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The path to progress in Africa lies in the surprising and innovative solutions Africans are finding for themselves
Africa is a continent on the move. It’s often hard to notice, though—the western focus on governance and foreign aid obscures the individual dynamism and informal social adaptation driving the last decade of African development. Dayo Olopade set out across sub-Saharan Africa to find out how ordinary people are dealing with the challenges they face every day. She ...
The path to progress in Africa lies in the surprising and innovative solutions Africans are finding for themselves
Africa is a continent on the move. It’s often hard to notice, though—the western focus on governance and foreign aid obscures the individual dynamism and informal social adaptation driving the last decade of African development. Dayo Olopade set out across sub-Saharan Africa to find out how ordinary people are dealing with the challenges they face every day. She found an unexpected Africa: resilient, joyful, and innovative, a continent of DIY changemakers and impassioned community leaders.
Everywhere Olopade went, she witnessed the specific creativity born from African difficulty—a trait she began calling kanju. It’s embodied by bootstrapping innovators like Kenneth Nnebue, who turned his low-budget, straight-to-VHS movies into a multi-million dollar film industry known as Nollywood. Or Soyapi Mumba, who helped transform cast-off American computers into touchscreen databases that allow hospitals across Malawi to process patients in seconds. Or Ushahidi, the Kenyan technology collective that crowdsources citizen activism and disaster relief.
The Bright Continent calls for a necessary shift in our thinking about Africa. Olopade shows us that the increasingly globalized challenges Africa faces can and must be addressed with the tools Africans are already using to solve these problems themselves. Africa’s ability to do more with less—to transform bad aid and bad government into an opportunity to innovate—is a clear ray of hope amidst the dire headlines and a powerful model for the rest of the world.
“[Olopade] seamlessly traverses the continent, threading a narrative that shows how African innovation is playing a vital role in its own development…This book is filled with numerous examples that ought to make you rethink your perceptions of Africa.” —The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Together, these maps form a new mental and strategic landscape, one based on possibilities, not merely perils, and we should be grateful to Olopade for her reimagined cartography." - The Plain Dealer
"The author gives a multitude of examples and a huge mass of fascinating detail. Her case is persuasive...for anyone who wants to understand how the African economy really works, 'The Bright Continent' is a good place to start."—Reuters
“In her debut book, Nigerian-American journalist Olopade finds qualified cause for optimism about Africa’s future…A refreshingly hopeful argument, well-grounded in data and observation—of considerable interest to students of geopolitics, demographics and economic trends.”
"Nigerian-American journalist Olopade’s first book rebuts the view of Africa as mired in poverty, war, and failed aid projects, and instead offers a hopeful perspective." —Publishers Weekly
“The Bright Continent is a long overdue and much needed corrective to the dominant perception of Africa. It is a book loaded with revelations of heroic, and often ingenious lives, all of which are eloquently and poignantly brought to life through Dayo’s brilliant observations.”
—Dinaw Mengestu, author of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and All Our Names
“This book captures the complex thoughts of a whole generation of young Africans. Olapode shows Africa as it is, a complicated space occupied by real people with the desire and the power to shape our futures.”
—Uzodinma Iweala, author of Beasts of No Nation and editor of Ventures Africa Magazine
“Bright Continent will change your view of Africa. It's that simple. Dayo Olopade looks with the eyes of a first-generation Nigerian-American and sees a landscape of ingenuity, technological innovation, and grit. A lively and enjoyable read.”
—Anne-Marie Slaughter, President and CEO of the New America Foundation and Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University
"Dayo Olopade has written a book that bracingly lives up to its title. In it, an Africa we are all too unaccustomed to seeing comes vividly to life thanks to her restless eye and keen curiosity. It is one of local solutions born of necessity and local heroes who arise from even the most fragile soil."
—Howard French, Associate Professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and author of A Continent for the Taking
"The Bright Continent is an absolute brightness. Sidestepping dead-end debates, the indefatigable Olopade maps out a contemporary Africa which is vital and self-reliant. Her definition of the Yoruba term kanju as 'specific creativity born from African difficulty' will enter the English language. Through strong reporting and clear thinking, Olopade demonstrates how to improve the lives of African youth stuck in a purgatory of 'waithood.' This is essential reading."
