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Can Africa Catch the Rest of the World?

Unless Africa can produce a show of purpose in elevating its people from poverty, we really have no business calling ourselves free.

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Looking at what other nations have achieved, it is quite difficult to imagine how African nations can ever bridge the development gap.

Consider Russia.

In June 1941, Adolf Hitler organised Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia. Up to that point, the Germans hadn’t suffered a single defeat – morale was sky high and the military functioned with exceptional efficiency. 

In a short while the Germans captured land that was twice the size of Germany and inflicted unspeakable miseries on the Russians – 24 million of whom would die in World War 2.

When Moscow was faced with total capitulation, fate worked in its favour. On one side, the Germans hadn’t banked on an extended war in Russia and when the Russian winter arrived, like Napoleon in the early 19th century, they were found wanting. 

On the other side, Japan which had just attacked Pearl Harbour, thus foolishly dragging the United States into the war, lost interest in attacking Russia. When Joseph Stalin learnt of that fact, he was free to unleash his two Siberian divisions, under the legendary Gen. Georgy Zhukov, on the Germans. The rest, they say, is history.

But it is the Russians war machinery that truly deserves the accolades for the change of fortunes. At the beginning of the war, in Russia’s imprudent invasion of Finland, the tiny Finnish defenders embarrassed the Russians by holding them back for six months. 

The weak Russian underbelly was exposed: they were poorly led – Stalin had killed 90 per cent of all officers with the rank of colonel and above, and were poorly equipped for fighting a modern war.

They learned their lessons. Fast-forward a year later – they were ready. By 1942, the Russians were producing over 2,000 warplanes every month. It is good to allow that to sink in a little. 

In comparison, one could possibly squeeze in half of the African nations which, together, don’t have that number of warplanes today, 80 years later. Admittedly, while their air fleets might be a bit superior in technology, in comparison they are much closer to the ones the Russians produced then compared to modern airplanes.

Worse still, while the Russians could manufacture their planes, Africa is nowhere near achieving that feat, with the exception of South Africa. The capability, or the lack of it, for African nations to defend themselves aside, the glaring chasm in logistics, human capacity, engineering, manufacturing and management capabilities, even compared to the Russia of 1942, is simply astonishing!

How can a continent be so backwards?

Many reasons have been offered, from poor education to poor infrastructure, from colonial legacy to low productivity. While these are all valid reasons, and indeed Africans have had to deal with remarkably unfortunate circumstances in their post-independence history, nonetheless, when these reasons are used as excuses not to develop rather than challenges to be overcome, something is very wrong. 

As a result, Africans are quite proficient at externalising the responsibility for their misery. Moreover, while valid, the reasons given are not sufficient in explaining much of what occurs in the continent thus leading to its current state.

For example, in 2010, the port at Mombasa in Kenya was handling six hundred thousand containers annually. Mombasa was then and still is one of the major gateways to and from East Africa, serving Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Rwanda, and Burundi. 

Therefore, the need for efficiency was and still is paramount. However, every container that arrived at Mombasa spent three days in the port before it was cleared. In comparison, it only took eight minutes to clear containers at the Singaporean port which was handling 50 times the number of containers than Mombasa.

One can go from sector after sector and uncover similar stories about Africa. What is it about the reasons we give that can justify such irresponsibility?

In 2018, Africa’s total imports were worth around $550 billion. Some of the products that made the top 10 list included petroleum, automobiles, and mobile phones – with petroleum products alone costing the continent $60 billion. 

That’s alright then – we need each other, someone might say. But the list also included pharmaceutical products, where India collected $17 billion from Africa; foodstuffs – where Africans paid $17 billion of their hard-earned cash for rice and wheat; and stationery goods – where Africans spent billions of dollars importing pencils, pens, exercise books, diaries, and stuff!

With Africa’s very young and growing population, education is one of the fastest-growing industries in the continent. So, Africa’s stationery goods market, which is currently valued at around $4.5 billion a year, has been growing consistently. 

The problem is – it is mostly import-driven, and it is the likes of Dubai – imagine that! –  that takes the lion’s share of the market. How do you explain such profligacy?

The royal blue stones of Tanzania

A little over 50 kilometres south-east of Arusha, there is a mining town of Mererani where there are hills called Mererani Hills. Close to those hills there is a piece of land about 20 square kilometres in an area which is very unique in the world – this is the only place where Tanzanite gems are found anywhere in the world. 

Specialists say that the same geological activities that gave rise to Mount Kilimanjaro, 50 or so kilometres away, also made these royal blue stones. The current total reserve is estimated to be around 22 tonnes which can conservatively be valued at a whopping 30 billion dollars. At the current rate of extraction, the reserve will be exhausted in the next 20 years or so.

However, despite Tanzania being the only source of Tanzanite in the world, until 2018, Tanzania was still the third-largest exporter of Tanzanite stones, behind India and Kenya, which were making $300 million and $100 million respectively. 

Tanzania, came distant third by making 38m dollars out of a 500m dollars a year business! In this world, to find cheaper Tanzanite gems, you don’t go to Mererani, you go to Kenya, Dubai and India!

How do you rationalise these issues? These are many choices that Africans make which have nothing to do with the reasons they give for their underdevelopment. 

Africa’s real problem

When you spend 20 per cent of your GDP importing things you can easily manufacture within the continent, when you wilfully discourage productivity across the value chain by sitting on goods, and when you throw away billions of dollars of your much-needed wealth and you remain with less than 10 per cent – none of that has anything to do with infrastructure, education, technology, imperialism, and such nonsense. 

It is about the quality of choices you make. And that is where Africa’s problems truly are.

When the Russians were faced with the threat of slavery under Nazi’s Germany, they responded with a mammoth effort to keep their nation free. 

Unless Africa can produce a similar show of purpose in elevating its people from poverty, we really have no business calling ourselves free.

As optimistic as one may be, every now and then one is confronted with certain facts which forces you to look at the glaring difference and fully appreciate its size.

Charles Makakala is a technology and management consultant based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is available through These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at for further inquiries.

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2 Responses

  1. I was poor in geography at school. Is there a country called Africa, which the author keeps comparing with Russia, India, Singapore, USA etc?

  2. A good point. The focus on Africa’s homogeneity and/or heterogeneity depends on context. That’s why there are numerous books on General History of Africa, Precolonial Africa, Why Africa is Poor, Africa Unchained, etc.

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