Sunday, November 21, 2010

Author Interview: Greg Mills Discusses African Poverty and Solutions

Why is Africa poor? What can Africans do about it?

These two questions are combined in the title of a new book by South African scholar Greg Mills, who discussed his work at a forum hosted by the Cato Institute in Washington on October 6.

Mills is director of the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, which “was established in 2005 by the Oppenheimer family,” he told me in an interview after that book forum.  He is also the co-author, with David Williams, of Seven Battles that Shaped South Africa.

The foundation’s objective, Mills said, is to “try to strengthen African economic performance. Essentially we operate at a strategic level with African presidencies, at their request,” providing research and advice “based on primary fieldwork in African countries” and drawing “a lot of good and bad examples from around the world: things to avoid and things to try to replicate.”

Describing his new book, Why Africa Is Poor and What Africans Can Do About It (released in hardcover by Penguin Global on November 17), Mills explained it has three parts.

“It tries to understand, firstly, why Africa is poor, and it advances the idea that this is a choice of African leadership. It’s an option that they have taken; it’s a result of their poor decisions,” he said.

It also tries to explain, Mills added, “why those decisions have been made. It often relates to the fact that African electorates are apathetic. In many cases, they don’t hold their leaders to account.”

The book also relates how economic aid from developed countries – or lack of it, depending on how one looks at it – “provides an opportunity for Africans to externalize their problems and also their solutions.

The second part of the book, Mills said, “focuses on international experiences and the best examples that Africa can draw” upon, while “the third part of the book really focuses on some of the opportunities in Africa [and] how these ideas might be implemented.”

That third section, he explained, examines the coming “demographic dividend in Africa and what this means [as] a huge opportunity for Africa, and what we have to do to realize this.” It also focuses on issues like agriculture, mining, and tourism, “three areas of great comparative advantage for the continent.”

Huge Potential for Tourism
With regard to tourism, Mills noted, “Africa currently gets about 4 percent of the global one billion-person tourism market,” meaning that Africa is wildly underrepresented in that economic sector, even though “in terms of wildlife and other beach and safari-type options, we have tremendous potential.”

He gave the examples of “a country like Kenya has a million fly-in tourists a year. Tanzania has 500,000 fly-in tourists a year, [while] Mozambique just has 50,000,” despite being “right next door to South Africa. There’s clearly a lot of potential in terms of an increasing that market.”

To increase tourism, Mills said, “we need to make it easier to get to Africa, cheaper to get to Africa, [and provide] higher quality resorts when people get there,” as well as assure “safer conditions where people don’t have to be worried about what surprises they’re going to find en route.”

He said that “the way to do it is to try to make it cheaper for South African tourists, in particular, to fly” to other African countries, “and then to relax visa restrictions on other external tourists.” In his formal remarks, Mills had pointed out that the Republic of Georgia no longer requires tourist visas for visitors from countries that have a bigger GDP than Georgia has, because such people are unlikely to stay there looking for work.

“Unfortunately,” Mills lamented, “most African countries have a very onerous visa regime and the air flights are not only unreliable, but relatively sparse in terms of their coverage and penetration of African markets.”

Still, he concluded, there is “certainly a huge amount of unrealized potential in tourism with all the multiplier employment prospects that it offers.”

‘Ditto’ for Agriculture
“Ditto,” he said, “in terms of agriculture,” which is extremely underdeveloped in relation to its potential in Africa.

“Africa’s agricultural yields have been two-thirds below that of the rest of the world,” Mills explained, due to “a huge lack of investment in extension services and fertilizer and seed programs.”

African agricultural output, he said, has “more or less flat-lined since independence in terms of its yield increases. This means that 38 of 48 sub-Saharan African countries are net food importers. It’s a staggering statistic.”

With more and more Africans moving to urban areas, he warned, “if we are to develop in our cities and if we are able to reduce food costs, we need to up our game.”

That means “addressing questions about land title, it means improving extension services, it means getting the private sector involved. It means upping scale in terms of agriculture, because that obviously brings certain efficiencies, and it means introducing technologies.”

In essence, Mills said, Africa must move “from a subsistence, peasant-type farming environment to a large-scale commercial involvement, [with] all the steps in between, particularly in mid-level farming.”

Despite this current underutilization of agricultural resources, Mills continued, “there’s huge potential on the continent. We shouldn’t be stuck at 5 percent growth. We should be looking at 10 percent growth and find out and understand the reasons why we’re not doing 15 percent growth,” since Africa is starting “from such a low base.”

(This article originally appeared in two parts, and in somewhat different form, on, on October 7 and October 8, 2010.)

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