Monday, May 25, 2009

Mr. Obama Goes to Africa – What Will We Find?

.....a whole new way of looking at Africa [Update of my May blog]

The US public is about to get a wake up call when Mr. Obama shows up in West Africa in July. They figure this is probably no more that a diversion from our economic troubles at home – so now they ‘re going to see huts, misery and warfare. Should make us feel better right?

Actually what they are going to see are thriving, if challenged urban metropolises, sophisticated, if accented business thinkers and then something else……

China. And the question on the lips of many enthused Africans: “What took you so long?”

While we were looking the other way China has moved in the African vacuum left behind after the Cold War collapsed. They will find that most new mining development, banking and oil has been bankrolled by China. Many of these contracts give China both preferred pricing on new commodities but actually restrict sales to competitors – like us.

We will wake up to find who is really underwriting the conflict in Darfur and then we will be startled to find what has happened in Africas, largest and once most war-torn country: The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The Chinese are planning to build a dam so big that it will light up Europe. Imagine a Europe that buys its power from a $60bn dam in the jungle!

We are also going to find that Africa has developed a new personal trading platform that totally change the way governments function on the continent – cell phones. Outside of commodities, cell communications is bar far, the fastest growing business in Africa. Cell towers have leap-frogged wired infrastructure with the result that Africans can talk to each other – they even trade cell minutes as a form of currency.

Once you add secure accounts and smart phones, you know have a way to plug individual Africans into the World Market. At first that may not seem like a big deal but let’s imagine that western charities stop giving money to organizations that have a habit of grabbing huge chunks off the top – instead they open personal accounts by chief, village, family and person and hand out resources at the personal level. The value is held outside the country so the government or local thug can’t steal it – suddenly, you have a new Africa. You have mosquitoes in your village – buy some nets on our eBay Africa store we’ll ship ‘em to you. Need some water purification straws with that? No problem – and by the way, if you can get our cassava to market by Monday you’ll get twice the normal rate.

China won’t be offering these services anytime soon – but we will – it is part of the DNA of the Internet culture. And Africa is expecting it, they want it….from us. China, after all, is not exactly a friendly presence: after they have paid off the local powers, they tend to move in as a hermetic army seizing the key jobs and thought they will learn the lingo they are generally perceived as aliens. They can also be brutal. We, on the other hand, are perceived as returning brothers and sisters. The racial guilt trip built into the US conversation, has not only been put aside thanks to Mr. Obama’s presidency, but it was never a big part of the personal conversation in Africa, anyway. The only conversation that matters is opportunity and personal growth – they are ready to get a piece of the American Dream, African style.

In aggregate you have these two converging possibilities – a continent with a wealth of energy (oil and natural gas being discovered almost daily up and down the West coast), natural commodities whose value is increasing and the possibility of getting wealth into the hands of individuals as opposed to the former kleptocracies.

Needless to say, the carping about “let’s focus on America” will continue. How silly, the one continent that needs to buy just about everything we stand for – from proudcts to technology to ideology, and could actually pay for it, thanks to their natural wealth, has the power to transform our economy – just as Europe did in the 50’s. If we just get over our history and our self-absorption our next great wealth machine lies over the Atlantic – a short hop from our new trading partner.

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