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Africa in the world

The emergence of new players on the world market such as India, Brazil, China, Turkey and the Gulf States gives Africans more choice in who they work with and under which terms. At the same time, African multinationals are choosing to work with regional partners and are thus furnishing old political ideals with a new economic basis. The research group Africa in the World uses empirical research and economic analysis to investigate what global relations mean for local players.

Win-win?

Africa exports commodities and imports the end product – it is an old story that still holds true, concludes Professor Chibuike Uche, holder of the Stephen Ellis Chair for the Governance of Finance and Integrity in Africa. Take cement: many African countries have large supplies of the basic ingredient limestone in the ground, but they import cement from countries like South Korea and China, at a price, 70% of which is for transport. There must be another way, thought Aliko Dangote, founder of Dangote Cement, now Africa’s biggest multinational. With a burgeoning empire, Dangote Cement not only serves the African construction market but is also venturing into oil and foodstuffs.

You might think that the established parties would want to stifle this new competitor, but from an international perspective this new situation can create a win-win situation, says Uche: instead of cement, China now Afrika in de wereldsupplies cement factories. The main form of competition is between Dangote and small local businesses, which cannot compete with the new giant.

A voice through economic activity?

Policy is often developed following national analyses, but you need to look at different levels, warns social anthropologist Mayke Kaag. Take a country such as Mozambique, where the national government is eager to do business with the Chinese, giving municipalities governed by the opposition the opportunity to close deals with donors that do no longer have a preferential place at the table in Maputo.

After decades of field research in West-Africa, Kaag knows that local business owners often do not have the options that they seem to have on paper. In theory, they have a say, but in practice they are frequently caught up in political dependency: for instance, a group of sellers lobbies a local politician for a certain spot at the market, but hears nothing more after the election.

They only have a voice if they generate economic activity, says Uche. ‘Take my home village: the arrival of three local chicken farms has contributed in making the unpaved roads motorable all year round.’ By setting up small businesses, people start to have a voice. Once there are enough chicken farmers, a national minister will no longer get away with pushing local farmers out of the market by importing subsidised chicken wings. Industry seems to be achieving what the first Pan-Africans failed to do: Dangote Cement now sits at the table with governments negotiating on the removal of trade barriers between African countries.

Organisation

The big problem in Africa is a lack of organisation, Uche concludes. Like Kaag, he believes that education plays an emancipating role. This can be through commercial concepts such as micro-leasing, in which a product together with knowledge about its use and maintenance is shared, but equally by teaching people how to keep tabs on their leaders and call them to account. But even then, says Kaag, it remains important to look at who is benefiting and how the profits are distributed: nationally, locally, between superpowers, between neighbours and within families.

Africa in the World   

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