African wealth – an oxymoron?

Nairobi, Kenya

Image by David Adjaye (Gallery Momo)

This week (which was, incidentally, Global Entrepreneurship Week) Forbes released a list of Africa’s 40 richest individuals. It is topped by Aliko Dangote of Nigeria. His interests are mostly in commodities – cement, flour milling, sugar refining and salt processing.
The country with the highest number of billionaires is Egypt, followed by South Africa (though the latter has more individuals, some ‘mere’ millionaires, on the list). The South Africans on the list made their money from mining, financial services, luxury goods, pharmaceuticals, ceramics, textiles and retail.  
I’m not one to spend too much time bemoaning our continent’s image in global media. It is a well-known fact that Africa is usually associated with images of poverty and strife. In such a world view, the idea of African wealth is oxymoronic. A Forbes list celebrating African wealth blows up the stereotypes and makes African success a worthy topic of discussion.

Of course, there are unsettling questions about the ethical compromises that individuals and companies may commit in generating such wealth in environments that are plagued by corruption, conflict and oppression.

The list shows the diversity of wealth creation on the continent along various dimensions, including:
·    The degree of innovation involved – the richest Africans have made their money in activities that range from trading basic commodities to developing new ways of delivering financial services. There is a fair spread of low tech and high tech industries though business model and process innovations seem more prevalent than radical, new technologies.
·    The type of production involved – primary (mining and agriculture), secondary (manufacturing) and tertiary sectors (services) are all represented.
·    Embeddedness in the political system – there is at least one individual on this list who has had a torrid relationship with his government and did not have an easy rise to the top. There are also others who may have been cosy with previous regimes, but have chilly relations with the current powers-that-be. So one cannot dismiss the African rich as products of the political system and patronage.
But there is resounding homogeneity when it comes to gender – the list is all male. In South Africa, a racially diverse country with a mostly black population, only 2 out of the 15 individuals on the list are black.

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