This Is How to Talk About Africa's Development
To better understand how we should frame conversations about the history and future of Africa, we must first acknowledge who gets to tell the continent's story. Last weekend I attended the sixth annual LSE Africa Summit. The event was rich with informed insights into Africa's "future frontiers", with a collection of African academics, activists, entertainers, artists and entrepreneurs spending two days mapping out a broad future for a diverse continent of 54 countries and 1.3 billion people.
The audience was primarily made up of black students who keenly interacted with the speakers and panellists, with engaged debates and critical questions. From discussions about Nigeria's Nollywood film empire and Netflix, to powering Africa through renewable energies, the summit and the sheer range of topics it visited was unlike anything I have ever attended. It was a long way from the reductive public debate of recent weeks, concerning "white saviours" and their pilgrimages to Darkest Africa, and their right to decorate their Instagram feeds with random black kids.
Despite this, however, the event offered a reminder that western governments still have a lot of power over who does and doesn't have access to lead these sort of platform discussions. Opening the summit, Professor Tim Allen, the Director of LSE's Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa, pointed out that around 25 of the African co-researchers he had invited to attend – as speakers, panellists and guests – were denied visas to come to the UK.
Too many people still believe in the stock imagery of corrupt, disease-ridden, war-ravaged Africa, pushed by organisations such as Comic Relief and your favourite social media philanthropists; the underlining message being that helpless Africans should be grateful for the generosity of the western world.
But the problem is that singular narratives about Africa not only bring us back to the dated optics of the likes of The Economist's "hopeless continent" cover in May of 2000, but also erase how Africans themselves are doing incredible work taking on the social, political and economic challenges of the day. Africans' desire to shape and control the unique story of their specific country is not about hiding the continent's problems – rather, it is a recognition that solutions cannot be reduced to alleviating poverty alone, and that internal reform must be led by those who truly know the most.
Ismail Ahmed, Founder and Executive Chairman of the money transfer organisation WorldRemit, provided the opening keynote for the summit, reporting on how Somaliland is becoming a "cashless society". Somaliland declared independence from Somalia at the start of the civil war in 1991, but is only recognised by the international community as an autonomous region of Somalia, rather than as its own state.
Without a formal banking system, and emerging from a secessionist rebellion, Somaliland – by western standards – appears a perfect candidate for external "liberation". But Ahmed explained that through the innovation of Somalilanders in response to these challenges, game-changing mobile-money services have been created, starting with the 2009 launch of Zaad by mobile network operator Telesom.
Pre-mobile money, Somaliland's GDP was 100 percent cash, with people having to carry backpacks full of banknotes to local markets due to its low-value. Now with the rapid dissemination of mobile money, Somalilanders are instantly purchasing, selling, sending and receiving money internationally in a way that was once unrealistic. Ahmed believes that "the future of Africa is bright and it is cashless", as mobile money has transformed local economies.
The "Money Matters" panel covered the issue of financial inclusion and exclusion in Africa. The reality is that millions across the continent do not have access to financial services. However, continuing on from Ahmed's opening keynote, the panel reiterated the role tech can play in developing more accessible, broad financial mechanisms for individuals and businesses. Mobile money, reportedly used by around 21 percent of adults across the continent, has succeeded where traditional banking has failed by simplifying financing. As panellist Segun Agbaje – CEO of Nigeria's Guaranty Trust Bank – stated, financial exclusion is closely tied to marginalisation, as it's "not about bank accounts, but about the ability to function as a member of society".
I wanted to hear more about the gendered impact of financial exclusion and how this is being solved, so I caught up with panellist and Group Head of Personal Banking for Access Bank Ghana, Matilda Asante-Asiedu, to ask her about her bank's "W" initiative. According to the World Bank, Ghanaian women have less access to financial services than their male counterparts. Matilda told me that the "W" responds to this inequality by focusing on developing the financial literacy of Ghanaian women, providing education, workshops and consultation for starting up businesses. Even though there is unequal access to services, Asante-Asiedu explained that "women in Africa are very entrepreneurial", referencing a recent study that found 46 percent of small and medium enterprises in Ghana are owned by women, the highest percentage in the world.
To learn more about the diverse visions for Africa's future and how these narratives are controlled, I chatted with three other speakers: Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Nairobi, Dr Bitange Ndemo; musician Fuse ODG; and gender activist and LSE Atlantic Fellow, Tanya Charles.
