Africa’s Moment is Also Our Choice

Psalms 90:12 Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.

Matthew 1:17 … and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations.

We as Kenyans at times display a singular ability to focus our attention on short-term hot-button issues while long-term tectonic issues go begging. Take for example the most recent uproar over #MyDressMyChoice. It was precipitated by some Kenyan youth who stripped someone naked for wearing a miniskirt. The moral issues of this incident are however not the purview of this piece.

The underlying tectonic issue here, which the sage Charles Onyango-Obbo pointed out in his article that week, is that there is a strong positive statistical correlation between such behaviour and lack of economic prospects for youth. In other words, this stripping is symptomatic of bleak prospects for youth, who proceed to vent their frustrations on the womenfolk around them. So while it is good activism to organise a march against such behaviour, it would behove us to deal with the underlying socio-economic issues of unemployment. Otherwise we will keep wandering from hashtag to hashtag, protest to protest and cause to cause without ever really solving anything.

It goes without saying that Africa has a serious unemployment problem. Our demographic charts are either pyramidal or ovoid, with bulging bases and middles. In the early 80’s the percentage of youth in the population was approximately 15%. A good friend of mine used to teach English at the time. She used to give students comprehensions which opined that this mild 15% of the population was headed for disaster if employment was not prepared for them. With our youth approaching 50% and unemployment close to 60%, it would be a safe guess that the disaster that was mentioned in those comprehensions might be just a short distance around the corner.

Much as this state of affairs might be viewed as dangerous in one light, literature from certain sources tells us that Africa is the only continent with a ‘demographic dividend’. Anecdotal evidence makes me believe that we just might be able to solve this problem in time and comprehensively.

A while ago, we found ourselves in the interesting circumstance in which we got to pick the brains of some senior Chinese banking executives. The circumstances surrounding this opportunity are a potent mix of ivory, ignorance and immigration worthy of a separate blog post. Most importantly, they shared with us some of the things that happen in industry in China. For example, there was a manufacturer who once approached them for financing because they had just gotten a contract to manufacture phone batteries for a Nordic mobile firm. Less than a year later the same manufacturer approached them for another loan because they had gotten a contract to manufacture vehicles for a European company! When Juliani sang his hit song Exponential Potential, this must surely be what he had in mind.

The world’s largest manufacturer, Hon Hai Precision Industry, otherwise known as Foxconn, was founded in 1974. As we speak they employ upwards of 1 million employees and is the world’s third largest IT company by revenue. They produce a vast majority of the world’s electronics. Apple, Blackberry, Nokia and Motorola for example manufacture through them. Your Sony TV or Toshiba laptop could also easily have been manufactured there. How does a company grow from 1 employee to 1,000,000 employees in 40 years?

In the lead up to World War I Japan is said to have industrialised in 50 brief years. Allow me to say that again. Japan industrialised in 50 years! It took Britain approximately a century to develop the capitalist foundations for industrialisation involving finance, the spinning jenny and the steam engine among others. Japan did all that in 50 years.

This brings us to the two verses from the Good Book above. It hit me the other day that the 14 generations from Babylon to Christ were some rather tumultuous times. In that time Babylon was conquered by the Medo-Persians under Cyrus the Great. Not too long afterwards Alexander the Great appeared on the scene like a flash in a pan leading the Greeks to world domination. After him came Judah Maccabeus, Hannibal and Julius Caesar. The common theme here is that these men and peoples bestrode their times like such colossi, that anyone else gets a footnote in history if they are lucky. Granted, these men had pivotal roles to play in history and history belongs to God. But what were other men doing with their lives in those times?

Or otherwise phrased, what were the generations of say the Chinese doing in the time of Alexander the Great? Or what were Turks doing in the time of Julius Caesar? The Greeks under Alexander the Great or the Romans under Julius Caesar had big hairy audacious goals which they set out to meet. They strategized, they cooperated and they put their shoulders to the load. History reports back to us that much like Admiral Nelson they “met the enemy… and he was theirs.”

The point here is that we could easily get so wrapped up in our own petty narratives, squabbles and parochialism that we miss out on our purposes and thoroughly fail to address the real challenges of our generation. From what I understand of African history, our fathers’ generation had the task of deciding on general directions and definitions after gaining self-rule. I think this poverty/unemployment thing is the real economic problem of our generation. Whether or not we address it is our choice. Perhaps in so doing we could reserve ourselves a slice of history, not for history’s sake, or glory’s sake, but because in doing something worthwhile, we make a difference which history deems important enough to record.

The economies of Asia which are being called the Asian tigers, (India, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, the Philippines) are claiming their place in history and at the bargaining table. It has been said that when Africa emerges, then our economies will be called the African lions. I personally really look forward to the day when we can hear that term ‘African lions’ and it actually carries a double meaning. Right now, it only means wildlife.

Obama made it to the White House. Foxconn is 40 years old. Japan industrialised in 50 years. We can do it too.

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