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2 June 2015

Africa Rising: Shining a light on European misconceptions around the erstwhile “dark continent”

Written by: John Thompson, Account Director at Edelman

Corporate Reputation

The Indian tiger and the Chinese dragon have had their days; it’s now the African lion’s turn
Ashish Thakkar, Africa’s youngest billionaire

Africa is rising. For whom, how fast and for how long depends on who you ask but it’s the growth story that a lot of our clients are talking about.

Demographic trends are favouring Africa. While other continents face ageing populations, over the next 30 years Africa’s working age population is expected to double to 1.2 billion, boosting productive capacity. Research by Capital Economics and Jersey Finance suggests that African economies have the potential to grow collectively at an average compounded rate of 5% a year so, by 2040, they may quadruple in size.

If we put aside the established narrative around natural resources and the extractive and petrochemical industries, there is a yawning knowledge gap. Without clear and credible communication channels, decision makers and opinion formers in northern Europe and the US still retain preconceptions or misconceptions about Africa that hinder the private foreign capital investment the continent needs to realise its potential.

Be honest- how many of these patronising preconceptions do you recognise?

“I’ve seen a documentary on Africa I think it was called the Lion King/ Captain Phillips/The last King of Scotland/Blood Diamond/Out of Africa”

“Most of Africa is a dangerous war zone/ pirate’s paradise”

“It’s South Africa for business and Nigeria for oil- the rest are just fly over countries”

“Well of course it’s virtually a Chinese exclave”

“Dear Sir,

I am Mariam Abacha, widow of the late general Sani Abacha…”

As communications professionals, we should see this as an enormous opportunity to contribute. After all, how often do we assert our role to drive awareness and understanding in order to change behaviour and to build trust?

The Capital Economics report acknowledges that Africa must address its lack of infrastructure, buildings, machinery, telecommunications networks and other physical capital whilst corruption, security problems and distribution of wealth continue to dominate the headlines.

These are not inconsiderable issues, but neither are they insurmountable. However, it is local solutions to these problems (rather than sticking plasters administered by outsiders) that should form the largest part of the Africa-rising story.

There are vast differences between the 55 states that comprise Africa. Some have massive mineral deposits and oil reserves, others have none. Some have grinding military conflicts and some have been peaceful since independence. All have growing urban sectors, yet there are huge differences in infrastructure. To find a systematic logic in anything so huge and differentiated would be a major accomplishment
‘The Looting Machine’ by investigative journalist Tom Burgis, Financial Times Review by Stephen Chan, Professor of World Politics,  SOAS

Africa is not one country- it really is massive – if you combine the USA, China, India, Europe and Japan they all fit into Africa. In fact the USA fits into the African continent three times. To apply our preconceptions to an entire continent with a population of over a billion people made up of 3,000 ethnic groups will cost us in terms of opportunity.

There will be more to follow in the Edelman magazine on Africa Rising, from fin-tech and 4G farmers to church groups, safe sex and campaigns that put the battle in “election battle” but for now I’ll leave you with food for thought from a recent McKinsey study:

Future economic growth will be supported by Africa’s increasing ties to the global economy…Africa’s economic growth is creating substantial new business opportunities that are often overlooked by global companies

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