Success Stories from Africa: The Bright Continent

By Heidi G. Frontani

In the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday we are celebrating in my country this week, I thought that I would write a slightly different kind of post. Rather than recognizing one amazing individual who created a successful charitable foundation or non-governmental organization that has done excellent work in Africa, I decided to share a book that includes many success stories from all over the continent. Some of the success stories are about entrepreneur-philanthropists, but many focus on entrepreneurs that have not yet engaged in significant formal philanthropy.

The book is The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules & Making Change in Modern Africa by Dayo Olopade. Ms. Olopade is a Nigerian-American journalist who covers development policy and global politics who is currently a Media Scholar at Yale University. Her book was published in March and is divided into chapters that ‘map’ the continent. Ms. Olopade includes the Family Map, Technology Map, Commercial Map, Nature Map, and Youth Map to highlight the many positive aspects of life in modern Africa. The author bemoans the many negative images of Africa that not only continue to appear in the mass media but also are generated by too many of those attempting to assist Africans (such as the UN, and NGOs seeking to raise funds).

Ms. Olopade celebrates ‘informality’ in her book–people doing things their own way and outside of formal institutions (such as schools, hospitals, non-governmental organizations and governments), even if their activities are not 100 percent legal. The author does not condone illegal actions but is delighted by Africans who use their local knowledge and ingenuity to generate income when faced with few formal employment opportunities. She gives many examples, from Nigerians running ‘419’ computer scams that earn them considerable income to informal, unlicensed vendors across the continent making the most of traffic jams to sell their wares by moving from vehicle to vehicle. The author notes that much creativity arises from people facing extremely challenging situations and suggests that NGOs and other outsider aid organizations often miss out on wonderful opportunities by failing to support initiatives and individuals that are not associated with formal institutions.

The Bright Continent is filled with success stories while recognizing certain realities, including that many African heads of state could do better. It was in South Africa that the world’s first successful heart transplant was performed, in Nigeria that the world’s third largest film industry, Nollywood, is based, and so on. I plan to have undergraduate students in my ‘Africans and African Development’ seminar read Ms. Olopade’s book. I’m not scheduled to teach the class again until the spring of 2016, but I hope that, if you are able, you will pick up and enjoy the book well before then.

If having spare funds for Ms. Olopade’s book is not likely and there is no good public library near where you live, you can learn more about the book from the author’s blog and this review of The Bright Continent from the New York Times. If you have internet access (which you must if you are reading this), I suggest that you also check out the website How we Made it in Africa which gives insight into business and entrepreneurship on the continent. It, like Ms. Olopade’s book, has many good and uplifting stories.

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