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Beyond “Africapitalism”: Sustainability and Tech in Africa

By Keyanah Nurse 

In 2011, Tony Elumelu, founder of the Nigeria-based United Bank for Africa, introduced the concept of “Africapitalism.”  Offered as a solution to “save the continent,” Africapitalism maintains that it is possible, in fact necessary, for African entrepreneurs to develop the continent’s private economic sector while also improving the quality of life for the communities from which they emerge. Within such a view, Africapitalism has the power to transform and improve entire societies. For example, it can pave more roads, make electricity, water, and food more accessible and connect more remote regions with the rest of the world.  Most importantly, Africapitalism can accomplish all of these things while generating immense profit for those with the right business savvy.  

Indeed, because of its prioritization of social welfare, Africapitalism, upon first glance, makes a serious historic intervention.  It disrupts the legacies of slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism, which have funneled Africa’s natural and human resources to other regions of the world, leaving the continent relatively “underdeveloped.”  In doing so, Africapitalism potentially changes the very terms by which we in the West have come to understand Africa as “underdeveloped” in the first place. Through private capitalist enterprise, it positions the continent as the future of global economic development, a new “frontier” for investment and growth. 

These opportunities are exciting for those within and outside the continent, but with its promises of new “frontiers” for development, does Africapitalism actually dislodge the ghosts of colonialism’s past? Moreover, in the face of capitalism’s increasingly antagonistic relationship with our planet’s ecosystem, is Africapitalism a sustainable way to improve the quality of life for communities across the African continent? Is it possible to imagine a solution beyond Africapitalism, one that will generate prosperity and write a new future for Africa? 

The arena of tech is one such promising, yet problematic frontier. As of July 2019, there were a reported 618 active “tech hubs,” or start-up incubators, across the continent; a 40 percent jump from the previous year.  These hubs support start-ups geared towards solving a myriad of social and economic problems, from making financial and banking transactions easier to increasing the ease with which people can purchase goods and services.  While these hubs are largely concentrated in Nigeria and South Africa, smaller loci, such as Nairobi’s “Silicon Savannah” in Kenya and Cameroon’s “Silicon River” and “Silicon Mountain” have also emerged.   

Interestingly, the continent’s demographic changes are at the heart of such urgent innovation.  According to the authors of Africa’s Business Revolution (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018), Africa’s 1.2 billion population is in the midst of “economic acceleration:” not only is the population incredibly young, the median age being 20, but these numbers are projected to double over the next 30 years, making the continent one of the only places on the planet with an expanding pool of laborers and consumers.  Other demographic trends, including an increase in private consumption and disposable income, also support these authors’ optimism that now is the time to capitalize on the “world’s next big growth market”.  

There are two problems with this optimism.  First, within the realm of tech, African entrepreneurs by and large are not the examples of major start-up success on the continent.  Jumia, an e-commerce business that promises to be the “Amazon” of Africa, recently achieved “unicorn” status (the first of its kind on the continent) when its valuation reached one billion dollars in March 2019.  However, the CEO of the company is French. In a similar vein, others have pointed to the ease with which non-African entrepreneurs, and to a lesser extent those African entrepreneurs educated in Western countries, are able to acquire seed money over those Africans firmly rooted in the continent.  The difference, some say, is rooted in a cultural, racial, and historical bias against Africans’ capacity to be effective businesspeople. Debates over whether or not these dynamics disrupt the historical legacies that have “underdeveloped” Africa in the first place are ongoing. Are tech companies the new colonialists?  

The second problem highlights the major shortsightedness of venture capitalists, those who are seeking to invest in this new economic frontier, about the effect of climate change on the very populations they seek to exploit as workers and consumers.  Indeed, just as the authors of Africa’s Business Revolution, all of whom are current or former partners of McKinsey and Company, encourage interested investors to familiarize themselves with the particularities of the regions they hope to do business in, they have very little to say on this topic. The increased intensity of droughts, rainfall, heat waves and storms have all had significant impact on regions throughout the African continent. According to the U.N.’s Africa Renewal Report, published as part of the 2019 Climate Change Summit, severe drought has negatively impacted the women pastoralists in Kenya, who contribute to 90 percent of the supply of beef production in East Africa.  It has become more and more difficult for them to acquire water. Similarly, the New York Times has reported extensively on the relationship between migration and climate change in West Africa.  The rising temperatures have made it nearly impossible to rely on subsistence farming (an undoubly urgent problem given the aforementioned population boom), prompting thousands of men to migrate to cities or abroad in search of work.  As young Nigerian climate activist Lamboginny noted at this year’s U.N. Climate Change Summit, these migrants are often criminalized and detained.  His activism thus focuses on prison abolition.  

This vision of the present and future is markedly different from the vision of 2050 that attracts those venture capitalists seeking to invest their funds in new markets. Where they see an expanding pool of laborers and consumers, those with an eye to the domino effects of climate change, and the general resistance and apathy to sustainability, see a more precarious future.  Improving the quality of life across the African continent should absolutely be a priority, but Africapitalism, especially as it manifests itself in the tech industry and will surely manifest itself in others, is not the way forward. In order to “do well by doing good”, entrepreneurs working in Africa need to seriously contend with the realities of climate change, as well as the ways in which capitalism’s “growth fetish” has and will continue to lead to our ruin.

Keyanah Nurse is a femme intellectual queen on a mission to change the way we think about love, intimacy, and connection.  Follow her on Twitter @KeyanahNurse.

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