Africa in 2012 [The Economist]

Over the past decade six of the world’s ten fastest-growing countries were African. In eight of the past ten years, Africa has grown faster than East Asia, including Japan. Even allowing for the knock-on effect of the northern hemisphere’s slowdown, the IMF (International Monetary Fund) expects Africa to grow by nearly 6% this year, about the same as Asia.

In 2000-08 around a quarter of Africa’s growth came from higher revenues from natural resources. Favourable demography is another cause. With fertility rates crashing in Asia and Latin America, half of the increase in population over the next 40 years will be in Africa. But the growth also has a lot to do with the manufacturing and service economies that African countries are beginning to develop. The big question is whether Africa can keep that up if demand for commodities drops.

Optimism about Africa needs to be taken in fairly small doses, for things are still exceedingly bleak in much of the continent. Most Africans live on less than two dollars a day. Food production per person has slumped since independence in the 1960s. The average lifespan in some countries is under 50. Famine persist, the climate is worsening, with deforestation and desertification still on the march.

Some countries praised for their breakout economic growth, such as Angola and Equatorial Guinea (thanks to gas and oil), have huge corruption problem. Some that have begun to get economic development right, such as Rwanda and Ethiopia, have become politically noxious. Congo, after a shameful election process, still looks barely governable and hideously corrupt. Zimbabwe is a scar on the conscience of the rest of Africa. South Africa, which used to be a model for the continent, is tainted with corruption; and within the ruling African National Congress there is talk of nationalising land and mines, which doesn’t make political sense at all.

Yet against that depressingly familiar backdrop, some fundamental numbers are moving in the right direction. Africa now has a fast-growing middle class; according to the Standard Bank, around 60 million Africans have an income of $3,000 a year and 100 million will by 2015. The rate of foreign investment has increase dramatically, around tenfold in the past decade.

China’s arrival has improved Africa’s infrastructure and boosted its manufacturing sector. Other non-Western countries, from Brazil and Turkey to Malaysia and India, are following its lead. Africa could break into the global market for light manufacturing and services such as call centres. Cross-border commerce, long suppressed by political rivalry. Africa’s enthusiasm for technology is boosting growth. It has more than 600 million mobile-phone users (more than America or Europe). Around a tenth of Africa’s land is covered by mobile-internet services (a higher proportion than in India). The health of many millions of Africans has also improved, thanks in part to the wider distribution of mosquito nets and the gradual easing of the ravages of HIV/AIDS. Skills are improving: productivity is growing by nearly 3% a year, compared with 2.3% in America.

All this is happening partly because Africa is at last getting a taste of peace and decent government. For three decades after African countries threw off their colonial shackles, not a single country has peacefully ousted a government or president at the ballot box. But since Benin in 1991, it has happened more than 30 times, far more often than in the Arab world.

Population trends could enhance these promising developments. the rise of educated young people entering the job market and a decline in the birth rates are positive signs. Having a lot of young adults is good for any country if its economy is thriving, but if jobs are in short supply it can lead to frustration and violence. Whether Africa’s demography brings a dividend or disaster is largely up to its governments.

But let's not loose our focus here, Africa still needs deep reform. Governments should make it easier to start businesses and cut some taxes and collect honestly the ones they impose. Land needs to be taken out of communal ownership and title handed over to individual farmers so that they can get credit and expand, something that will benefit the all community. And, most of all, politicians need to act as politicians and not business-men and leave power when their voters tell them to.

Western governments should open up to trade rather than just dish out aid. Foreign investors should sign the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which would let Africans see what foreign companies pay for licences to exploit natural resources. African governments should insist on total openness in the deals they strike with foreign companies and governments.

Autocracy, corruption and strife will not disappear overnight. But at a dark time for the world economy, Africa’s progress is a reminder of the transformative promise of growth.

Patrice de Boeck is director for Business_Network Consulting | A consultancy focused on providing fresh and innovative approach to investment and development in Central Africa, through the provision of services covering Finance, Marketing, Strategy and Sports Sponsorship.