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The Soft Underbelly of “Africa Rising”: Restoring Our Belief in Each Other to Get It DONE

Reimagining Our Future Imagine this: you wake up in Nairobi at 5 a.m. to a cup of Good African coffee from Uganda. You invested in Good African because like founder Andrew Rusagira, you want to change

Reimagining Our Future
Imagine this: you wake up in Nairobi at 5 a.m. to a cup of Good African coffee from Uganda. You invested in Good African because like founder Andrew Rusagira, you want to change the fact that “Africans produce what they do not consume and consume what they do not produce.” You are headed to Kampala for a 9 a.m. business meeting with your local office regarding a recent oil pipeline investment. As you dash out the door to the railway station, you grab your Kenyan National ID to cross the border, no passport required. Just before the train leaves, you use your mi-Fone to set up a meeting for the following day in Juba with your colleagues from Nigeria, Mozambique and Cote d’Ivoire. You are convinced that you have the best African talent working across your operations. If all goes well in Kampala today, you can be home for dinner.

Within 10 years, this is the Africa I want to live in. One that embraces the free movement of people, capital and ideas across nation-state boundaries. That a 24-hour journey on the Lunatic Express from Nairobi to Kampala will take less than three hours when the high speed passenger rail is in place is not a future pipe dream, but a reality within our grasp. Yet, the Africa rising narrative lingers stale for many who continue to point to our inability – perceived or otherwise – as a people to succeed; the “endemic” culture of corruption, our lack of trust in each other as business partners and our poor work ethic. We must acknowledge the truth that lies in these statements (however small) and work to address them. But we must not let them define us.

I believe in our strength as a continent; we are poised to become a $15 trillion economy by 2060 (the equivalent of the EU’s economy today) with a workforce larger than China’s. In 2060, one in four people will be African. But there are many barriers to inclusive growth: two-thirds of Sub-Saharan Africans lack access to electricity, only one-third of Africans living in rural areas are within two kilometers of an all season road versus two-thirds in other developing countries. 84% of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) are either unserved or underserved, representing a value gap in credit financing of more than USD 150 billion. These problems are real and are not to be trivialized.

The “Mental” Barrier to Development
However, I believe that the biggest barrier in our quest to convert our potential into impact is not hard capital, but rather the collective conviction we need in ourselves to demand only the best from each other and our leadership; we deserve nothing less. Until we believe in our ability to set and control our development agendas as Africans, we will continue to entangle ourselves in systems built by others. Building this collective conviction starts with answering one question: what is the legacy we want to create as young African leaders? Our grandparents fought for our independence in the ‘60s and our parents took part in creating the lost decades of the ‘90s where many of our countries endured devastatingly poor economic performance, living standards declined on average, and sub-Saharan Africa became the epicenter of the global HIV epidemic. Today, seven of the 10 fastest growing global economies are in Africa, yet more than a quarter of the countries in Africa are poorer now than they were in 1960.  What will we do about it?

Many thought leaders (including economists, academics, and private sector organizations with strong research capabilities) have written about paths to economic development in Africa that address hard capital issues. These include McKinsey’s “Lions on the Move Report” (2010), The World Bank’s “Africa Pulse” (2014), the various op-eds written by Professor Calestous Juma on technology, globalization and innovation, Ernst and Young’s annual “Doing Business in Africa Report” and the numerous academic papers presented at the annual Center for the Study of African Economies Conference. But what about overcoming the mental barriers to development?

Steve Biko—an antiapartheid hero—once said, “being black is not a matter of pigmentation – it is a reflection of a mental attitude.” Last summer, when I worked with the Ministry of Infrastructure in Rwanda, this attitude was in full force; I was surrounded by female State Ministers of Energy who were only 32 years old, serving as an inspiration to a generation of rising leaders growing up in a capital city where streetlights and public transportation work. While Rwanda’s development model has its shortcomings, the young Rwandans I met have a mentality that, if there is a problem, they are the ones to fix it together because they can, and they must. How can we develop this across the continent?

A way forward – Changing Our Mindset
Attitudes and mindsets are the hardest thing to change, but we have to start somewhere. Below are a few actions I am trying within my community and networks to push for change – I invite you to comment below, and share your own. This is neither prescriptive nor comprehensive, but a starting point:
• Gain a deeper appreciation for our own pre-colonial history, and understand our own family heritage. When is the last time you had a history lesson at a public school in your African home country that was not colonial history? Sadly the answer for me is never, even after seven years in the local Kenyan education system. Suggested readings that I am making my way through include the canonical works of Cheikh Anta Diop, starting with “The African Origin of Civilization, Myth or Reality?” and Robin Walker’s “When We Ruled”.
• Hold the media and ourselves accountable for perpetrating single story narratives of the continent (e.g., #AfricaSees on Twitter, curating content from an aggregator I co-founded www.secondstoryafrica.com). Additionally, we must avidly share stories of progress and success (e.g., Sangu’s Delle’s upcoming book on seeding entrepreneurs). To share these stories, we must know them and know each other.
• Understand the language of “the other”; literally and figuratively. If we have Chinese investors deep in the DRC, we need more Ethiopians who can navigate Guangzhou with ease. Why is it that on talks about Africa at our various graduate institutions, you will see a rainbow of colors in the audience, but in talks on European foreign policy you are hard pressed to see a dark face? Figuratively, we need to speak the quantitative languages of capitalism and international development. We need more people in the private sector and government who speak “World Bank”, “IMF” and “Private Equity”. If we engage in non-commercial agreements for our oil and natural resources, or gather more debt in order to fuel domestic consumption, it should not be because we did not know any better.
• Leaders across the continent must set the global Africa agenda for inclusive growth on our terms. Strength in numbers; we need to consolidate and collaborate where it makes sense lest we cannibalize our own efforts. Groups like Africa 2.0, the Council of Ministers on Power, the African Energy Leaders Group and Power Africa are targeting many of the same installed capacity projects, but these issues deserve more attention than a side conversation at The World Economic Forum (Davos) –i.e., arguably the most influential annual gathering of global political and business elites.
Young Africans today are leading the ‘second wave’ of independence movements across the continent from South Sudan to Egypt. We are fighting for systems of governance that work for us, on our terms. We are owning the conversation on Africapitalism as we seek to simultaneously grow our economic and social wealth through African owned businesses. We are grappling with our personal identities—proud African citizens with a distinctively global outlook on the world. We can, and we must, cultivate a collective conviction in each other to get things done the right way. Our legacy depends on it.

Amandla Ooko-Ombaka is a joint-degree candidate at Harvard pursuing an MBA at the Business School (HBS) and MPA in International Development at the Kennedy School of Government (HKS) where she is a Center for Public Leadership Fellow. Prior to Harvard, Amandla was a management consultant with McKinsey & Company in Lagos, Nigeria affiliated with the Oil & Gas practice and has since worked with the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative and the African Leadership Network. She is a Board member of Smart Citizens Kenya – a non-profit promoting civic education for Kenyan youth, advises several other non-profit Boards, and is the Co-Founder of several ventures including  www.secondstoryafrica.com and The Leadership Institute at Yale – a 501 (c)(3). Amandla loves to run, eat, and pair laughter with hearty conversations. She is a Kenyan national and holds a BA in Economics & International Studies with distinction, from Yale University. You can follow her at @amandlaoo

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