Africa is rising while the rest of the world sleeps.
It is a rise that struck me as a real possibility within moments of reading in Alvin Toffler’s, “Revolutionary Wealth” in 2006. The key to said rise? Cell phones.
Toffler explained how cell phones were beginning to penetrate Africa. Africa has long been held back by geography and cell phones, with their eventual access to the Internet held out the possibility of transcending geography.
My first thoughts concerned the rapid spread of learning materials: Africans would get better schoolbooks, better access to information on crops and disease. Later, it became clear that cell phones would facilitate trade and political organizing.
The vision has been born out in the numbers:
According to the Economist, growth rates in Africa have outpaced those in East Asia eight of the past 10 years. While African governments still tend to be unusually corrupt, they are nevertheless increasingly democratic. And everywhere there are more young college graduates eager to transform their countries.
But to understand why this is happening now, we need to look at why it did not happen before.
Compared with Europe or East Asia, Africa has little coastline, few navigable rivers, and a vast and impenetrable interior. Major rivers, like the Congo, tend to be punctuated by rapids and falls, which make travel difficult. This has long impeded trade and the spread of ideas.
Simply put, Africans have lacked the ability to communicate across long distances, and this made it historically difficult to consolidate larger polities.
Africa is also a rather dry continent with poor soils. This has made it difficult to provide the food surplus needed to support higher economic development. And it has meant that in order to survive, populations must be dispersed, which has further impeded the urbanization that has long been an engine of growth in places like Europe. But Africa’s geographic woes run deeper still.
In his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond provides perhaps the most intriguing and revolutionary explanation.
He notes that diseases, crops and animals all travel more easily east-to-west along lines of latitude. Traveling north-to-south tends to involve crossing from one climate zone to another, and the changing temperatures therein can be life threatening for travelers, animals, crops and even disease. One can often go east-to-west, on the other hand, for thousands upon thousands of miles without changing climates.
The theory suggests that Eurasia, with its vast and unending steppe stretching east-to-west from China to Hungary, would possess a greater abundance of domestic crops and animals. It also suggests the people living in this zone would have developed a greater immunity to diseases. And this is exactly what we find.
Both Africa and South America, which are stretched north-to-south along longitudinal lines have lacked the same variety of highly productive crops and domesticable animals, and this long impeded their development. Further, they have been plagued with endemic disease.
In the race between civilizations for economic development, Africa was hobbled from the start and was therefore easy to exploit. First came the Arab slave trade, then the European slave trade and then colonialism. When Africa finally emerged with its own states in the 1960s and 70s, they were weak and riven with tribal conflict. Big man dictators quickly came to dominate as Africa sank deeper into poverty.
But now, with the use of technology, Africa is transcending geography and with it the burdens of history.
According to Informa Telecoms, Africa as a region has now achieved the world’s second highest rate of mobile phone subscriptions. This is resulting in an explosion of self-expression and political engagement in places like Nigeria, which accounts for a quarter the population of sub-Saharan Africa, and where you can find a smart, young generation debating the coming elections and sharing some of the world’s best amateur short stories and poetry.
The mobile revolution is facilitating the transferal of money and better access to credit. And this is increasing investment, while providing the poorest of the poor with a hedge against hard times.
Access to the Internet allows Africans to overcome geographic barriers to the spread of culture and trade. But it also makes it easier to overcome other barriers, like disease and poor soils.
African farmers now have greater access to improved farming methods and markets. Villagers now know more about disease prevention and treatment. And social entrepreneurs all over the world are developing low-impact and affordable technologies for Africa that will increasingly stick and spread.
The evolutionary theorist, Robert Wright, explains that rather than going away, technologies accumulate and spread over time, so that the world itself is becoming over-ripe with human invention. Previously, knowledge of these technologies has passed over land and sea, which historically posed difficult for reception in Africa. Now access to the Internet is finally allowing Africa to overcome these geographical barriers and to enjoy the fruits of development.
The result is something entirely new: a younger generation with access to the knowledge of the world, and although they might lack the infrastructure and leadership needed to put it the new-found knowledge to good use, they have the drive and desire to bring to fruition what the corrupted systems are preventing.
It is not uncommon, for instance, for my Nigerian friends to speak of constantly trying to better themselves. African growth rates are high for a reason, and if my explanation is correct, they should only continue to grow.
With the economic development comes social and political development. There is good reason many of my Nigerian friends, earning a small fraction of what my American friends earn, are far more optimistic for the future.
Author: Theo Horesh
Editor: Emma Ruffin