11 Myths Busted By “The Bright Continent”

Dayo Olopade, author of The Bright Continent, debunks all-too-common beliefs about Africa.

1. Poverty Porn

Mike Hutchings / Reuters

Some development workers peddle “poverty porn” that makes Africa seem like a continent of sick and listless beggars. In fact, Africa provides a higher rate of return on investment than any other developing region of the world. Seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world are African. In 2009, a consortium of local and foreign banks made $2.6 billion south of the Sahara — excluding South Africa. By way of comparison, that’s about as much as Western firms made in India and China. The African Development Bank estimates that there is now a population the size of the United States making up to 10 times the poverty benchmark of $2 per day.

2. Government Matters

AP Photo

Many people assume that African governments matter most to ordinary people’s lives. The opposite is true. The political map of Africa doesn’t reflect the boundaries of tribes and languages that actually define relationships. African state divisions are less important than you’d think — and frequently ignored. Seventy-three percent of households in Africa do not speak the official language of their countries (in other developing countries, it’s 28%). Economic interconnections matter more than passports and family ties matter more than citizenship.

3. Nigerian Spammers Are The Worst

Devonyu/Devonyu

Most people groan when they read an email from a “Nigerian prince.” But on the ground in Nigeria, the young people who deploy these scams are sometimes the smartest kids in the room — the best with English, critical thinking, and computers. Without formal employment opportunities, they are simply doing the best they can with whatever they can get. Rather than being a cause for concern or condescension, the Nigerian spam emails are signs of connection and creativity — and an exciting new kind of entrepreneurship.

4. Informal Trade Is Bad

Joe Penney / Reuters

Globally, the informal economy is estimated to be worth $10 trillion; if it were a country, it would be in the top five by wealth. In many places in sub-Saharan Africa, the informal economy is the only economy, generating, on average, more than half of all economic activity. Where formal employment is scarce, informality provides opportunity. In Lagos, nearly 94% of the city’s businesses operated without formal registration or permits. This labor is worth $50 billion — bigger than both annual foreign assistance to Nigeria ($11.4 billion) and foreign investment ($5.4 billion).

5. Microfinance Is the Answer

Philimon Bulawayo / Reuters

For transformative change, microfinance is too small. Loans average $500 across Africa, but many promising small businesses in Africa need $30,000 to $1 million to get moving. These capital needs are tiny by global standards but stretch much further in Africa. Businesses at this medium size create jobs more consistently and sustainably than community level microfinance, or multimillion-dollar infrastructure projects. The conventional wisdom around banking and microfinance is depriving a key sector of the economy of the oxygen it needs to live.

6. West Is Best

Mike Hutchings / Reuters

Today, 1.5 billion people overeat, and waste 1.3 billion tons of food in the process. North Americans use 400 liters of water per day to drink, cook, and clean themselves. The energy New York’s 19.5 million people consume every year covers nearly 800 million on the continent. The planet needs 70% more food for a projected 9 billion inhabitants by 2050. African households, by contrast, balance food production and consumption, use much less water, and maintain a regional carbon footprint that is the lowest in the world.

7. Pity the Child

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Images of skinny kids in tattered clothes belie an important fact: African kids are highly resilient. Schoolchildren as young as 4 or 5 years old walk up to 10 kilometers (about 6 miles) to and from school with no fear, because they can handle the challenge. African parents don’t have time to coddle and hover: When my mother was growing up in Nigeria, she had no official curfew; she was told to come home only when it was too dark to see the lines on her palm.

8. Low-Tech Africa

Feisal Omar / Reuters

Since the late 1990s, the continent has become a $56 billion mobile phone ecosystem, with over half a billion subscribers; there are now 10 times as many cell phones as landlines south of the Sahara. In 1999, less than 10% of Africans lived in areas with mobile phone coverage. Today, that number is more than 60%. Those owning phones were clustered mainly in Arab North Africa and South Africa; by 2012, 650 million people in sub-Saharan Africa — from tiny Gabon to sprawling Sudan — had subscriptions.

9. Send Your T-Shirts!

Chris Jackson / Getty Images

Thousands of pounds of unwanted clothing (like inaccurate commemorative Super Bowl shirts) end up donated to sub-Saharan Africa. No one in Africa wants them either! They have contributed to the destruction of local textile manufacturing. In Ghana, they are known as broni wa wo, or “a white man has died.” In Togo, they’re dead yovo (“white person”) clothes. Buying shoes or sending gifts in kind privileges Western convenience as much as the intended recipients.

10. Sunsets and Safaris

Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters

In the next 15 years, 350 million more people will be living in Africa’s cities. And the fastest-growing cities aren’t well known Johannesburg, Lagos, and Nairobi — they’re Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, Yamoussoukro in Cote D’Ivoire, Durban in South Africa, Goma in the DRC, Nakuru in Kenya. This emerging crop has a big advantage over the crowded megacities; they can provide modern infrastructure, proper planning, less density, and thus more opportunity.

11. Bad Leaders Last Forever

borgogniels/borgogniels

Sub-Saharan Africa has the biggest gap between the median age of the public and the age of its leaders: 43 years. By contrast, Europe and North America have an average age gap of 16 years. If the average age of African heads of state is around 70, the average life expectancy on the continent is 56. The big disconnect between leaders and youth is coming to a head; the old guard is about to die or retire, and the next decade will see a dramatic change in political leadership.

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Dayo Olopade is a Nigerian-American journalist covering global politics and development policy. She has reported from 20 countries for The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, the Daily Beast, and the New York Times, among other publications. Olopade is currently a Knight Law and Media Scholar at Yale. Keep up with her latest stories by following her on Twitter @madayo.

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