For Africa by Africa – A Review of ‘Africans Investing in Africa’ by Tolu Ogunlesi


“Africa Rising” is easily the most important story emerging from sub-Saharan Africa this century – more significant, in my opinion, than political unrest, terrorist threats, power hungry dictators, and the prospects of debilitating diseases. A combination of rising commodity prices, improving democratic and governance practices, and the adoption of technology, have helped many sub-Saharan African countries break out the vicious grip of persisting underdevelopment.

The Africa Rising Narrative has in recent years attracted plenty of attention from around the world, from writers, conference planners, investment banks, consulting firms, and foreign governments. The book, “Africans Investing in Africa: Understanding Business and Trade, Sector by Sector” is one of the latest additions to the burgeoning library of “Africa Rising”-inspired reports, surveys and analyses.

Edited by Terence McNamee, Mark Pearson and Wiebe Boer (and with an Introduction by renowned economics professor and development expert Paul Collier), Africans Investing in Africa is the outcome of a scholarly collaboration between two Africa-owned and Africa-focused philanthropic organisations, the Tony Elumelu Foundation in Nigeria, and the Oppenheimer family’s Brenthurst Foundation in South Africa. It comprises 16 essays, by a group of academics, researchers, business persons, consultants, and government officials, intended to collectively serve (as business leaders Tony Elumelu and Jonathan Oppenheimer write in the Foreword) as “an important manifesto for how intra-African commerce could help propel the continent to greater economic prosperity.”

(One important thing to note, starting out: even though “Africa” shows up again and again, this book is really about sub-Saharan Africa, not the entire continent – a reminder that the Sahara Desert is, for the continent, much more than a mere geographical divide).

The first section is devoted to “cross-cutting issues” – by which the editors mean the stuff that cuts across multiple countries: transport networks, borders, regional economic communities (like the EAC and ECOWAS), and the rise of pan-African “brands”.

The second section offers a number of case studies on “African champions” in various fields of commercial enterprise: Banking (South Africa’s Standard Bank, Nigeria’s United Bank for Africa, and the pan-African group, Ecobank); Cement (Nigeria’s Dangote Group and South Africa’s Pretoria Portland Cement); Fast-Moving Consumer Goods and Retail (Shoprite, Massmart, Pick ‘n Pay, Nakumatt, The Artee Group, SABMiller, Tiger Brands, Promasidor, Dangote, Zambeef, UAC Foods, etc); Information and Communications Technology (Cellulant, MTN, Seven Seas Technology Group), and Entertainment and Media (South Africa’s Naspers, Nigeria’s Nollywood and Kenya’s Nation Media Group).

Section 3 focuses on “emerging pan-African sectors” – oil and gas (in East Africa), private security, transport and logistics, and tourism and travel.

This book convincingly demonstrates the truism that Africa is not a country. Combining a bird’s eye view of the continent with Google-type Street Views of its business and policy and demographic landscapes, it shows the reader again and again that sub-Saharan Africa is an immensely diverse place, and that, even though its 55 countries often share common characteristics, a one-size-fits-all approach is a sure route to misadventure.

“Africans Investing in Africa also offers reminders of China’s impossible-to-ignore status in Africa. Contributor Lite Nartey reminds us that 20% of South Africa’s Standard Bank is owned by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China; the acquisition, in 2007, at a cost of US$5.5 billion is said to be China’s biggest single foreign investment ever. And in the chapter on cement, Lyal White tells us that the largest builder of cement plants in Africa (a continent he describes as “the last great cement frontier”) is a Chinese company known as Sinoma.

Indeed, one important question African countries have to face up to and answer is this: what lessons can we learn from China’s methods (propelled by a seemingly unassailable self-confidence), and what mistakes are to be avoided? Africa turning eastwards, while not without its own controversies, has no doubt helped create a counterbalance to an insufficiently beneficial economic monopoly previously wielded by the West. It is now up to Africa’s governments to exploit the presence of this alternative influence for the benefit of their citizens.

Another significant underlying theme of the book is the dynamic relationship between the continent’s two leading economies, Nigeria and South Africa. South Africa is generally treated as being in a class of its own. Nigeria’s emergence last year as Africa’s largest economy notwithstanding, South Africa continues to be the bigger brother. It singlehandedly accounts for half of the continent’s entire manufacturing exports, is the only African country in the G20, and its financial markets and infrastructure remain miles ahead of the rest of the continent.

And you only need to compare the footprints of South African companies in Nigeria (and the rest of the continent) with those of Nigerian companies in South Africa to realise just how much of a gap exists between South Africa and the rest.

For every Nigerian brand (Dangote, Globacom) making an inroad across Africa, there are several South African ones: Africans Investing in Africa regularly mentions Shoprite, Pep, Mr. Price, Woolworths, MTN, Promasidor, Naspers, Tiger, and Nampak. Nigeria has as much to learn from South Africa as from China.

For foreigners looking to invest in Africa, it can be an immensely bewildering place. By offering a detailed, immensely knowledgeable map of a territory regarded as the world’s last investment frontier, this book will be a great starting point for new and existing investors. But of course, it really sets out to speak, not to outsiders looking in, but instead to insiders wondering where (and how) to start looking. It is meant to inspire and embolden a new generation of African entrepreneurs and businesses to spread their wings across their possibility-filled continent, and build business empires the world will take notice of.

As the book makes clear, one of Africa’s big tragedies is that so little of its trade is carried out among its countries. In fact, only about 12% of all African trade takes place among African countries, the lowest in the world, compared to about 50% for Asia and North America, and 70% for Europe. From such a low base, there’s great potential for new grounds to be conquered across Africa.

And this is where politics and governance and policy-making come into the picture. Africa Rising is a great story, but without the wholehearted commitment and participation of African governments, it’d be an incomplete story; an impossible-to-complete one in fact, rather like attempting to soar on a single wing. No matter how ambitious African investors, entrepreneurs and businesses get, there’s a limit to how far they can go without supportive African governments.

This is why this book should be read even more wholeheartedly by government officials and policymakers than even by entrepreneurs themselves. Heads of State, Ministers (especially of Finance, Trade, Investment), law enforcement agents (especially Customs and Immigration) – all of these people need to pay attention, and understand that, more than anything else, the job of African governments is to get the hell out of the way.

African governments, like all governments everywhere else, ought to be at the forefront of infrastructure development in their countries – electricity, transportation, etc. But they also need to realise that, as important as ensuring the rapid development of critical infrastructure is the task of dismantling the visible and invisible barriers that stand in the way of trade and entrepreneurship: the red tape that turns border posts and ports into a waking nightmare for business people; the impunity of intellectual property pirates, land-grabbers, and abusers of legal procedures.

(Jacqueline Chimhanzi highlights a comment by Ghanaian President John Mahama that there are six border posts to be surmounted between Nigeria and Ghana, West Africa’s leading economies; while Terence McNamee and Daniella Sachs, authors of the chapter on tourism and travel, note that “land tenure and asset security are two of the greatest factors inhibiting investment in many African countries.”)

If every African government, at every level – central, state/provincial and local – woke up every day asking itself this one question: “What obstacle can I take out of the way of potential African investors today?”, Africa would be a much better place – more confident, more prosperous, more equal – for its hundreds of millions of expectant people. –





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