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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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