The Bright Continent: Rethinking Modern Africa


Nigerian-American journalist Dayo Olopade spent two years traveling to seventeen nations across sub-Saharan Africa. In her new book The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, she comes away with a decidedly promising view of the continent.

Olopade tells me she wrote the book, in part, as a rebuttal to this poster, which she saw at the United Nations a few years back:

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“For me, (the poster) was pretty shocking,” Olopade tells us. “Not just because it presumed all of the agency lay with the members of the G8 or the leaders of the free world. It presumed that poverty was a result of laziness, or that people who are less fortunate have somehow forfeited their right to say anything, to articulate where they come from and what they’re interested in.”

Olopade concludes that many African governments are corrupt or inept. As a result, she challenges the wisdom of many aid organizations that continue to work with ineffective governments. “If the government is irrelevant, and often it is, well then what is more relevant?” Olopade asks. She says we need to look to the informal sector because that’s where ordinary Africans are making progress without the help of government.

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Olopade also champions the private sector as a way to lift increasing numbers of Africans out of poverty. “I’m unashamedly pro-capitalism as applied to sub-Saharan Africa,” she tells us. “And not just the wealthy people but all people.” Olopade says asking poor people to pay a small fee for services they want and need can be a highly effective path to progress.

As we look toward Africa’s future, Olopade says we must begin to actively engage with continent’s young people, who collectively represent a challenge and an exquisite opportunity. “With millions of Africans stalling in the march from youth to adulthood,” she writes, “figuring out how to harness their potential energy is the most urgent task of the next decade in Africa.” In this video for Olopade’s book, we hear some of those young people talk about their optimism for the continent:

The Bright Continent is filled with voices of promise like those in the video. “I invite the world to reimagine all of the challenges that you hear about in Africa as an opportunity to innovate,” Olopade says.

What about you? Have you seen specific paths to economic prosperity in Africa that deserve more attention? Do you think aid organizations should bypass governments and channel their support to private initiatives instead? What about the for-profit model as a way to bring about greater opportunity for people in developing nations?

3 Comments

  1. Chris D.

    I think it’s important to distinguish between “capitalism” and trade/markets, especially when talking about how “Westeners” (e.g. Americans) can work with people in African countries in an honest, mutually respectful and win-win way.

    Physically and mentally supporting people to make things, gain skills, and exchange those things/skills with others for items of shared value *is* what people want to do. It’s the only way to a better quality of life for all of us. How to best support this – that’s the substantive part of the “aid vs. business” debate.

    Some aspects of it are simple: people have to “reach” each other to trade, so you need roads and communication, and those are subsidized by governments around the world. People have to be healthy in order to participate, and health care is also subsidized around the world.

    In practice governments can’t run everything – when they do it’s too vulnerable to exploitation, you get dictatorships and corruption. Another problem is that even well-meaning governments focus on power and “geopolitics” – they see things in terms of the Cold War, the War on Terror, the Global Financial System, etc. They will always prioritize those things over what happens to entrepreneurs, small businesses and farmers in African countries.

    So people have to be allowed to “own” their labor and land, and what they do with that labor and land, and that right has to be protected. That way they are not dependent on what a government says or does. That’s the principle behind “capitalism” and “democracy”, what they’re supposed to be about.

    When people talk about capitalist greed, it’s a failure to live up to that principle. The worst examples in African countries – land grabbing, dumping cheap goods to destroy local markets, monopolies that force people to pay huge amounts for things they need (like water) – are failures of capitalism.

    No matter what the theory, we always have to focus on the fundamental: people must be able to create, grow and exchange things (goods and services).

    More practically, it takes a business to grow a business and it takes money to make money, so you do need people in countries like the USA to invest in their peers (local entrepreneurs/businesses) in African countries. Then you need governments passing the right laws and nonprofits (who get their money from governments *and* businesses) to monitor.

    When people are trading in an honest way, they are working together, looking out for each other, and taking control of their own lives. When that happens, everyone benefits, no matter what nationality or religion.

  2. charles ikem

    Capitalists are full of greed. I do not agree entirely to this model. Perhaps social entrepreneurs might have the answers but not the private sector. Where the greatest s
    Opportunity for impact lies is the social innovators.

  3. Anon

    Granted I don’t know much about sub-saharan Africa but I don’t think private enterprise always has the best interest of all the people, it’s good for getting a few people out of poverty but does little for overall conditions. I don’t think we should push for policies that encourage a capitalistic structure. I do agree that this region of the world is often devoid of agency in the eyes of Western democracies, and this should be improved.

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