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Inexplicable Optimism

It is perhaps no surprise that there is a sense of optimism across Africa, although this seems at first to be inexplicable if you follow the news headlines in the United States. A 2007 survey of ten sub-Saharan countries by the New York Times and the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that most Africans believe they are better off today than five years ago.27 In Senegal, 56 percent felt they were better off compared to just 30 percent who felt they were worse off. In Nigeria, 53 percent felt they were better off, and in Kenya 54 percent. The respondents were also optimistic about the future. They obviously are not paying attention to the Western cable news reports on Africa. (In fact, in the same study, 71 percent of Ethiopians felt their country was not covered fairly in the international press.)

A study by McCann of optimism among 16 to 17 year olds in ten countries around the world found that many youth in developed countries such as the United Kingdom are jaded, but South African youth are among the most optimistic people in the world. A pan-African study by The Coca-Cola Company in March 2006 found this sense of optimism across African countries, although it might mean slightly different things in different regions. Across the board, optimism means self-belief and taking charge of your life.

"The paradox is that Nigeria is one of the toughest places in the world to live," Lolu Akinwunmi, CEO and managing director of Prima Garnet Ogilvy ad agency, told me during a meeting in Lagos in 2006. "You have generators at home and have to provide your own water. You have walls that are 9 to 10 feet high with three Rottweilers and a security man. The traffic is terrible. In spite of all this, Nigerians are cheerful people. It is not unusual to see people out at night sitting in little groups over beers and pepper soup, unwinding from the stress of the day."

While those outside of Africa focus on the problems, there is a sense in many parts of Africa that nothing is impossible. Nigeria has announced plans to send a Nigerian to the moon by 2030. In 2007, Nigeria announced a plan that would make the country one of the world's top 20 economies by the year 2020, looking to Singapore as a model for transforming its economy. This is in a country that cannot provide reliable electricity to its population and where the average 2006 per capita income was just $640.

But if you doubt this could happen, consider that Chinese engineers helped Nigeria design, construct, and launch its first geostationary communications satellite, the $300 million Nigcomsat-1, in 2007. China provided financing for the project and the state-owned Chinese aerospace company, Great Wall Industry is tracking the satellite and training Nigerian engineers to staff a tracking station in Abuja. The satellite is expected to improve bandwidth for commercial customers and also support distance learning, online public access to government records, and online banking. South Africa constructed the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere in the little town of Southerland in 2005. Despite problems on the ground, Africa continues to look to the heavens.

As Matthew Barwell, marketing director of Africa region for Diageo, says, "The greatest export out of places like Nigeria is optimism." Some see this sense of optimism as a result of the fact that they have nowhere to go but up. Perhaps the best explanation of it was given by my driver in Lagos. Aptly named Moses, he was lost in the wilderness through most of our travels across the city, causing me to miss meetings. Yet he remained superbly self-confident about his knowledge of the route to the next location. When pressed, he admitted that in Nigeria you need to appear confident or the world will push you down. This optimism can also be seen in the platoons of unemployed who trudge through the endless traffic jams in Lagos with every product under the sun—from packs of gum and sodas, to appliances, carpets, and chairs. It is literally a department store on legs. Where there is no employment, people turn to trading. This optimism can also be seen in advertising focused on children and youth (for example, see the ad for Peak Milk in Exhibit 2). As the caption says, they believe "the future is waiting."

This is not wishful thinking. It could be a leading indicator. This optimism reflects a belief across the continent in Africa's rising opportunities. Africa is rolling up its sleeves to work on solving its own problems. This spirit can be seen in the work of community leaders such as Dr. Wangari Maathai, who became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She is among more than 16 recipients of Nobel Prizes from Africa (more than India or China), including 7 Peace Prize winners. After studying in the United States, Maathai returned to Kenya, where she earned her doctoral degree and founded the Green Belt Movement, which has mobilized women to plant more than 100 million trees across Kenya to prevent soil erosion and sparked a global campaign that reached its goal in November 2007 of planting a billion trees. (For more on her remarkable story, see her autobiography, Unbowed: One Woman's Story, and www.greenbelt-movement.com.) As she said in an interview with CNN after receiving the prize, "I really don't think that Americans will change their perception about Africans until Africans change their perceptions about themselves... what we really need is to encourage ourselves and rely on ourselves, because we have a lot of resources."28

Africa's optimism is shared by business leaders who have seen what they can accomplish in Africa. During a meeting at the Serena Hotel in Nairobi, James Mathenge, CEO of Magadi Soda in Kenya, said boldly, "I think the future of the world is Africa." Wearing a leather jacket and open shirt, sitting at a table by the poolside at the beautiful Serena Hotel in Nairobi, this statement was easy to believe. A tourist in a pink bathing cap floated by in the Olympic-size pool under the warm sun, as birds warbled in the foliage. This is the Africa the tourists on safari come to see as they pile into their Land Rovers every morning to head out to the bush.

The tourism business is not the African opportunity that Math-enge was looking at. His business was in the rural lands 80 miles (130 kilometers) to the south of Nairobi. Magadi Soda (now owned by Tata Group of India) makes soda ash that is used in glass, detergents, and other products. It exports around the world, especially Asia. When there were no roads and railroads to reach their sites, Magadi built them. When there were no schools and hospitals for employees, they created them. Then they opened these facilities to the surrounding community, the poor villages of the Masai tribesmen, devoting some 20 percent of after tax-revenue to community service projects. Math-enge is optimistic because he knows that with such extraordinary efforts, there is the potential for building very successful businesses in Africa. It is easy to agree with him that the future of the world is Africa.

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