EMMA, 17 April 2019
Our perceptions of Africa are not in sync with the fast changing reality on the continent. And I argue why this is a problem. I spoke this column at ‘The Future of Investing in Africa’, an event organized by Accesserator and EMMA.If I say ‘Africa’, what image comes to your mind? Perhaps you think of villages with thatched roof huts, large families, and poor children playing in the mud. You probably don’t think of cities with apartment blocks, supermarkets and well-dressed families. But did you know that today, 40 percent of all Africans live in cities? And about a quarter is middle class?
A question: how many children in Africa go to primary school? 40 percent? 60 percent? 80 percent? The correct answer is 80 percent. And the figure in Malawi is over 95 percent.
Let us compare the Netherlands with Rwanda. Which country has more female members of parliament? Which country has the highest rate of measles vaccination? And which country was the first to ban plastic bags from supermarkets? The answer is three times Rwanda. Did you know this?
Now for something completely different. Here your see some nostalgic images that the elder ones among us will remember. Uncle police drove Porches. When your car broke down, you called the Wegenwacht at a Praatpaal. The A2 between Den Bosch and Eindhoven did not exist and the Prince Clausplein looked like this… Times have changed. Everyone knows that the Prince Clausplein now looks like this…
Now image that you start your navigation system and it says: ‘The roadmap of 1980 is loaded. Let’s go’. Would you trust that TomTom and drive off? Of course not.
But when it comes to Africa, many of us walk around with roadmaps that have been outdated for 30 years or more. Africa is a synonym for poverty, droughts, hunger, war, corruption and diseases. Africa, that is the continent that received buckets full aid, and has failed to make any progress.
Friends in Blantyre
25 years ago, I first travelled to Malawi. Here you see a younger version of myself on the couch with my new friends Grace and Boniface, whom we met earlier that day in Blantyre. Since then, I frequently visit Malawi and I have lived in the country three times for half a year, together with my family.
Let there be no misunderstanding: Malawi is one of the poorest countries on earth. And yet, I can tell you a different story. 25 years ago, life expectancy in Malawi was 47 years. Today it is 63. 25 years ago, 1 in 5 children died before their 5th birthday. Today that figure has dropped to 1 in 18.
25 years ago, Boniface, the man in the picture, was infected with hiv without knowing it. And without having any chance of surviving. He died four years after that picture was taken. But things have changed. His wife, my friend Grace, was one of the first Malawians who benefited from a free hiv-treatment program. Today, 70 out of 100 patients do. She has been on hiv-medication for over 15 years. And she is in perfect health today.
Bad but better
Things are bad in Africa. Things are better in Africa.
But our Africa-TomTom keeps repeating that things are just bad in Africa. And we plant that software into the minds of our children. My daughter, about 11 years old when she lived in Malawi, got tired of explaining to her Dutch friends that we lived in a house, not a hut between wild animals. She had to explain that she went to school, just like all kids. And that her Malawian friends had Facebook too.
You can laugh about it. But our outdated Africa-TomTom is a serious problem. And this is why.
Every year, thousands of Europeans board a plane to Africa with their ancient roadmaps. They are on their way to ‘do something good’ as a volunteer or intern. After all, people in Africa are poor, their knowledge is miles behind ours. So Africans must be glad when ‘we’ come to help and teach them. So here we have Janneke, a medical student, who tells the doctor in ‘her’ hospital how he should stitch a wound. She noticed that he is not doing it the way she was taught at school. And her outdated roadmap tells her that African doctors did not have much schooling. Imagine how that doctor must feel, being told lessons by a 22-year old.
That outdated roadmap tells aunt Gerda that development aid is a complete waste. Sure, she donates to Giro555 every now and then. She is not a heartless women, suffering in Africa pains her. But she does not think that our help is making any difference. After all, we’ve been giving aid for 50, 60 years and Africa is still poor. Look, she just saw another advertisements with pitiful children on television.
Well, ask my friend Grace if development aid is a waste of money. Her children benefited from the huge expansion of free government schooling – largely financed with British aid. When she was 20, a Dutch doctor saved her live when she had a serious heart problem. And think about the hiv-mediation that is keeping her healthy – thanks to aid from the Global Fund and the Gates Foundation.
Too poor to repay
And then there is my cousin Robert, who also hasn’t updated his Africa-software for a while. He is affluent and keen on investing his capital in young start-ups. But it would never cross his mind to help entrepreneurs in Africa. Africa? That’s poverty and aids, that’s war and ethnic violence. What good can come from that continent? Lending money to African entrepreneurs? Hell no – Africans are too poor to repay their loans. And besides, the continent is so ridden with corruption that you’d be a fool to try.
Talking about corruption: how corrupt is Africa? Think of all Malawians who have been in touch with an official, such as a police man, a civil servant, or a hospital doctor. How many have paid a bribe last year? More than half? About half? Less than half? The answer is 1 in 8. You may argue that this is still a lot, but the truth is: most African officials are not corrupt. And by the way: most African borrowers repay their loans.
Our outdated Africa-road map hurts us, and above all it hurts Africa. It deprives Africans and Europeans from equal interactions. It hampers support for successful development interventions. And it robs African entrepreneurs and European investors from opportunities that could benefit both.
From which year is your Africa software? Please update it as soon as possible.