—J.M. Ledgard, Director, Future Africa, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and longtime Africa correspondent, The Economist
The search for the Nile River took two thousand years too long. The idea of searching is itself crazy: as far as human primates are concerned, the flat pan of water stretching from eastern Uganda to the vast Delta of Egypt has always been there. And yet the first foreign correspondents in Africa — white men from Europe — were caught in an amazing race to “map” the river from tip to tail. Their tales of travel on Africa’s waterways and into its dense forests sailed back to newspapers in 1850s London, Brussels, and New York. Sending word of new tribes in Ethiopia, or safe passage to the interior lakes of central Africa, these men laid the foundation for a tradition of sensationalist writing about Africa. It was Henry Morton Stanley, in his 1878 account of his travels in the Congo, who coined the term dark continent.
The misunderstanding began before Christ. Herodotus’s fifth-century map of Africa left the cradle of civilization looking like an afterthought. (Later, the Mercator Projection sold Africa literally short.) He wrote, “I am astonished that men should ever have divided [Africa], Asia and Europe as they have, for they are exceedingly unequal. Europe extends the entire length of the other two, and for breadth will not even (as I think) hear to be compared to them.”
For the next millennium, the northward-flowing river puzzled European cartographers. A Greek merchant named Diogenes began a rumor that the source of the Nile lay among the so-called Mountains of the Moon, somewhere in the wilds of “Nubia.” As trade suffused the continent’s west coast, existing tribes and landmarks were inked with the exquisite penmanship of eighteenth-century European trade schools. But it was not until 1858 that John Hanning Speke “discovered” that the longest river in the world begins not on the moon, but at Lake Victoria.
As news of the White Nile’s source rippled through Europe, Major R. E. Cheesman, the British consul to Ethiopia, remarked, “It seemed almost unbelievable that such a famous river . . . could have been so long neglected.” Like Herodotus, Cheesman unwittingly exposed his Western bias. After all, the Nile bridges languages and climates, north and south of the Sahara. It has fed and ferried millions of people since the days of Moses. At the time of Speke’s trip, the population living and trading near the source of the Nile numbered almost three million. It might have been easier for the frantic searchers to ask locals where the big river began. A few might have advised them: here.
The search for the Nile charts the divide that has defined modern African history. Despite centuries of contact (based largely on slave trading), ignorance long governed Western encounters with what was seen as an impenetrable unknown — Josef Conrad’s “heart of darkness.”
So it was not without precedent that European powers, led by the Portuguese, French, British, and Germans, decided to carve up the African continent using maps and borders of their own creation. At the Berlin Conference in 1884, they drew boundaries that had never existed on the continent, scrumming for natural resources from tobacco to peanuts to gold (oil would soon follow). Their borderlines preserved the gap between foreign perception and African reality that has been difficult to close ever since.
More than a century later, Google showed up. Since 2007, the American Internet giant has opened offices in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Uganda and begun translating its most popular American applications to Africa. Maps were a top priority. Google’s team of digital cartographers fanned out across the continent, knitting African streets and cities into the fabric of the World Wide Web. The Americans spared no extravagance: a fleet of red Toyota Priuses mounted with cameras circled cities in South Africa to localize Google’s “Street View” project — just in time for the 2010 World Cup.
Like the ancient geographers in search of the Nile, the modern Google mappers imported a Western notion of mapping and navigation. They were well-meaning, but unaware. As anyone who has taken directions in Africa can tell you, a different kind of orientation prevails. In a developed country, a charming female robot might read out clear directions to a numbered street address. In Africa, however, here’s what you get:
If you are approaching from the Tuskys roundabout, stay on Langata Road till you have passed the entrance on Langata Road that would get you to Carnivore. Take the first right turn off Langata Road after this point. Drive down Langata Road for approximately half a second, and take the left turn right before the petrol station next to Rafikiz. Drive down this road for half a minute. When you see Psys Langata on your right, take that left.
Confused? These are real — and typical — directions for Nairobi, the Kenyan capital where I lived while reporting this book. Of course, Nairobi and many other cities in Africa have roads and districts with formal names, and some buildings with assigned numbers. But even in the most cosmopolitan cities, the address is mostly beside the point.
