If there’s a document that summarizes the spirit of African 2.0 that Emeka is trying to showcase at this conference, it’s Carol Pineau’s film, “Africa: Open for Business“. She tells us that her reason for making a film focusing on African entrepreneurship was her frustration as a journalist. She covered wars and famines, but she couldn’t sell a story to her editors about cellphones on the continent. She tells us that an African can-do ethic gives Africa amazing potential: “As an American to put a nail into a board and they’ll complain they don’t have a hammer. Ask an African and they’ll find a brick, or a shoe. Imagine what that spirit can do for African business.”
She shows us three clips from her movie: a Nigerian clothing company, making fashions for children called “Rough and Tumble”; Alieu Conte’s hugely successful mobile phone company in the DRC, which has had more than a 1000 times return on investment capital; the remarkable Somali airline Diallo Airlines, which operates in a country without a government (In his clip, CEO Mohammed Olan notes, “It’s sometimes a blessing not to have a government: corruption is not a problem because there’s no government.” That line gets a lot of applause.)
Africa, Pineau tells us, has the best return on capital of any market in the world. Why isn’t there widespread investment on the continent. Risk? Botswana has lower risk than Japan in terms of international credit ratings. The perception of risk far outpaces the real risk.
Pineau is concerned about the long-term psychological damage of poor coverage of the continent. She reminds us that colonialism tried to ensure that colonies were never able to compete with their conquerors. She argues that the images of Africa are a form of this colonialism, and they perpetuate uncomfortable trends. “Aid has never, ever developed a nation,” she argues.
One of the problems is that we rarely take African voices seriously – she points to reports of snow on the peaks of Kilimanjaro. British geographic societies wouldn’t believe reports of snow on the mountain’s peak until a British explorer had been there. The same thing happesn today, she tells us, in coverage of relief work. The people actually giving food and medical aid are Africans, but the people interviewed on camera are the “white saviors.”
While most of the North is ignoring Africa, China is not. Pineau points to the “love affair” developing between Africa and China, exemplified by the fact that this year’s African development bank meetings are being held in Shanghai.
Pineau’s new film is titled “African Investment Horizons” – it’s a view of the larger financial systems that are effecting African change. This is less about small-scale entrepreneurship and more about Africa-focused hedge funds.
She leaves us with two questions:
What would we do if we really cared about development in Africa?
What can we learn from Africa if we decided to listen and stop always trying to teach?