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Time for Africa to stop being the dark continent

Dr Edward Mungai is Dean of Strathmore Business School. He likes to use a satellite map of the world in his presentations to current and future students of the school. The map shows the earth by night – which parts are most brightly lit up.

As you would expect, North America, Europe and Japan have the brightest lights. Of the emerging world, parts of China, India, the Middle East and Brazil are beginning to shine. Africa, you will not be surprised to hear, remains the dark continent. Only the Johannesburg and Cairo conurbations show up on the map.

Dr Mungai goes on to show Africa’s strategic position in the world. If there is one continent that is smack in the middle of the flat world map, it is ours. If there is a location on the planet you might want to have for world dominance, it would be Africa. Africa has a face towards all the other continents of the world. Africa is similarly blessed in minerals and natural resources. It is a place of oil and forests, lakes and rivers, forests and wildlife. And finally, Africa is the place where scientists tell us human life originated.

Yet Africa remains dark. If you measure outputs like power or food or industrial production, Africa does not feature in the maps of the world. It accounts for minuscule proportions of the world’s production, trade and income. Africa’s diplomatic influence is tiny. Its military power is trained inward, on itself. Tens of thousands of Africans successfully escape from their mother continent every year.

Africa is the world’s oddity, its problem child, its country-bumpkin cousin. Africa attracts exploiters and do-gooders, mercenaries and missionaries (to paraphrase my fellow columnist Rasna Warah’s recent book) in equal measure. It is time all of us who live in Africa stand up to ask ourselves: WHY?

There are two easy answers. One is that the rest of world has repeatedly raped and pillaged Africa and stolen its resources. The western world shines brightly at night by keeping Africa dark. The second is that Africa has been let down by its own leadership. The history of post-independence Africa is that of a procession of murderous tyrants, despots and plunderers.

Both are lazy answers. Many other regions were colonised and their resources expropriated; many managed to overcome that history and rise up on their own strengths. And leaders are not visited upon Africans from other countries or planets: they emerge from within Africa and reflect the people who anoint and tolerate them.

No, those answers will not do. If we want to keep those answers as explanations for our lack of achievement, then we must explain why we persist in being exploited; in being vassals; in tolerating gross misgovernance.

Something else underlies Africa’s underachievement. That thing is called knowledge. Africa is mired in self-imposed ignorance. Africa does not lead the world in anything; Africa is not an innovator; Africa does not engage the world in ideas, debate or challenge. Africa is a spectator, a me-too player, a mimic and a subject.

It is time all of you reading this felt some deep-rooted shame about that state of affairs. A short visit to India will convince you that even countries mired in ethnic strife, political incompetence and a longer colonial history than ours can start to take off. They can record startling achievements in human development. And they can attain a self-belief and a newfound confidence that drives them to see the rest of the world as their playground.

Study those African countries that do show up in the night map of the world. It is not electricity that powers them; it is knowledge. They also have the largest number of universities in Africa; the highest proportion of children attending secondary and tertiary education; the most established research bodies and institutes of technological and managerial excellence.

That takes me back to Dr Mungai and his school. I disclose that I am biased in this regard: I am a member of Strathmore Business School’s advisory board. But that is a badge I wear with honour. I first visited this school 3 short years ago, and found myself in a small room with just 3 employees. But the man driving it was a visionary – George Njenga, Dr Mungai’s predecessor as Dean. The institution driving it was robust – Strathmore University. And its ambition was huge – to become the leading business school in the region.

Well, that business school is now an unprecedented success story. It started off with just one program, taught almost entirely by imported lecturers. This year it is running more than two dozen, taught by a healthy mix of local and foreign academics and practitioners. It has become a meeting place for ideas about business in Africa, a commercial exchange for knowledge.

If Africa is to light up, we need many more knowledge generators in the continent. Knowledge will illuminate Africa. I will return to this idea next week, right here.

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  • duncan

    As a Strathmore old boy I feel proud to see it grow in leaps and bounds. I also agree with your sentiments in this column.I must however emphasize that it is people and vision that turn things round.As a country, we need an anchor, a clear vision to rally upon and to take clear steps to articulate that vision.This is what we lack and contributes to perpetual non committal state.

