Opinion: the true story of a continent on the up

It’s time we stopped viewing Africa as a ‘continent to be saved’ and instead see it as a dynamic phenomenon on the rise

The President of Tanzania was visibly annoyed. Charlie Rose, one of America’s most prominent television anchors, was hosting a panel of African leaders in Washington during President Barack Obama’s highly touted US-Africa Summit in August 2014.

Rose asked the assembled leaders to tell him “what your fears are about the Ebola virus”. President Jakaya Kikwete retorted: “Right now, the epidemic is in west Africa. Tanzania is in east Africa. The whole of the African continent is being perceived as if everywhere, everybody is suffering from Ebola.”

He had a good point. Africa is a vast continent that could fit all of the US, Europe, China and Japan together within its borders. The 1.1 billion people living acrossthe 54 countries in Africa are ethnically and religiously diverse, with different histories and levels of development. And yet many commentators still refer to Africa as if it were a holistic, single unit.

The African leaders were gathered in Washington to tell a different story of Africa, a story of a continent rising, with seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies over the past decade, a growing consumer middle class and more prudent macroeconomic management among several of the continent’s largest economies. Washington seems to be finally waking to this part of the Africa story and is looking at ways to support the growth and dynamism of the continent that is expected to attract record amounts – US$80bn – of foreign direct investment this year.

One country that has been following Africa’s success story with interest is the United Arab Emirates, which has emerged as a major trade and investment partner across Africa. One month after that Washington summit, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, hosted six heads of state from west Africa in a conference that pledged some US$19bn – a staggering sum – in infrastructure investments.

Dubai-based Emirates Airline has become the most important foreign carrier in several of Africa's largest markets

Afshin Molavi

In my recent report for the Washington think-tank the Foreign Policy Institute, I concluded that US policy-makers should leverage the growing relationship between the UAE and Africa to support their own goals of development across the continent. The UAE has emerged as a major commercial nexus state of the global economy, linking continents, states and cities via air and sea connectivity, investment and trade. Nexus states such as the UAE can be leveraged toward broader American policy goals of sustainable development and job creation worldwide. 

One symbol of the “Africa rising” narrative is the young African on a mobile phone. Chances are that he might be using a network provided by Abu Dhabi-based Etisalat telecommunications. The company serves nearly 70 million subscribers across Africa and is the fastest-growing carrier in Nigeria, the continent’s largest economy.

Partly as a result of this growing relationship, global multinationals including Nestlé, Ford Motor Company, Visa, UPS, Huawei Technologies and FedEx are beginning to use Dubai as headquarters or a major base for their Africa operations.

West Africa’s Ebola crisis is most certainly a great tragedy and the world must respond robustly, but we must not let the headlines obscure the other face of Africa, of growing middle classes and rising economies. In the end, we need to marshall the same kind of urgency to supporting that face of Africa as we do to managing today’s crisis.

By seeing Africa as a commercial opportunity rather than “a continent to be saved”, UAE companies are contributing substantively to the Africa growth story. Washington should listen, and pay heed.