As I reflect on the future of Africa, I find my thoughts repeatedly drifting back to my own past.
My parents come from a small village in Senegal, in the northwest of Africa. It was a poor place, without running water or electricity. My ancestors were cow herders.
But, nonetheless, there was opportunity. Senegal’s capital city, Dakar, where I was born and educated, has world-class schools and libraries. The education I received there propelled me on to universities in France and Britain, and to an international career that eventually brought me to DHL.
My own experience as an African is a good illustration of both the formidable challenges that confront this vast continent and the tremendous opportunities that await it.
Africa is the world’s second largest continent – only Asia is bigger – and it is home to more than 1 billion people. The continent also possesses about 10% of the world’s petroleum reserves, and it holds about 90% of the world’s cobalt, 90% of the world’s platinum, 50% of the world’s gold, 98% of the world’s chromium, and one-third of the world’s uranium. There are also vast tracts of farmland under cultivation, producing everything from maize and wheat to asparagus and wine grapes.
There are 54 independent countries in Africa today, containing incredible cultural diversity, with more than 3,000 different languages spoken throughout, each one representing a unique cultural tradition. My continent also lays claim to the world’s most ancient Christian communities and its oldest Islamic universities.
Sadly, Africa also possesses a history stained with colonialism and slavery.
This dark period, which lasted well into the 20th century, was traumatic for Africans in many profound ways, both emotional and economic. While countries in Europe, America and Asia focused on building modern global economies after World War II, Africa’s best and brightest struggled to take control of their own destinies.
A New Beginning
I am happy to say that the struggle for independence is well behind us. My kids will only know about it from their history books. We are producing 700,000 university graduates every year who are concerned about the future and transforming the continent, integrating it into the global economy.
Africa’s nations are moving to the next level and coming together around their common linguistic, social and economic bonds.
Since 1975, 15 countries have been working together in the Economic Community of West African States. The mission of ECOWAS is to promote economic integration and foster collective self-sufficiency.
In the South, the Southern African Development Community was established in 1980 to facilitate socio-economic cooperation and integration among its 15 member states.
The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa stretches from Libya to Zimbabwe. Formed in 1994, COMESA aims to create a fully integrated, internationally competitive regional economic community.
This kind of cooperation bodes well for the future.
Sure, progress is slow. But, we shouldn’t forget that the European Community required more than 50 years to arrive at its present state of social and economic integration, and that ASEAN, founded in 1967, has only recently begun to deliver real economic benefits to its member states.
I have faith that we will continue to see African states cooperating more and more closely for common benefit. I think 50 years from now we will see four or five well-integrated regional entities seamlessly engaged in trade with one another and with the rest of the world.
Investment Is Flowing
This accelerating trend toward economic cooperation and integration comes as the populations of Asia and Latin America become more affluent, and there is increasing demand for energy, food, housing and basic consumer goods. As Africans continue to develop their economy, they will be in a good position to supply these commodities to the world, efficiently and at reasonable prices.
Already, trade between Africa and China topped US$100 billion in 2010. Trade with India was over US$50 billion. In fact, the volume of trade between Africa and Asia was higher in 2010 than the trade between Africa and all the other regions of the world combined.
Of course, sustaining this growth for the long term will require tremendous investment in infrastructure and production, especially if African businesses are going to emphasize value-added manufacturing over the export of energy and natural resources.
Again, I am optimistic. The global economy is really a simple system at heart. Money flows to areas that have the greatest potential to make a profit, and Africa is looking very attractive to both offshore and onshore investors right now.
Unfortunately, this success story is not well known outside of Africa. Although famines and civil wars generate spectacular images that are prominently reported on the front pages of newspapers around the world, when someone like Nigerian-based billionaire Aliko Dangote invests a billion dollars in an African industrial project, it almost never makes headlines. I guess images of progress just do not sell newspapers.
There are many investors like Mr. Dangote on the continent who are putting their ‘smart’ money behind crucial infrastructure and industrial projects. A recent study conducted by a respected African NGO reported that African countries collectively received about US$50 billion in investment from outside the continent during the most recent year for which statistics are available. But this amount represents only about 30% of the total investment in Africa for that year. The other 70% was generated from sources inside Africa.
This is encouraging news, but money is not the only thing that the African economy needs. Once minerals are extracted and processed, once goods are manufactured, they need to be shipped to customers located elsewhere on the continent and in other parts of the world.
We at DHL understand how important our services are to the competitiveness of the African economy.
In fact, we are the only logistics company operating in every country on the continent – a milestone we reached more than 30 years ago.
Africa is one of DHL’s fastest growing markets. In the first quarter of 2011, revenue growth in Africa was up more than 25% year-on-year.
DHL is also better placed than anyone else to connect Africa to the world and enable investors, importers, exporters and consumers to have and make better choices.
For me, personally, contributing to a bright future for my home continent is just about the sweetest reward I can earn as a professional. It is a reward I could not possibly have imagined when I first entered school as a cow herder’s grandson.