  • Duncan:

    Greetings. I agree with you: leadership matters. In fact I run a leadership programme (see elsewhere on the site). We do indeed need not one, but a series of good leaders who can see the way and take us there.

    However: are we ready? Could Kenyans today recognise, let alone elect, a good leader? The electorate has been kept mired in ignorance. It is swayed by loud voices, rhetoric, empty promises, handouts, large convoys. It is incapable of installing a good leader. Good people do stand for election, but they never win.

    The wait for a messianic leader will therefore be a very long one, like the wait for Godot. However, if we can just invest enough in knowledge at all levels, we can affect people’s discernment – their ability to see the pearl from the garbage. It will take time, but once it is done there will be no fooling the people.

    Think about all the thousands who have gone through the Strathmore (or Starehe, or other) system. That is a group that is anchored in knowledge and ethics and discipline. It is a group that affects decisions all over the country. But it is too small a group. We need that experiment to be replicated all over, for millions of children to be given a rigorous but affordable grounding in knowledge, sobriety and personal discipline.

    That was my hope and appeal. Our future is in the hands of educators, current and future.

    More on this next week.

  • Bindra,

    I partly agree with you. But again, I believe that we cannot ignore the progress made neither should we fail to realize that Africa’s uniqueness presents a different approach to almost every situation.

    I look at the progress that the private sector seems to be making and just cant stop believing that the government, even with its many battles and bad pr will be forced to style up sooner or later.

    I think about concepts like what you earlier mentioned, Strathmore’s Executive MBA, the innovative M-PESA and Equity’s M-KESHO and think that this is a continent that has already seen the light.

    I think of the new revolutionary leaders who have initiated global concepts and feel that we too are having our own share of contribution to the world. I think of Kenya, recently voted as third in bandwidth in Africa and at 52 globally, the awards that recognized the government in 2009 (Government Leadership Award) and feel that we are on the right track.

    My point is, we are victims of some circumstance in Africa. And a generation has risen that is fighting this circumstance single handedly. And how are they doing it? They have identified the problems we are having (basic necessities) and used inventions of others to address these problems. M-Pesa is solving the poverty problem by using a phone (an invention of the west) to help small holders transact, save and buy goods, pay for services. What did we experience before then? Transfer pricing by multinationals that focused on the bottom line. Further, BPO is catching up creating employment opportunities. Very soon, 250,000 of the High School leavers may be able to join productive workforce with little IT skills. There is the skill and a huge willing population.

    I believe that the old school leaders will naturally be phased out by productive elimination. Look at Communications Commission of Kenya; recently put to task about a monopolistic play in the communication industry by the minority players; these are new forces that have defied what the government was known for. And the forces are getting bigger. The constitution alterations; there has been noise made about it and the list goes on.

    So, i think Africa is already not the dark continent, it is just that the lights were too dim that it would take a lot more energy before they can shine again; Thanks to the private sector for making it happen and having the voice to push the government in low tones that are getting louder by the day.

  • Michael:

    I love your optimism! And even share it. In fact, I echoed similar sentiments here:


    I, too, hope the economy will take charge soon and politicians will be forced to be its handmaidens. BUT – none of that will happen unless we make huge investments in knowledge and connectivity. Only knowledge can generate the power that Africa needs.

  • Patti

    As a non-Kenyan (but African) coming to Kenya often for meetings, I always find the Daily Nation and Sunday Nation interesting reading, and this past Sunday was no exception, especially your article on Africa as the dark continent. I’m not an Afro-pessimist but very frustrated with the lack of leadership across the continent and blaming of others for the circumstances we find ourselves in. Yes, we do make progress as pointed out by Michael, but this progress is too limited and too slow if we take into consideration the natural resources and talent available on this continent. We need to change our mindsets and stop seeing ourselves as helpless and hapless victims, but to start taking responsibility for our development by becoming masters/mistresses of our own destiny.

  • Patti:

    Absolutely right – the problem is first and foremost in the head. Too many in Africa have a victim complex, and are waiting for help from elsewhere. People who have advanced have always helped themselves. I would also add that there is no point in waiting for the poor of Africa to help themselves – they are genuinely imprisoned. It is for the thinking classes to do something about the situation. Support the growing knowledge institutions of Africa – they will ultimately light the way.