In 2000, the Economist made a bold declaration about Africa: it called us the hopeless continent.
We screamed. We protested. Oyinbo people are trying to put us down. They are insulting us. It’s time for us to tell our own stories etc.
So by 2011, the foreign media had gotten the message, and the narrative changed: Africa, they declared, is now rising. BRICS, MINTs, N-11… the hopeless continent is now bustling with hope. Hope, change, love, joy. The middle class now had more pot-bellies. And all of us cheered.
Pride restored. Victory secured. Battle won.
But what exactly did we win?
It reminds me of a dear, dear friend of mine whom I asked to come join an effort to battled Ebola last year, and she said to me: “Oh no, I don’t want to be part of any negative narratives of Africa”. And I thought to myself: “beht this is not a narrative something, this is a reality something”.
But there are so many of us – who have venture capital for our businesses or funding for our ideas – who scream the same. No! That’s not the story of Africa. That is poverty porn. That is not Africa’s story. There is hope for Africa. Nobody should preach to me about selling hope. That’s what we do at The Future Awards Africa. That’s been our job for 10 years now – telling Africa’s brightest and best stories to young Africans. But the hope wey we dey sell dey see road, and e tie wrapper.
The fact that many of our over 1,000 nominees over the last ten years have succeeded in spite of broken down systems cannot blind us to the reality – that nations cannot grow based only on outliers.
Yes, we will always have people who make something out of nothing. They exist around the world, even in nations destroyed by war. But we need nations that provide opportunities for everyone, not just outliers.
Overheard recently: Africa cannot entrepreneur its way out of its problems. We can’t entrepreneur around bad leadership; we can’t entrepreneur around bad policy. There is a point at which resilience becomes a defect and not a virtue. It is not something to be proud of that it takes sweat and blood to register a business in name in Nigeria, to open a bank account for same and to understand its tax laws with no help from the government. It is a problem that needs to be solved.
And until Africa has a network of nations where these foundational imperatives are engaged successfully and uninterrupted, success stories will continue to be a rarity and Africa will simply not grow
As part of the build up to tonight’s event, we toured the North-East of Nigeria. Oh, the things we saw. The tragedy is not the stories you even know, it’s in the ones you don’t. It’s not just the fact that it was day 600 yesterday and Chibok parents still have no news, it is the fact that they have been utterly abandoned by their own government.
Ah. On these trips the strong disconnect between the Africa Rising narrative and the realities on the ground hit you like a ton of bricks.
So instead of simple stories, how about we focus on our reality?
That Africa is not a dark continent, yet it has more blackouts than any other continent. We protest Africa is not a theatre of war, but it has more national coups than any part of the world today. Yes, Africa is not a dark continent of poverty, but we have more poor people with no pathway to rising than any continent existing in 2015.
Yes, Africa is not a continent of disease, but polio was just eradicated in Nigeria this year. And not because we told better stories. But because a foreign donor worked with local change-makers to make it happen. And it did not occur to our government officials, celebrating this news and claiming credit, that the fact that such a simple matter should have this long should become instead a reason for reflection, not backslapping.
Brothers and sisters of Africa, 329 million mobile phone users is not growth, it is consumption. 200 million people when there are no roads for them to move goods and service is not a market. Luxury motor shops opening in Lagos is not development, it is alternative reality.
We must stop, stop! Stop this lowering of the bar, where we declare progress for 6 per cent growth rate over the past 10 years while countries like China have sustained 11 percent growth for most of the last 30 years, pulling millions out of poverty in the process.
Because this rising tide has not lifted all boats. What is rising instead is the number of Africa’s children out of school – 18 million as at last count, the number of young people living below two dollars a day – 72 per cent a last count, the percent of our GDP that goes only to less than 10 per cent, the number of people who have to hold their hands over their heads to pass into the airport in Kenya, and the sheer number of jobless youth – over 75 million between ages 15 and 24 – who have no jobs. It is not a sexy story.
But it is a true story.
Of course, this story can change. And in some countries, like in my favourite Rwanda, it is in fact changing. And from countries like this come a powerful message of hope, but it is one that does not have to rely on a lie.
That message is simple: Africa CAN rise. But it can rise if only we can urgently scale up the work that governments and then civil society are doing. Government first – because one thousand NGOs cannot take the place of a single functioning government.
It can rise when we, speak truth to power, in government, in civil society, in business. And act on that truth. That’s the promise that Africa’s youth – these nominees representing the best of them – can deliver on. Their efforts will not be enough however if they cannot scale, if they can not reach the millions who need them, and reach them consistently and sustainably. Because Africa’s gargantuan problems need scale.
We don’t need more NGOs, as much as we need more support for those already solving these problems. We don’t need more politicians; we need more people forcing governments to do what they must for more young people. We need to move from hashtagging words, to hashtagging action.
And for this, we need active citizens.
We don’t need part-time Africans. We don’t need those who are content to sit in little cocoons and substitute one simple story for another.
We don’t need part-time Africans. We need full time citizens. We need a groundswell of active, engaged, involved citizens – solving problems, at the same time, across our nations.
That’s why The Future Awards Africa is visiting 100 cities over the next one year. That’s why we are finding young people solving problems across these communities and telling their stories, spreading their action. That’s why we are getting them all the support that they need that we can get. We will train them, we will support them, we will help them scale. That’s why we are launching howcanIgetinvolved.com
Because we need full time citizens. We need a linking of arms, people working together, at the same time, with all that they have on the problems we need to solve.
Because The Future Awards Africa doesn’t want to keep celebrating rarities. We want to celebrate a surplus of inspiring stories, of hope, of growth, of impact. And to create that surplus, all of us have so much work left to do. Oh, we have so much work to do.
And that might not be the story we want to hear but that is the story we all need to hear. Our continent needs us. Desperately, critically, urgently.
Africa needs me. Africa needs you. Africa needs us o.
Thank you, and God bless everyone.
*Jideonwo is co-founder or The Future Awards Africa.