Review: The Bright Continent, Dayo Olopade

The universe is more diverse! If you aren’t already participating in Aarti’s wonderful September event A More Diverse Universe, you definitely should. Check out her amazing recommendations here and here and here, visit her blog to check out what other people are reading, and follow the hashtag #Diversiverse on Twitter.

My first read for this event is Dayo Olopade’s The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, a book I’ve long had my eye on because of its brilliantly colored, eye-catching jacket design. It’s also a terrific book, an antidote to what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called “the danger of a single story.” Dayo Olopade has heard that single story a hundred times: the story of Africans who are passive-as-in-not-active and passive-as-in-suffering. The Bright Continent is aware of the suffering, the civil wars and the corrupt governments, but the stories it tells are of African ingenuity. Africans who are fully aware of government inefficiency and broken promises, and who work around those things. Africans who do not wait around to receive resources they don’t have yet, but who make the most of the resources they do have.

Olopade is sharply critical of top-down efforts to improve the lots of people in Africa. She argues that the models that work are those that come from Africans themselves, the people who know the country’s culture and shortcomings and have figured out how to work within them. Quite often these interactions are so informal that nobody in the West reports on them, and standard measures of economic growth and prosperity (such as GDP) miss them completely.

Many efforts by Westerners to send assistance to African countries are actually harming their economies, Olopade argues. When Tom’s sends a pair of shoes to Africa for every pair of Tom’s shoes you buy, it eliminates jobs in shoe-making that could otherwise exist in those countries. And also, people in Africa don’t necessarily want shoes the most. There are very likely other things they want much more. Or in many cases, foreign aid from developed nations comes tied to contracts with companies from the donating nations, and the money leaves the recipient nation almost as soon as it arrives.

Instead Olopade praises the solutions that take advantage of existing structures within African countries. The Tanzania company EGG-energy, for instance, wires houses for electricity and supplies rechargeable batteries to power the houses. When one battery wears out, subscribers return it and receive a new one.

The informal economy does EGG’s legwork. The company runs central charging and swapping stations but also enlists kiosk owners to stock its batteries alongside the soaps, chocolates, and mobile airtime typically for sale. When a subscriber swaps out a battery, the kiosk owner gets a cut.

 

“We’re trying to use the same distribution networks that already exist,” says [company founder Jamie] Yang, “people who go around selling produce on motorbikes, who walk eggs on bicycles or use wheelbarrows.” These extended networks enable EGG to reach ordinary people 30 or 40 kilometers outside the biggest city.

Reading this book was tremendously heartening. Because Olopade is right (and Adichie is right): The stories you hear about Africa tend to be stories of failed governments and civil wars. Those stories remain true, and we should listen for them; but they aren’t the only stories — they aren’t even the main stories — of what goes on day to day in the countries of Africa. And those day-to-day stories are worth telling.

Very much recommended!