Is Africa Really Rising?


By Michel Street

‘Is Africa really rising?’ was the title of a 10-day, on-line Economist debate that ended on 22 March 2013. Despite the optimism over Africa now reaching fever pitch, with global investors salivating at the continent’s prospects, the 200 debaters were not so bullish. While 58 per cent voted Yes, Africa really is rising, 42 per cent voted No, Africa is not rising and will not fulfil its ambitions. This debate ended several weeks of intense reporting on Africa by the Economist and its sister newspaper, the Financial Times and the FT’s on-line publication ‘This is Africa’, each of them generating as many questions as answers. The end of the Economist’s historic debate, with its cautiously optimistic outcome, can also be seen as the end of an exciting chapter in the continent’s post-independence history – The beginning of Africa’s rise.

By the afternoon of Tuesday 12 March, the first day of the debate, there was no sign of the green economy in Africa being discussed. I tried to introduce the subject with the following comment:

Dear Sir,

The rise of Africa as the final frontier for investment comes at a time when the world faces multiple crises: economic, environmental and social. How Africa rises and how the continent’s remarkable growth story unfolds will have a decisive impact on how these crises resolve. All eyes therefore are on Africa. There is increasing recognition that the only viable route for all countries to deliver social inclusion, ecological stability and sustainable and resilient economic growth is through a global green economy. At the UN’s Rio+20 ‘Earth Summit’ in June 2012 the green economy was the main theme.

My response to the critical question “is Africa really rising?” is yes…but only if Africa explores new development models based on its green growth potential. As we all know, this is not the first time Africa has been seen as a continent of hope and while there is no doubt that “this time is different” unfortunately so much is still the same. There is increasing concern that business-as-usual, or the old ‘brown’ economy which is high carbon, resource intensive, ecologically degrading and socially divisive, is creating the same hidden costs in Africa as in the past. Only this time at a faster rate, on greater scales and with far more at stake. While optimism is rising across the continent so too is inequality, just one of the brown economy’s many hidden costs, which already threatens Africa’s future.

Since 1990 and the failure of the post-colonial development model, Africans have been steadily building foundations for sustainability. What is clearly different in Africa this time, but which is receiving very little attention, is the continent’s emerging green economies as a means to cope with the enormous challenges ahead, while delivering sustainable and resilient growth for the 21st century. Leading Africans from Meles Zenawi, late prime minister of Ethiopia, to Kofi Anan, former UN secretary-general, and Donald Kaberuka, president of the African development bank, have been trying to get the message across that ‘green growth will be critical to Africa’s future’, but very few people seem to be listening. Their plea was confirmed in Africa’s Consensus Statement to Rio+20, yet this document, the culmination of 20 years green progress in Africa, was virtually ignored by the rest of the world.

Everything is in place for Africa to take the lead in the global green economy. Africa’s least developed ‘brown’ economies are now Africa’s strategic advantage. As the global economy lurches from one crisis to the next with the time between crises getting shorter, Africa’s green growth can play a major role in the ‘great rebalancing’. As the debates rage, reports mount and the world’s Afro-optimists gather at this year’s record number of Africa summits and conferences, the big challenge is: how to put the green economy into Africa’s growth story?

If Africa’s green growth story is recognised then my answer to the question is a resounding YES Africa is rising.


Although five readers recommended this comment it was by no means enough to encourage anyone else to debate the green economy. For this reason on Wednesday 20 I entered another comment:

Dear Sir,

In 1998 Ryszard Kapuscinski (1932-2007), the Polish journalist who probably knew the African’s Africa more than any other foreigner, wrote: “The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied and immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say ‘Africa.’ In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.”

In this context it seems absurd to debate whether Africa is rising. Africa is larger than the USA, China, India and Australia combined. Covering 30 million km2, with one billion people speaking 2,000 languages in 55 nation states, Africa is the oldest, most diverse, most challenging and least understood region on earth. A much more realistic debate would be to look at regional trade blocs and ask if they are rising.

It seems equally absurd to talk about “Africa as the new Asia” or “African lions snapping at the heels of Asian tigers” when Asia’s future is far from clear. China’s former premier, Wen Jiabao, was at great pains to tell us that China’s economy is “unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable”. These hidden costs of growth in Asia’s most successful economy could be greatly magnified in Africa’s harsh and unpredictable conditions, particularly where African countries are following the “China Model”.

