Whose century is this, really?

The Redwood blog
Published:  17 February, 2014
Mike Redwood

At the turn of the century pundits were telling us that the 21st century would be the century of the Pacific and the brief decades of the countries bordering the North Atlantic dominating world trade and all that goes with it would be ending. Well, what a difference a decade makes.

Now the USA is fighting back. India still struggles to come forward and show its potential and in China the growth in workers has slowed so strongly as to highlight a seriously ageing population issue, even if the one child policy were to be instantly withdrawn. New countries are being touted as the growth centres - Mexico, Indonesia, Brazil and Nigeria - and we also keep reading of the post China 16 which are the fragmented destinations thought most likely to take up the production of goods that slide away from China as costs rise.

Yet looking further forward the current century starts to look more like the African Century. From the outside we stereotype it as continent in turmoil. Tribal, unstable, uneducated, unhealthy and overwhelmed by greed and corruption. A continent increasingly being destroyed by its own natural resources, and now sliding under the domination of a new colonial power, China.

I have been travelling to Africa for a little more than 30 years, and for the first 20 this was generally quite true. Comparing Addis Ababa with cities in China like Xian and Chengdu was shocking. China racing ahead and Addis sliding backwards. Yet in the last ten years the World Bank tells us that the Ethiopian economy has grown at an average of 10.7% per annum. In 2012 it was the 12th fastest growing economy in the world. The street corners in Addis are no longer for standing around; there is a bustle about the country. A bustle that is breaking out all over Sub-Saharan Africa.

 

Good cocktail or bad cocktail?

Countries such as Nigeria and Ethiopia have big livestock resources and fast growing populations. Calculations already measure the moment later this century when Nigeria will have more workers than China.

Ethiopia alone has over 52 million cattle, 24 million sheep, 22 million goats and about a million camels, according to the government’s agricultural survey in 2012, making it Africa’s top livestock producer and exporter. New laws were enacted just before the end of 2013 to try and regulate the livestock industry to reduce illegal smuggling. Such a foundation should create enormous job potential in leather making and using industries. The government plans anticipate exports from the sector to reach US$500 million by 2015 although they are currently quite a bit off target. Foreign investment is pouring in and things should accelerate soon. One thing that is recognised is that as well as providing employment manufacturing such as making leather goods is normally much better to keep clear of corruption than exporting unprocessed raw materials, and a much better structure for collecting at taxes. Both are vital areas for countries like Ethiopia.

The tanning area of Nigeria, in the north around Kano is also a truly ancient centre of a large raw material supply. While the south of Nigeria stubbornly motors forward the north has become a dangerous place and expats hide in compounds behind big walls with their families safely elsewhere. Hopefully this will get resolved before too long, although these simmering divisions which mix religion (or fanatical interpretations of it), tribalism, poor education and greed in a toxic cocktail lie close to the surface in many African countries ready to derail progress in a heartbeat.

But if you say that a faint heart never won fair lady, you will remain courageous and hopeful looking at a continent that has the elements of youth, vitality and the resources to change the world for the better in the 21st century. My guess is that it will succeed, and I wish it well.

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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