And Now For Some Unexpectedly Good News

Don’t look now, but sub-Saharan Africa is booming. Since 2003 its growth has been skyrocketing, and, to quote none other than McKinsey, “today the rate of return on foreign investment in Africa is higher than in any other developing region.” There are several reasons: commodity prices, Chinese investment, diaspora remittances… and, I would argue, the GSM revolution that has swept the entire continent, in some places famously taking communications straight from talking drums to cell phones, leapfrogging land lines entirely.

It’s a glorious wave of change, sweeping across a continent that had stagnated for decades. I’ve spent nearly a year of my life traveling south of the Sahara, starting thirteen years ago, and this is the first time I’ve been here without being depressed about the region’s prospects. It’s still mostly very poor, and it faces serious challenges – for instance, rising food and oil prices – but at the same time it feels a lot like China in 1990, or India in 2000 … and look at them now. For the first time in, well, ever, it is possible to seriously consider Africa as an emerging economic power.

Of course I’m hardly the first to notice this. A few months ago I suggested that startups start targeting the developing world as a market. I now want to amend that advice; it may already be too late. China got here first.

Chinese companies and entrepeneurs are investing massively in African mines, farms, infrastructure – and technology. The new wired and wireless networks here are largely built by Huawei. In the two weeks I’ve been wandering around Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti I’ve already bumped into heaps of traveling Chinese businesspeople. Local newspapers don’t complain about the special treatment that white people get any more; now they complain about special treatment for “whites and Chinese.” Which is progress, I suppose, of a sort.

Most of the Ethiopian Internet cafes I saw used client software from China Telecom. Chinese feature phones are increasingly popular, mostly because they’re cheaper than Nokias. You can buy a US$100 Android phone here in Kenya (see picture) but Android isn’t exactly optimized for the developing world, and it’s surely only a matter of time before phones running Tapas OS or another Chinese Android fork start competing in the smartphone market.

More power to these Chinese companies, of course: their tech investments here benefit both themselves and the African nations in question. (The mines, roads, and farms are more controversial – a recent Guardian piece on the subject has the Sinophobic title “China’s economic invasion of Africa.”) It does make me wonder, though, if it will be Chinese tech companies, rather than American or European ones, who will reap the lion’s share of profits from the surging economies of the developing world in the decades to come. They certainly seem to be better positioned right now.