A new book by a leading economist challenges current negative perceptions about the continent
Carlos Lopes is one of Africa’s most influential economists. Originally from Guinea-Bissau, Lopes spent most of his career at the United Nations, eventually serving as head of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca) from 2012 to 2016. Now a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, Lopes has written a new book, Africa in Transformation, which looks at what the continent must do to thrive, and debunks the misconceptions that prevent it from doing so.
What are you hoping to achieve with this book?
This particular one is an attempt to try to digest for the larger public the challenges that I think are the most important for Africa right now. The book is organised around a couple of challenges that I think are the most significant, from how you change politics to the relationship with China. A lot of the material was collected while I was in charge of Uneca.
The second objective of the book is to be a bit counterintuitive about the perceptions that people have about the continent. For each topic, I revisited the topic from a completely different angle, the African angle, which of course is completely subjective — it’s my angle.
What is your most surprising conclusion?
When the “Africa Rising” narrative was gaining ground, there was a lot of discussion about the quality of the data. I used that discussion to come to a very different conclusion from many analysts, which is to say that the absence of data is not undermining the growth story of Africa, but rather the opposite.
The absence of quality data is undermining some good news that we are not aware of because data is not available. I think gross domestic product and all the usual indicators are underestimated in Africa, and because they are underestimated they provoke the wrong diagnosis and the wrong policy recommendations. If you go through the data, you discover that Africa has lots more fiscal opportunity than people imagine.
The discussion about fiscal policy is more important than the discussion about debt. For example, if you increase by 1% the total revenue of Africa coming from taxes, it is more than the total overseas development aid. We are talking about 1%. It’s a marginal effort.
Why do these mainstream views persist in the face of data that may suggest otherwise?
There is a comfort level that we are familiar with … When you come with an analysis that is a bit disruptive, even if it is evidence-based, people are a bit scared, including people who are quite well informed about the continent.
You can say that financial flows in Africa are not what you think, because the largest investor in India is an African country. Someone in the know will say: “Yes, but it’s Mauritius, so it doesn’t really count.” If it were Jersey [a British tax haven], which operates exactly like Mauritius, no one will discount that.
Every time you come with something that is evidence-based, which does not correspond with the mainstream view, it is discounted.
In a sluggish global economy, where do you think Africa’s economic growth will come from?
Africa’s one advantage beats all the others, which is right now that the cost of renewable energy is quite low, which gives us an incredible competitive advantage for green industrialisation, because we have choices that others don’t have.
What does green industrialisation look like?
There are three elements for industrialisation to really be respectful of sustainability.
First, your construction has to adhere to norms that are the most advanced in terms of sustainability. But it’s very expensive to convert a factory that already exists. It’s a different story to start from scratch, you can adhere to the norms immediately. The second element is how you generate power. You can generate power through renewable energy, not fossil fuels. Hydro, solar, wind, geothermal in some countries like Kenya. You have a huge array of opportunities to generate power that is respectful of the environment. Third is how you make sure that your production is based on a logistical supply chain that is respectful of sustainability standards. Here you can build that from scratch, in a way that is much more sustainable than the subsidy schemes already in place in developed countries, where the subsidies are tied to the outdated model.