Locals use businesses, billboards, bus stops, and hair salons as a dynamic, alternative framework for navigation. We rely on time, relative distance, egocentric directions (right or left), and shared knowledge. In Khartoum, the North Sudanese capital, one prominent local landmark is a building where a Chinese restaurant used to be. In the six months until it was repaired, I gave directions to my home based on a particularly cavernous pothole. Frequently, the final direction is “just ask someone.”
Anthropologists would call Nairobi streets a “high-context” environment. Such navigation is a holdover from a time when centralized systems were absent (which, as we’ll see, is often still the case). More importantly, a high-context route from point A is no proof that point B doesn’t exist — it just means you need a different map to find it.
The same goes for modern Africa. Whether you’re working for an American tech giant struggling to standardize navigation, an entrepreneur from Brazil looking for new business opportunities, a French tourist in search of adventure, a nonprofit trying to improve lives, or a curious global bystander, you probably don’t have a very good map of life south of the Sahara.
In fact, it amazes me how little the world thinks of Africa. I mean this in terms of time and of reputation. As a first-generation Nigerian American, I have personal reasons for paying attention; but what we all think of Africa when we do is very revealing. In 2010, the United Nations celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) — eight ambitious targets, from fighting HIV transmission to improving education around the world. The UN sponsored a competition to design a poster for the occasion. The winning design juxtaposed power (leaders of the Group of 8) and poverty (young Africans in line at a refugee camp).
The work may be clever graphic design, but the tagline is heartbreaking. “Dear world leaders: We are still waiting.” A panel of UN judges validated the biggest lie in modern history: that poor and passive Africans exist only in the shadow of Western action.
If you’ve read other “development” books, it’s easy enough to get that impression. Even as popular discourse has begun debating the logic of foreign assistance to the region, the conversation remains focused on how “the West” can improve its performance. Familiar voices on the development beat write prescriptions for everyone from the leaders of the G8 to the infantry of the World Bank to the leaders of landlocked countries like the Central African Republic. Though many have spent decades examining the various ruts and bottlenecks in economic growth, it is rare to hear about what ordinary Africans are already doing to help themselves.
This book changes that. As a reporter, I follow the advice of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “Don’t think, but look!” The continent needs to be seen and heard, not imagined and then ritually dismissed. Because when you talk to real people in Africa — shopkeepers, day laborers, executives, or educators — and commit to telling their stories, once-hidden strengths come to light.
The story is as simple as walking to work. Once, my mother and I took an early-morning flight from Kenya to Uganda. We woke before the sun. Riding in a car to the airport, we saw dim shapes come into focus on either side of us. “Where is everyone going?” my mother mused. The figures streaming toward the city center were neither child soldiers on the march, nor mothers queuing for bed nets; they were thousands of ordinary people walking to work. Hundreds of millions of Africans do this every day, waking before dawn to provide for their families.
Nearly every day that I wrote this book, I saw Gladys Mwende working the soil in an open field next to my apartment complex. Technically, she had no right to do so. After moving to Nairobi from the smaller Kenyan city of Machakos, Gladys, her husband, Benson Muthame, and their six children found themselves occupying the abandoned colonial home outside my window. It’s a pretty stone and tile structure with two floors of rooms for all the kids — aged ten months to thirteen years. Only its punctured windows and rotting wood cornice reveal that its best days are decades past.
It was bizarre to see this facsimile of rural African life — cooking with firewood, toting water, raising chickens — at a busy intersection in Kenya’s largest metropolis. But the land is what matters. As unpaid caretakers of the plot, the family treats its urban farm as though it were a ranch in the Great Rift Valley that keeps the world in coffee, tea, and flowers.
1. Orientation 1
Why the world needs a new map of Africa
2. Kanju 16
Walking the fine line between genius and crime
3. Fail States 34
How bad borders made bad neighbors
4. Stuff We Don’t Want 52
The mistakes that make do-gooding worse
5. The Family Map 67
How Africans rely on the original social network
6. The Technology Map 91
Leapfrogs and lessons from Africa’s digital moment
7. The Commercial Map 121
How to buy—and sell—a better future in Africa
8. The Natural Map 157
Why Africa will feed, fuel, and shape the world
9. The Youth Map 191
Harvesting Africa’s demographic dividend
10. Two Publics 217
Who’s in charge, anyway?