The countries of Africa, especially the sub Saharan bit, have a terrible history. Many of them were worse off after independence than they had been under their colonial masters. Corruption was and is a normal part of everyday life. A venal, kleptocratic, incompetent ruling elite treated the countries as personal fiefdoms to be leached of everything that could be extracted, purely for their own benefit. Money sent as aid by charities and governments mostly ended up in their Swiss bank accounts. For decades Africa wallowed in moral and economic squalor, with no route out.
The Chinese came along, desperate for raw materials, and put in some infrastructure to allow themselves to do that. But the reality is that they were no better than the European colonials who had gone before. Africa continued to be a terrible place for the people that lived there.
Some countries were less bad, Republic of South Africa has lots of descendants of Dutch colonists who keep things working, Senegal had less venal leaders in Léopold Sédar Senghor and Abdou Diouf. But then countries like Sudan and Somalia more than made up for this.
The West made things worse. Free trade is far more important than education, urbanisation and aid for development. So we put up sharp tariff barriers to ensure that they remained in squalor. Our politicians have, seemingly, deliberately held Africa back. There can be no other explanation.
But now, across most of Africa, there is a glimmer of hope. And it comes from a very unlikely source. The smartphone. In great swathes of Africa the smartphone is the first computer that will get to most villages, the first that most Africans will see and the first that they will use.
We are not talking about £600 iPhone 6 plusses here. We are talking about sub $50 dollar machines. The MTN R500 Steppa retails for £28, for instance, with 3G, WiFi, Bluetooth, Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, 512MB of RAM and a microSD card slot. These will do functionally exactly what the iPhone does, but not quite so slickly. And in Africa a smartphone is used like desk top computer is in the West.
Once someone has a smartphone they have access to all the world’s information. Accurate medical information is always at hand. Markets work far more efficiently, they know what to grow and when, what is the best price for seed and fertiliser, they can find buyers and know the selling price. Reliable weather information is available instantly as is political news from multiple uncensored sources. Smartphones have become the main banking device in many places. For many in Africa the transformation has been like having an operation to restore their sight. The huge potential of the continent is being unlocked. Everything works better.
Now between 60% and 80% of African adults have a mobile phone. It is incredible. Admittedly many of these are feature phones and not full on smartphones. But the capabilities are still there and the results have been astounding for the success of Africa and its people. The transformation has been so enormous and so recent that the statistics have not been able to keep up. All we have is a rich body of anecdotal evidence that Africa is starting to boom. Just like Asian countries such as China, Korea and Singapore pulled themselves from poverty to wealth, so Africa is now starting to do the same.
One fine irony is Bill Gates giving billions of his wealth to Africa in conventional aid when all along the real answer was the sort of technology by which he made those billions. He would do best now to use his money to seed the next generation of Apples, Microsofts and Googles across Africa.
Interestingly Africa may well now have a competitive advantage over the West. Hundreds of millions of people who are accustomed to using a smartphone like we use a desktop. So they have full computer functionality with them everywhere they go, 24/7. Much of Africa can skip industrialisation and can make the transition from an agrarian to a information based economy directly.