Africa Works – Africa Is A Clusterf*ck

Two weeks ago (May 11th, to be precise), I went to Africa. But of course, Africa is not a country, so it is not really fair to say I went to Africa. I went to East Africa – Kenya and Tanzania. Or, Nairobi, Mombasa, Dar es Salaam, Stonetown (on the island of Unguja, in Zanzibar), and Jambiani (see previous), as long as we’re being precise. Really, a more accurate title for this post would be something like, “Certain population centers in East Africa work – those same populations centers are clusterfucks.” But that’s far less catchy.

First – Africa works. Much of the business and economics coverage of sub-Saharan Africa in recent years has been indisputably positive, The Economist‘s “Africa Rising” special report from March 2013 being perhaps an archetypal example. Traveling where I did, it wasn’t hard to see why. My flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi on Kenya Airways was smooth and uneventful, and the visa-on-arrival procedure was straightforward and professional (each customs officer station was kitted out with a digital camera and electronic fingerprint scanners). Nairobi was crammed with people and businesses and I had little trouble locating a shop which helped me deal with a drained camera battery.*

Mombasa similarly abounded with obvious signs of economic activity – people had places to be and things to do, and trade was brisk in everything from cosmetics (these seemed especially popular with the city’s ethnic Arab female population) to car parts. The road south to Dar es Salaam passes numerous small villages, all with shops touting acceptance of the famed M-Pesa system, and also large-scale economic projects like a new titanium mine in Kwale or a new sugar factory in a place the name of which escapes me. The central area of Dar es Salaam is studded by construction projects and well-dressed businessmen prowl between glass-fronted hotels and offices. Stonetown and Jambiani, the two poorest urban areas on my trip, still evidenced signs of obvious development, the former boasting a robust tourism sector and the latter entrepreneurial workshop collectives.

Second – Africa is a clusterfuck. The macroeconomic statistics make this clear. GDP per head has grown enormously in the last decade-plus, but in Kenya and Tanzania it is still less than $1,000. These  are poor countries. My flight to Nairobi was uneventful, but none of the movies worked because they’d accidentally downloaded a virus onto the plane’s in-flight entertainment system.** I found a camera repair shop with relative ease, but the guy doing the work was looking up instructions on wikiHow (hooray for cheap mobile Internet though!). Mombasa is only 274 miles from Nairobi as the crow flies, but it took me 20 hours to get there on the train (hooray for an unexpected lunch service to cover for the delay though!). Trade is brisk there, but most of it seems to be conducted in small single-owner retail locations that are a long way from operating at the scale and complexity one traditionally associates with a more developed economy. Small towns along the coast road are clearly able to access wider economic networks via the omnipresence of M-Pesa, but they remain (if the visuals are anything to go by) desperately poor and the number of idle young males populating their central areas suggests a devastating lack of jobs. Zanzibar has a thriving tourism industry, and our hotel in Jambiani did provide some jobs for locals, but here too there was unavoidable evidence that for most people there just isn’t anything productive for them to do.

Transportation to, from, and within all these places is enormously unreliable and informal – a roughly 35 mile trip from our hotel in Jambiani to the ferry terminal in Stonetown took well over two hours, and this after being told the bus would depart, “between 8:30am and 9am,” only to see it actually roll out at around 10am. Zanzibar’s faux-customs office seemed to be avoidable by walking fast, with a purpose, and without making eye contact, and if you think traffic behavior from drivers and pedestrians in Boston is bad, I urge you to visit the cities of East Africa. It is worth noting that much of what seems like evidence of clusterfuck to the Western observer is nothing more than evidence of a different way of doing things to the local one. One can imagine a Kenya as rich as the United States in which crossing signals are still nothing more than guidelines. But one would think some of this really does have to change for growth to continue apace and lift millions of East Africans out of poverty. Who wants to invest in a place when the only way of getting there for most people is a bus that may or may not show up, and then only when it feels like it?

In the long run, count me among the optimistic when it comes to sub-Saharan Africa’s economic development story. But I wonder if even a successful version of that story plays out, the results won’t look massively different from what we might expect based on the examples of today’s developed countries. To put it basically, we started the modern era with a lot of stuff already. Having a day-long layover in Amsterdam made this viscerally clear. By 1900, the city would have been growing from a base of infrastructure more than 300 years old. By 1900, Nairobi looked like this. Much has been made of countries like Kenya skipping straight from 1st to 3rd generation technology in areas like telephony – crappy fixed lines direct to ubiquitous mobile services, with nothing in between – but perhaps we’ll see the same thing in other more tangible areas, too. Would it be too crazy to imagine future generations of Kenyans or Tanzanians moving directly from corrugated iron shacks in poor villages to modular shipping container housing in newly developing urban areas, and skipping the urban slum stage altogether?

*It’s a Canon A-1 so it wasn’t just as simple as charging it up somewhere
**Yes this is trivial as hell and could, one assumes, easily happen to US Airways (who’ve provided me with plenty of shitty customer experiences over the last 12 months), but it’s too poetic to leave out. It would probably be more fair to leave out all references to my flying experiences, but where’s the fun in that?