Dr Ndemo has an exciting vision for the use of artificial intelligence across Africa in adapting different learning styles in schools, particularly for children with autism, ADHD, dyslexia or dyspraxia. I remembered my uncle, who had only been diagnosed with dyslexia 20 years after leaving Nigeria to study in the UK, and wondered how AI development in Africa could help children who are typically excluded in the classroom. Dr Ndemo told me that this issue is intimately linked with miscommunications between local dialects and the more formal national languages countries adopted from their colonial country.
"AI is a wonderful new technology for Africa to leverage, especially for the problem of language," Dr Ndemo said. "We must train young people to teach the systems to understand local languages, to help concepts be better communicated to people. Our languages are not very dynamic – when new words come, they never get to be translated to local languages."
He uses the example of the "break-even-point" concept, which is the point at which total sales earnings matches total costs. If that concept isn't translated in a way that can be understood in a local dialect, many people would find it very hard to understand. "But you need to understand that concept to do business," Ndemo added. It seems AI has the potential to transform methods of communication and could hold the key to offering a more inclusive education.
Later, Fuse ODG explained his frustration with organisations that present wholly-negative images of Africa. In 2014, he was invited but refused to contribute to Bob Geldof's Band Aid revival: "I couldn't have been a part of that, because it was fuelling that narrative of Africa being a poverty-stricken place, with everybody dying." Fuse emphasised that these images deny Africa the opportunity to be engaged with serious investment. "If we continue to push this negative image and make Africa a charity case, all we're going to get is two pounds or two dollars – we'll be short changed."
Fuse also had advice for what westerners can do to get involved in Africa, saying that before attempting to tackle an issue "they should be looking for the actual Africans already doing it, and working with them". He gave credit to Ed Sheeran, who has invested in the school Fuse set up in Ghana. "How he works in Ghana is very genuine, because he's working with me, and I know how things are supposed to be done."
Tanya Charles agreed: "Time and time again, we keep on having the same conversations because money concentrates around these people and they continue to be seen as the authorities on issues that are essentially African, when they should be turning to Africa to actually ask and see what's going on, see what solutions we are coming up with for ourselves."
The problem with non-Africans controlling the narrative on Africa isn't just that it is patronising or inaccurate, but can have dangerous consequences. As a gay West African, I frequently feel frustrated by western intervention in African LGBTQ rights. In 2007, a pan-African LGBTQ Human Rights group condemned human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and Outrage! in an open letter for endangering LGBTQ Africans by failing to consult local activists and exaggerating government violations: "We do not appreciate or accept the efforts of Western-based individuals or organisations who try to make our work for liberation into an ego-boosting publicity campaign for themselves," the statement read.
I spoke to Tanya about this, and about the Danish government's sanctioning of Tanzania over homophobic comments made by an ambassador. "Those sanctions ultimately punish the most vulnerable people, so for me they are ineffective tools," Tanya told me. LGBTQ African activists have argued that Denmark's sanctions make LGBTQ Tanzanians easy targets, increasing the risk of violence against them.
"What we need to be doing is working with our politicians, doing something as basic as talking about the institutions that box us into these very narrow ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman," Tanya said.
Spaces such as the LSE Africa Summit remain vital for platforming the best minds – at least, of those who are permitted to pass the border. The more I listened to each panel and speaker at the Summit, the more ridiculous it seemed to me that the dominant perception of Africa in this country and much of the western world is influenced more by outsiders from development industries and television appeals than by Africans themselves.
As third-year LSE Economics student Michael Lemoru said to me: "I've been attending for the last couple of years, and the calibre of discussions and dialogues that take place always manage to surpass that of the year before. A quote from Kemiyondo Coutinho saying 'If you do not tell your story, someone else will' rang home the importance of staying true to our culture and taking control of the African narrative."
The problem of narratives about Africa being controlled by non-African "liberators" goes far beyond simple embarrassment and inaccuracy, and is inextricably linked to the West's attempted social, political and economic domination of the continent. By controlling the narrative, you invite action and response based on false perceptions. This means more interference and more useless philanthropy, when what Africans want is collaboration and genuine investment.
If you want to talk about the history and future of Africa, and come up with solutions for the continent's present and historical issues, you must involve Africans in these conversations and be prepared to let them lead you to places and people you never appreciated existed.