The first European explorers were amazed at the continent’s wealth.
When Portuguese explorers first arrived on the east African coast at the turn of the 16th century, an anonymous recorder on the voyage of Pedro Alvares Cabral noted of Kilwa (off the coast of present-day Tanzania):
“This island is small, near the mainland, and is a beautiful country. The houses are high like those of Spain. In this land there are rich merchants, and there is much gold and silver and amber and musks and pearls.
Those of the land wear clothes of fine cotton and of silk and many fine things and they are black men.”
The “Africa rising” story of booming economies and growing middle classes is important in correcting the global perception of Africa, for Africa has not always been in decline.
The 500 years after the European arrival in Africa saw an increasing integration of Africa into the global economy, but often on terms which worked against Africa’s interests: the slave trade through the end of the 19th century, then European colonial rule to the 1960s.
The challenge of development has been the story since, as Africa struggled with the legacies of colonial rule, its marginal share of global trade, and corrupt and dictatorial leadership.
In the first decade of the 21st century, the tide seemed to have turned: six of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world were in sub-Saharan Africa: Mozambique, Rwanda, Angola, Nigeria, Chad and Ethiopia.
While some benefitted from the rising oil price, Mozambique’s oil production was yet to come on line, and Rwanda and Ethiopia are not oil producers. As a region, sub-Saharan Africa grew at an average of 5% during the first 15 years of the new millennium, a sharp departure from the 1980s, which went down in history as Africa’s lost decade.
The Economist once called Africa the “hopeless continent”. In its “Africa Rising” cover story in March 2013, the same magazine predicted that the average African economy will outpace its Asian counterpart.
This pendulum swing has been as refreshing as it has been uplifting for a continent that had misery and destitution as its key tropes. However, it is also true that poverty has remained widespread.
Between 1990 and 2010 the number of people in poverty increased from 289 million to more than 413 million, compromising the prospects of meeting the first millennium development goal, of eradicating extreme poverty.
And the sharp decline in global prices for commodities such as oil and copper since last year have raised major challenges, especially in major oil-exporting countries such Angola and Nigeria where oil accounts for more than 90% of export earnings. Today Africa’s share of global trade remains less than 3%.
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