In the words of French Historian Fernand Braudel, “In understanding Black Africa, geography is more important than history”.
There are several factors that explain why Africa is not as successful as its continental counterparts. A few argue that colonialism is the main culprit, others cite poor governance and some point fingers at the rate of population growth. While these are all valid explanations, the narrative is incomplete. Africa’s geography still remains a highly neglected part of the story.
In Jarred Diamonds “Guns, Germs and Steel”, he states that a country’s wealth and economic success is contingent on its geographical environment and topography. Consider a subsistence economy with low agricultural productivity and weak infrastructure. If the soils are poor, the rains inconsistent, and the crop varieties differ greatly from what “rich” countries consume, then that economy is less likely to escape extreme poverty. Local farmers will grow just enough food to feed their families and whatever is left will be insufficient to drive exports. These farmers will also have little incentive to save as they are living from hand to mouth. The lack of savings means that there is no private investment and this feeds into government expenditure (via taxation) on essential public investments necessary for growth.
Africa is a huge continent, saturated with diverse regions, climates and cultures. Yet, they all have one thing in common; their isolation from each other and the outside world. There is also a great misconception of African geography, the size of the continent as depicted by the Mercator projection does not fully illustrate how big it truly is. The image below should give you a rough idea of the true size of Africa.
The Natural Resource Curse
A snapshot of Africa’s economic experience shows that the presence of land and natural resources is not a panacea for economic success. Natural-resource dependence has continuously proven to be a curse, rather than a blessing on the continent.
Several African nations such as Nigeria, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have been blessed with oil, diamonds and other mineral resources. Yet, some of these countries that are richly endowed with natural resources are the ones experiencing the highest levels of poverty and exhibiting the lowest rates of growth. By 2050, the highest number of poor people in the world will be concentrated in two of the richest African countries – Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria.
The Proximity Problem
Productivity is an essential ingredient for growth. Proximity is a major problem affecting the productivity level in many African nations today. In this scenario, there is a lack of proximity to markets, consumers, competitors and suppliers. There is also a lack of proximity between African countries and the global market.
The proximity gap is much severe in landlocked countries. This is because they are much more secluded from international markets and have to cross several borders to interact. A typical African country is bordered by four neighbouring nations – making delays at borders ludicrous. Around 31% of countries in sub-Saharan Africa are landlocked – this is in comparison with 12% in other developing regions. Furthermore, around 40% of Africa’s population reside in landlocked countries where they face high transportation costs.
Before the advent of trains, cars and airplanes, water was a significant mode of transportation. It was essential for developing an economy and integrating it with other parts of the world. However, the lack of navigable rivers and harbours in Africa isolated the continent.
Africa’s geography makes movement across the continent increasingly difficult. Unlike in other parts of the world where goods could be moved by sea, African rivers are not as navigable – the coasts have very narrow plains that end against escarpments. The problem with this is that, in the few places where ships can enter the continent, they are disrupted by cascades and waterfalls. An example is the Zambezi river – Africa’s fourth-longest river. Although it is a magnificent tourist attraction, it is practically useless as a trade route.
The Disease Burden
Africa is equatorial, making it a suitable host for pathogens that cause diseases like Malaria. Malaria, as we know, is a huge problem in public health in many African nations today, regardless of measures put in place by respective governments. In 2015, around 92% of 429,000 malaria deaths occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. Diseases do not only lead to a decline in productivity and labour market participation – but it also sends a negative signal to the global market and hinders potential foreign direct investment that could have boosted growth and development across the continent.
Infrastructure is the Way Forward
African governments need to heavily invest in transport infrastructure within their countries and across the continent. The cross-border nature of these infrastructure investments also means that regional cooperation is crucial for its success. Roads and railways need to be built, but most importantly, maintained.
Africa’s dear “friend” China has already started work. China’s highly controversial and ambitious Belt and Road initiative (BRI) could be a game changer in Africa’s infrastructural journey. An example is the Mombassa-Nairobi railway – a brainchild of the BRI. The $3.2 billion project was launched just last year, and it is estimated to cut down the travel time between the two cities from 12 hours to 4½ hours and reduce transportation costs by 60%.
Overall, Africa is not destined to lag behind because of its disadvantageous geography. Other regions dealing with a similar fate have managed to still achieve commendable growth rates. The geographic obstacles the continent faces are not insurmountable. However, moving forward economic policies must be tailored to directly fit Africa’s geographic realities.
Thanks for Reading,