories I’d like to share that might give you a sense of what you may have missed. The first is from Botswana.

If you a fortunate enough to afford or be the recipient of a diamond ring or necklace, chances are it was once a rough diamond from the fields in Botswana, the world’s biggest producer. For may years after independence Botswana followed a pattern some countries are still stuck in. You know the story—African country X that produces raw material Y but has little control over its sale, pricing, or the finished product.

Three years ago, I met the director of the Botswana diamond hub. I was visiting the brand new high-tech facility that symbolised the hopes of a nation. The man in charge of the diamond hub, Dr. Akolang Tombale, told me Botswana did not want to be a mere exporter of rough diamonds anymore, but a player in the multi-billion dollar gem business. The diamonds were being cut and polished in Asia and bought and sold in Europe. The idea of the diamond hub was to train their own people to a point where the reliance on foreign expertise would gradually diminish. So I met many young smart Bostwanans learning the art of turning a rough stone into a fabulous jewel. There were brand new office spaces ready for the banks and insurers who would provide the financial backing for exported gems. In simple terms, the diamond hub would become a one-stop shop for the entire value chain of the diamond business.

Fast forward to 2012. I was reading the paper over breakfast early this year. My wrinkled brow broke into a broad grin when I saw a small headline which informed me that the world’s preeminent Diamond corporation De Beers was relocating some of its major operations to Botswana. By 2013, the article said, the De Beers rough diamonds sales team would be operating from Gaborone. My smile broke into grin. I had seen it coming.

The relocation is a first step for a small country with big ambitions. About 150 De Beers jobs will relocate to Gaborone as a result of this deal. In years to come, diamond buyers will be booking flights to Botswana rather than London. As De Beers chairman Nicky Oppenheimer aptly put it, “The diamond industry’s centre of gravity is shifting.” Imagine what this does for the service industry, hotels, tourism and the country’s overall reputation. The fact is, this is a result of long term planning and foresight—not the kind of ad hoc firefighting policies that some nations are still dealing with. But for other nations with such ambitions, such a shift will not be easy. The traditional centre of power will resist these moves.

Now to my second story. A few months ago I was in Cape Town. One of the highlights of my experience there was a reunion of sorts. I met with an ex-roommate, Sebastian, though known in those days as Zor, from my college days at the University of Ghana.

After the usual round of laughs about our youthful escapades we started talking about the current state of affairs. Things have changed since college. Zor is still a lot of fun to be with, but I was impressed by his meteoric rise in the financial industry. As a senior manager at a leading African bank, he was constantly on the road. Brazil, Portugal, New York, Dallas, Nairobi—building relationships and structuring deals for investments in Africa. Although much of his time was spent in hotels and business class lounges of major air hubs, Zor had a comfortable life in Johannesburg and all the trappings of a finance executive. I think what was most refreshing about it was Zor enjoys this comfortable existence in Africa. He told me he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

I then began to think about what he said and realized that I know a lot of “Zors” around this continent. Professionals with skills and experiences, sometimes acquired at the best schools in Europe and the United States (in some cases homegrown talent) who are working successfully and living comfortably in Africa. They are the living proof that Africa is the land of opportunity for those who are smart and are prepared to take risks. Europe and America are no longer the holy grail.

It’s a remarkable change from our early years post graduation. Many young people would spend the night waiting outside the American embassy hoping and praying that the visa officer would look favorably on an application. In those days there was a belief that an officer’s “mood” could determine the outcome of your future. No surprise that lay preachers did brisk business in those overnight sessions praying over documents and asking for divine intercession for a visa.

But that was then, this is now. Many more of those friends of mine are now part of the exodus of African professionals who are quitting the rat race of the city and Wall Street to build world-class companies in Africa. I met with a group of young professionals who come together under a group called Star 100, extremely smart young men and women working with various high multinationals. The only thing they wanted to talk about were their plans for taking their skills and abilities and moving them to Africa. By the time you read this article, at least one of them has gone. She called me to tell me she quit her job in the city of London and now works out of Lagos. She is getting paid better, has all the perks she wants, and added, “Now I don’t have to travel two hours to buy proper suya!”

These two narratives are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to stories about how Africa is changing. I am sure you’ll have heard some of your own.

I am in a very privileged position. As a news anchor for the BBC, I have had the pleasure of being a witness to and narrator of some these stories. This year BBC World News launched Focus on Africa, the first Africa-focused daily news and current affairs programme on any of the major international networks. The BBC has more correspondents in Africa than any other international news network. Every weekday I join a team of African professionals to put together a world class broadcast for viewers around the world, bringing an African perspective to global news. I encourage you to watch it.

Don’t get me wrong. Africa still faces immense challenges—social, political and economic. But if you are still seeing and writing about Africa as a miserable and incompetent monolith, you need to go to the nearest optician—or better still switch on to BBC Focus on Africa.