Economists look at GDP growth and conclude “Africa is rising”, but GDP tells us nothing about sustainability. China is simply chasing the west on an unsustainable economic development path which is creating un-payable debts and is destroying the planet. Instead of trying to “catch up” with the others towards self-destruction Africans must develop their own models of growth from which we can all learn. Only then could I agree that Africa is rising.

Africans could rise and fulfil their potential if they are given support in their green economy, a critical subject that has hardly entered this debate. For the past five years leading Africans have been trying to tell the world that green growth is crucial to Africa’s future, but very few seem to be listening. Africa’s Consensus Statement to the UN’s Rio+20 Earth Summit in June 2012 made it clear that the green economy is the only viable route to Africa’s sustainability and resilience. Unfortunately this document, the culmination of 20 years’ green progress in Africa, was virtually ignored by the rest of the world.

I hope that as this exciting debate enters its final stages more participants will come forward to put the green economy into Africa’s remarkable growth story. If so, this “varied and immensely rich cosmos” could truly rise in ways that will surprise and benefit us all.


This comment also failed to generate any interest in the green economy. This, therefore, is a post-debate response to the question: IS AFRICA REALLY RISING?

Dear Sir,

Africa is most definitely rising and if the rise is well-managed we can all benefit. But….

Although I haven’t read all 200 comments in this historic debate, it is fairly safe to say that the green economy, which African leaders have been telling us is the only viable path towards sustainable and resilient growth, was not discussed. A unique opportunity has therefore been lost. Much of the debate focussed on important issues that were debated in smaller circles 40 years ago during the post-colonial boom – infrastructure, industrialisation, employment, governance, demography etc. Of course we know much more now, this time is certainly different and the debate on Africa is now global. So, even without any mention of ‘green’ in the debate, what was discussed provides an excellent and optimistic basis for the next chapter in Africa’s remarkable growth story, a chapter based on the green economy.
For this green chapter to be written we must begin by listening to what the continent’s leaders have to say. They, more than anyone, are aware that Africa’s huge potential is threatened by multiple forces beyond their control. They, more than anyone, know that an economic transformation is urgently needed. If the ‘perfect storm’ of converging crises in water, food and energy is to hit the planet in less than 20 years, it will be hitting Africa first and hardest. Vast regions across the continent already feel its force. In an increasingly volatile global economy full of ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’Africa’s leaders know, for sure, their countries, economies and people are the most vulnerable and least protected.
This is Africa’s 3rd era of hope in 50 years and this time is different enough for the economic transformation that African leaders are calling for to take place. The skills, talent and ambition are there. All that is known for Africa to become a frontier for green investment is known. The necessary transformation begins by exploring Africa’s 55 green economies and building on them for the 21st century. Only a few years ago Africa was seen as ‘the greatest imbalance on earth’. With green investment Africa can now play a pivotal role in ‘the great rebalancing’.
But the old ‘brown’ economy, or business-as-usual, is still the most dominant force on the continent and it is expanding fast. Africa’s fragile green foundations, built up over the past 20 years, are threatened by the current boom in 20th century thinking, planning, technologies and economics, the most potent symbols of which are the new generation of mines, dams, farms and sugar enterprises, a repeat of past efforts to ‘develop’ only this time on mega-scales with mega-hidden costs to match. Instead of becoming the first green frontier for green investment there is a great danger Africa could become the last frontier for the brown.
In January, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said that 2013 would be a ‘make or break year’ for the global economy. If this turns out to be true, 2013 will be a make or break year for Africa. Decisions made today will have repercussions reaching well into the future. The Economist has opened up new ground in Africa with this historic debate. I hope the next will explore how to put the green economy into Africa’s growth story. I hope it is soon. Time is running out.
Thank you.


About the Author: Michael Street’s connections with Africa began 40 years ago. In the 1970s and 1980s he worked in a number of African and Asian countries as a ‘brown’ development expert on various agro-industrial projects. He first visited Ethiopia in 1975. During the 1990s and early 2000s he travelled extensively in Ethiopia and lectured widely on the country’s history and ecology. Since 2001 he has been based in Sicily where he is establishing two small biosphere reserves as part of an initiative to understand and expand Sicily’s green economy.