It’s not just the Mediterranean tier of countries – Tunisia, Libya, Egypt – that are experiencing stirrings of new life across Africa. Throughout the African continent, formerly moribund nations like Ethiopia are growing at near double-digit rates, while hopeful signs are emerging that Africa is finally throwing off its reliance on commodities and dictators to become the next major center of world economic growth. In fact, for much of the last decade, Africa has grown faster than East Asia. But to keep up this growth rate, Africa will need to discover its own version of what historian Niall Ferguson refers to as “the 6 killer apps” of prosperity.
The “Killer Apps” framework is an interesting way to consider Africa’s future growth prospects, mostly because modern Africa has never experienced anything close to the wealth, stability and innovation of the West. As Ferguson suggests in his latest work – Civilization: The West and the Rest – the West’s phenomenal economic growth and political stability over the past several centuries has been aided by six “killer apps” – competition, property rights, the consumer society, the work ethic, science and medicine. Each of these, in its own way, helped to contribute to the uniquely Western trajectory of economic growth. Working together, apps like “competition” and “the consumer society” turbo-charged Western growth.
There are several leading prospects to become one of Africa's “Killer Apps” – chief among them the high rate of mobile Internet penetration in most African nations. Across Africa there are now 600 million mobile users, meaning that there are now more mobile Internet users in Africa than in America or Europe. And this has meant that a range of new developments – like mobile banking – are occurring more rapidly in Africa than in the USA. Kenya’s M-pesa has become the poster child for mobile Internet innovation, showing the potential to alter everything from healthcare to agriculture. Suddenly, millions of Africans without bank accounts are able to exchange money as easily as they would send a text message.
Another “killer app” might be Africa’s embrace of post-consumption economics, where items are reused and recycled in a myriad of new ways. The classic example is the popular akala sandal, made from recycled motor vehicle tires. The inaugural issue of Makeshift magazine has several features on how this recycling-intensive re-culture actually drives economic growth, while leading to consumption patterns that are more sustainable over the long run. This type of economy relies on the scrap pickers at the bottom of the economic pyramid, who are willing to transform the smallest items of waste into economic value, meaning that small pieces of plastic can be transformed into shoulder bags, clothing or other items with economic value.
Another potential “killer app” is what The Economist refers to as the “demographic dividend” -- a youthful, optimistic workforce capable of moving a nation ahead with its energy. After years of rapidly-growing fertility rates across Africa, the rate is leveling off, and that means that there is now an infusion of young workers ready to join the labor force and build a middle class. There are now 60 million members of the African middle class, with that number projected to boom to 100 million by 2015. Asia experienced the same type of "demographic dividend" for nearly three decades and there’s no reason to believe that the same trend can’t happen across Africa as well.
But that’s also where things get dicey. All those young men and women entering the work force need jobs – remember, these were the same young men in cities like Cairo who had grown frustrated with a lack of future prospects. By 2025, nearly one-half of all Africans will be urban city dwellers. And there are plenty of other problems that have always plagued Africa, like poverty and poor health. Nearly a decade ago, The Economist famously referred to Africa in a cover story as the “hopeless continent.”
It may be premature still to talk of Africa’s “lions” the same way that we talk about Asia’s “tigers.” But the similarities between sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia may be closer than we might think, especially given China’s aggressive initiatives to explore business relationships within Africa for the commodities needed to power its own growth. The more “killer apps” that Africa is able to develop that are distinctly its own and not just borrowed from the West, the more likely it is that nations across the African continent will finally be able to join the world's healthy, prosperous elite.
image: African businessman using a mobile phone / Shutterstock