Development: What is Africa’s problem?

Sunday March 4 2012

Access to quality education remains a big hurdle in Africa.

Access to quality education remains a big hurdle in Africa. Photo by Francis Mugerwa 

By Timothy Kalyegira

As the minds of more and more Ugandans focus on the meaning of this year as Uganda’s 50th Independence anniversary, we are groping about for answers to the problems that continue to resist any solution.

The answers remain elusive and each answer and solution comes with a built-in hurdle. If Africa’s problem was colonialism, how come Ethiopia is not Africa’s most advanced economy?

If it is the incessant wars and military coups that occupied most of the post-1960 period, how come countries like Malawi and Zambia that have never seen coups or wars are no different, in real terms from Uganda or Ghana?

If it is leaders who refuse to relinquish power, how come the Senegal of Presidents Leopold Sedar Senghor and Abdou Diouf who voluntarily stepped down from power is the same Senegal as that of President Abdoulaye Wade who seemed determined to cling on?

If it is the lack of term limits, how come Tanzania that has stuck to its two terms since 1985 ranks little differently in health, roads, literacy, and income per capita from others in Africa whose leaders have been around for more than 20 years?

Could the Internet and “social media” have helped us?
With the arrival of the Internet in 1995 and the first service providers like InfoMail, Starcom, the Makerere University effort called Mukla and others, there was hope that at last the Information Superhighway would integrate us into the world economy and we would have solved the problem of our isolation.


The Internet is the nearest thing that Africa has ever known or will ever know to equality with the West and the fast-rising Far East. All Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo addresses are the same no matter where in the world. Nearly all information online is free and up-to-date.

Because English is Uganda’s official language, Ugandans if anything seemed positioned to enjoy an advantage since the Internet has the English-speaking United States as its birthplace.

Then when “social media” started making their way into the Ugandan mainstream around 2010 with the increasing popularity of websites like Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook, I thought they might help us break out of our international isolation.

The results are they have helped many Ugandans re-discover old friends and establish new contacts abroad. But overall, the picture remains the same and the pattern continues to follow what most Africans are familiar with: the lack of adequate access.

Following New York Pop singer Lady Gaga on Twitter (she had an incredible 19,859,058 followers on Twitter by Friday morning) or American actress and famous-for-being-famous society busybody Kim Kardashian (13,498,484 followers) has not resulted in their followers in Uganda or the rest of Africa themselves getting thousands of followers as a result.

It is the same story at Facebook and so the same story for Africa. The Internet has helped most Ugandans in the general sense of making us feel connected, feel modern, global and “happening”, and perhaps find information much faster and in much more abundance than our decaying public and school libraries would have made possible.

But in the overall, big picture sense, we are still faced with major disadvantages for those who seek a serious commercial use of the Web.

Access to information
When it comes to visibility in the Internet search engines, the same pattern of lack of access to the world’s major centres of technology, mass consumption and production stalks us.

I’ve recently launched a website,, which is supposed to be a global library of recorded radio programmes; an audio version of the YouTube video-sharing website.

The limitations of operating from Africa are starting to make themselves felt.

The three major global and western search engines Google, Bing and Yahoo rank the search results Internet users enter into the engines on the basis of relevance and popularity of the website, as seen in the traffic it gets and the number of links coming into the particular website. But there is one more factor, and this is the IP (or Internet Protocol) address. To simplify it, the IP address is like a road or highway leading to various offices and homes. These are the numbers like 43.196.643.321 and so on we often see on our networked computers

The busier the road, street or highway is in people and vehicle traffic, the more likely we shall see commercial billboards erected along it (such as the traffic lights near Nsambya, the Kibuye roundabout, the Clock Tower, the intersection between Yusuf Lule Road, Jinja Road, the Kitgum House and the roundabout just below the Fairway Hotel areas of Kampala). In the same way, the IP addresses on the Internet that carry the highest traffic, such as those in North America, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Western Europe, South Korea, Taiwan, Russia and Australia tend to see the search engines concentrate on them.

Not surprisingly, Africa is the least Internet-heavy continent in the world, apart from a few nerve centres in the major cities of Egypt, South Africa, some parts of Kenya and Nigeria and a few cities in North Africa, the continent is dark as far as heavy Internet traffic is concerned.

Therefore, the search engines do not pay that much attention to these IP addresses in Africa. My website and most African Internet startups have to struggle to make themselves seen in this ocean of websites where the priority is given by the search engines to the same technologically-heavy, urbanised, affluent world cities and nations.

Lack of access to lucrative markets?
Even when we are given access to global markets like the EEC-ACP and AGOA arrangements (Uganda’s AGOA scandal, Botswana’s and Kenya’s lack of capacity to sustain the supplies), bungling and disorganisation kill the opportunities.

And so we are left, then, with the same insurmountable or difficult-to-surmount problems we have had since the 1960s.

With the end of the Cold War in 1990 and the release from jail of the South African dissident Nelson Mandela that year, optimistic talk began that Africa’s time of renaissance had finally come.

The first wave of multiparty general elections began in 1991. Privatisation of national economies and opening up of these economies to foreign firms started in 1992. The result has been the rise in Africa of a few super-rich individuals and politically-connected families and the large-scale displacement of the majority (even while this majority, on the face of it seemed to be enjoying more consumer choice than ever before).

All this has done one thing: prepare the way for the easy conquest of Africa’s economies by the rising giant called China.

In recent months, I have started to wonder how far, even, we critics of the NRM government should go in blaming it for the collapse of the former government-owned corporations (or parastatals).

The way Chinese-made clothes and textiles have thoroughly penetrated the African market, even if we still had the old companies like UGIL, Lint Marketing Board and others, would they today not have been rendered unprofitable by this flood of Chinese clothes?

Would the Uganda Posts and Telecommunications Corporation have competed profitably against Warid, AirTel, MTN or Orange?

Would Foods and Beverages have been a match for Shoprite, Uchumi, Nakumatt or Game?

It leads us back to the question: What is Africa’s problem? It seems to be one that is long-term, too built into society, too difficult to root out any time soon, to define in a single statement.

It is the problem of lack of capacity, brought about by being people with a lack of a certain mental and cultural fortitude to arrive at a single-minded national effort and added to this, the fact that even were there might be such an effort, the competing blocs of established world powers are too formidable as things stand to allow Africa to compete evenly with them.