Africans Are Helping Themselves—Fuel Their Innovation, Not Your Own

Enough with the old narratives about refugee camps and impoverished children. A new book sheds light on the continent’s movers and shakers who are operating innovative businesses grounded in one motto: “For Africa, by Africa.”

Benin City, Nigeria Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

It has been a recurring experience during my trips to Ghana and Nigeria in the past few years: seeing Africans do far more for themselves than the mainstream narrative about Africa would have you believe. More important, the methods used by local merchants—and even laymen who have to be ready at a moment’s notice to engineer solutions to everyday problems—are not only creative and innovative, but also sometimes a bit more efficient than some methods stateside.

Take the makeshift water system I saw operating in a hair salon a few blocks from my mother’s house in Accra, the Ghanaian capital. It was an arrangement consisting of tubes, a heating tank and several dispensers from which water flowed—all to make use of the limited water supply and nonexistent piping system. The entire apparatus worked amazingly well at getting the shampoo out of a patron’s hair. My mother and the salon owner told me that the system conserved water better than some modern methods, a feat that Americans have been trying to accomplish for years. 

Nigerian-American journalist Dayo Olopade explores this idea more thoroughly in her new book The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa.

“The path to progress in Africa lies in the surprising and innovative solutions Africans are finding for themselves,” a passage from the book reads.

In a New York Times op-ed, Olopade describes her elation that Bill Gates is encouraging people to do away with categories such as “developing” and “developed” or “first world” and “third world” to describe where a nation sits on the fiscal ladder. Olopade instead developed her own vocabulary: fat and lean. Lean countries, such as those in Africa and South America, “approach consumption and production with scarcity in mind,” she wrote, while fat nations are obsessed with “plenty.”

Fat-nation problems include subprime mortgages, skyrocketing credit card debt and the overproduction of fossil fuels. Lean nations have their share of problems, too, such as infant mortality and malaria outbreaks.

But because much of the world has committed itself to operating more efficiently after the 2008 financial crisis, fat nations have the opportunity to study lean regions such as Africa and learn a thing or two about streamlining their processes and working resourcefully. But, Olopade says, they must first pull back the curtain and take a peek at the informal economic sectors in Africa that are keeping much of the continent afloat. Jobs that do not show up in formal indicators such as gross domestic product or the employment rate, but they’re there.

During her TED talk, Olopade said this informal sector represents about 70 percent of the economy, a data point that becomes increasingly evident if one spends a few days in any of Africa’s epicenters. African ingenuity can be put on a fast track to improve Africa if foreign-aid specialists and development workers would sometimes work through (instead of around) these indigenous business ventures.

During an interview with The Root, Olopade described the “aha” moment that compelled her to write the book.