Professor ‘Development in Africa’ Ton Dietz: “Sleeping giant to become a world player”

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In Europe, Africa conjures up a gloomy image of famine, war, diseases and migrants. But Africa is more than violence and hunger, says Africa expert Ton Dietz. According to him, the continent deserves our attention, as it will be an epicenter of business in decades to come. “Africa is an awakening giant. China, India and other countries are more aware of this than many European countries.” 

Europe thinks far too negatively about the continent. “Many see Africa as a threat'', says Dietz, currently professor of ‘Development in Africa’ at the University of Leiden and the former director of the renowned African Studies Centre in Leiden from 2010 to 2017. “The image of exported poverty and violence dominates. When Africa suffers from famines or floods, it is widely reported in the media. In the case of urbanisation, population growth or migratory flows, only the shadow side is taken into account. We need to change that image''. 

Europe dependent on Africa 

Dietz says that Europe is making a mistake in its relationship with Africa. “There will come a time when Europe will become dependent on Africa'', explains the professor. “The continent’s growth potential is huge. In twenty to thirty years' time the continent will have become a world player in many senses. Africa's strength is seriously underestimated in Europe”, says the professor, who recently was asked for a lecture on business opportunities in Africa for an investors club in The Netherlands. The lecture was called off because only a handful of people showed interest. “I find that incomprehensible. Businesses will miss out on what is going to happen – only enterprises such as Unilever, Heineken, Shell and some dredgers seem to realise the great potential.” 

Big numbers 

The numbers speak for themselves. At the end of this century, more than 4 billion people may be living in Africa. That is now 1.3 billion people. In 2100, of the two children born, one will be African. Almost half of Africa's population lives in cities, creating an expanding middle class. In some countries, economic growth is around 10 percent per year. This growth is driven by the demand for building materials and basic food.  

Dietz has voiced his concerns as well as his excitement about Africa for several years now, in cooperation with the Netherlands African Business Council (NABC). Together they organised major ‘Africa Works!’ conferences every two years from 2012. “In 2020 we will hold a large international conference, titled 'Africa Knows!’ in The Hague. The message is that 

Europe seems to be mostly concerned with itself, while the need to cherish strategic alliances with Africa is not taken seriously enough. Every business in the west should understand clearly how important Africa is and will become. Many businesses are showing little urgency and operate with far too little knowledge of the subject. They should seriously reconsider Africa as an important future business partner.” 

China, India and other countries 

The professor points out that China has built a strong economic relationship with Africa, with roads and railways being built, the mining industry and agriculture being developed. At first, China made the mistake of flooding African countries with Chinese workers. In later projects, at least half of the workers are recruited locally. “China now speaks the language of mutual aid.” 

According to Dietz, China is no longer the only big player. India is coming. Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Vietnam have found their way into Africa. Western countries are not very popular in all of Africa, due to its colonial past and the work of the International Criminal Court, which mainly prosecutes Africans. 

Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya strong players 

What are the strongest growers? Dietz mentions Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Morocco. In a few years from now, South Tanzania and North Mozambique will receive a boost as a lot of gas will be produced there. Another strong grower: Ethiopia. Dietz is amazed by the achievements of Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, who “has been bringing peace and progress there for a year now. The country, once one of the poorest in the world, pulls itself out of misery at a high pace.” 

Dietz agrees that it is not all rosy in Africa. Many migrants leave the continent for a better life in Europe. Dietz calls on Western politicians to help 'failed migrants' with education and employment projects in order to prevent worse. “It is an illusion that Europe can now stop the migration flows to Europe with extra money. Everything revolves around income. If that is too low, people will continue to leave. If incomes rise to more than 6000€/capita, a country starts to attract more people. Africa will be ready for this turning point in 2050'', says professor Dietz.  

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