Dayo Olopade’s The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa begins with the litany of Africa’s failed governments but, remarkably, demonstrates how millions of Africans have leapfrogged those failures and turned their own lives into positive examples for the continent’s success. It’s a daring analysis of what’s wrong but, also, what could be right in African countries. In short, one of the most optimistic economic analyses of the continent that I have read, spinning its thesis from the literal fact of the continent’s glow: “A thermal map of Africa, depicting temperature and sunlight, confirms that the continent is literally bright. While the nations of the OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development] appear largely in cool tones of blue and green, Africa glows red and orange. Its solar resource is greater than anywhere else in the world. The region starved for electricity is spoiled for sun.”
However, it’s more likely the grim realities of the continent that are familiar: “The state framework in Africa is a constant impediment to development progress, because in practice, few Africans trust or validate the work of central government.” Olopade quotes another African economist, George Ayittey, who wrote that “leaving aside the democratic requirement that a government must be by the people and for the people, one expects at a minimum a ‘government’ to be responsive to the needs of the people, or at least, to perform some services for its people. But even the most basic requirement for ‘government’ is lacking.” Ayittey has called the African state “a mafia-like bazaar, where anyone with an official designation can pillage at will. In effect, it is a ‘state’ that has been hijacked by gangsters, crooks, and scoundrels.”
So how do people survive in countries where they cannot rely on their governments for anything? One final, lengthy, quotation provides the context for survival, even success: “In Kenya, it’s learning that the immigration ministry has ‘lost’ its copy of your work permit application—but can retrieve it for an unspecified fee. In Ethiopia, it’s arriving at the airport to find that the power is out (you try landing planes in that event). In Ghana, it’s the discovery that your university is on strike (again) and you’ll have to wait nine months to finish your degree. In Zimbabwe, it’s the smirk that comes from seeing a billboard wallpapered with your now-worthless local currency. In South Africa, it’s having an application to start a business returned after six months—because you used blue, not black, ink. In Liberia, it’s seeing girls walk miles into the bush to fetch water that should be coming out of the pipes underground. In Nigeria, it’s the realization that a promised road has been paid for but not paved. Everywhere, it’s the basic understanding that you are on your own.”
With such repeated frustrations, it’s little surprise that Africans have almost no national spirit, no sense that they are citizens of a country. Kinship and property (your friends and relatives and your locale) trump citizenship. In a chapter titled “Doing Bad in Africa,” with a sub-title, “Stuff We Don’t Want,” Olopade mentions the equivalent of what I call “book-dumping” in Africa, i.e., sending books that we in the West no longer want to Africans who we believe need them, with no thought about whether the books are suitable.. Used clothing sent to Africa puts garment workers in these countries out of work. Or, in one instance, western donors insisted that a hospital in a remote area of Somaliland needed an MRI machine “that broke soon after it arrived.” An exasperated midwife at the hospital “pointed out that the cost of the equipment would have trained forty to fifty midwives, who could have [had] a more durable impact on public health.” Africans have had to learn the hard way that sometimes it’s best to say no, to turn the gift down, and explain what they think they need rather than what outsiders decide.
The good news is that in country after country, grass roots projects have attempted to identify “long-term solutions to state inaction.” Her examples are often mine-boggling: completely self-taught computer programmers, young men rebuilding imported dumb cell phones so that they become smart phones, convincing manufacturers that mini-portions of basic necessities (sugar, laundry soap, etc) should be marketed instead of the giant-sized packages that we in the West are accustomed to buying. “Poverty produces incredible sophistication in money management” whether that be neighborhood lending organization or co-ops, or indigenous forms of informal finance (including sophisticated financing from the diaspora) that often compete with the microfinance organizations that have realized there is money to be made from small loans instead of the more traditionally recognized and Western-formulated larger ones.
Many Africans across the continent have attempted to find solutions for the continent’s food and energy poverty. Only one in three Africans has access to reliable electricity, but local solar, off-the-grid ventures are growing exponentially. Since 2010 they’ve been doubling every year. It was the same thing with cell phones, leapfrogging the landlines that were largely non-existent. “Dozens of African countries are building businesses that fix the power problem for corporations”—again, off-the-grid. Readily available and cheap cell phones have made it possible for African farmers to check crop prices, pesticide availability, seed banks, and even seek solutions for unexpected setbacks in farming because of weather. As one African agronomist in South Sudan said, “Grow your own seeds, grow your own food, grow your own fertilizer, grow your own money, grow your own everything”—all necessary because you learned long ago that you can’t rely on government agricultural experts who sit at their desks and refuse to get their hands dirty.
Africa’s youthful populations have slowly been learning that they, too, will have to come up with ways to improve their educations and develop their own skills instead of stagnating in “waithood,” hoping that their governments will supply them with jobs. That’s not going to happen. At the very beginning of her book, Olopade took the bold step of praising the young Nigerian males (mostly) much of the world has come to loathe: the 419 Yahoo boys, sending out massive numbers of e-mails from Internet cafes, the advance-transfer scams that recipients believe will make them rich. “They leverage ambition, resourcefulness, and tools at hand—including their own wits—to pursue a vilified but beneficial livelihood.” Survival demands that sometimes you have to bend the rules; people will always try to find a way to make a living. More positively—and I see this happening in other areas all around the world—youths in Africa are refusing to fight their parents’ ethnic and cultural wars but develop sustainable solutions to their problems instead.
Call it bootstrap economics, a constant search for localized answers to basic financial questions. “Grass roots” is going to have to replace “state inaction.” Loyalty to the central government requires that that government has created stability. Without it, take ownership of the problem and find a solution. Olopade shows precisely how that was done in Nairobi’s famous slum, Kibera, after the Kenyan government largely washed its hand of any attempt to assist the people of Kibera (roughly 170,000 residents). As one resident observed, his neighborhood “hasn’t been recognized by the government or anybody else. They still think of it as a forest….” Indeed, “the official Survey of Kenya has neither the capacity nor the energy to trace the slum’s constantly changing infrastructure and economy. Even a special urban planning team from the University of Nairobi threw up their hands, classifying Kibera’s jangle of kiosks and tin homes as broadly ‘residential.’”
So local residents used Google Maps and other GPS devices and created a detailed map of Kibera, listing all its businesses and services: health, education, and security, in short, a service directory for residents. Simple? No. Creative? Yes. And best of all, The Bright Continent is chockablock with similar, localized solutions for urgent problems from all over the sub-Saharan continent. It’s an amazing book, finally providing us with the optimism and the solutions that Africans desperately need. Olopade is a genius.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 272 pp., $26.
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.