China and India get all the headlines for their economic prowess, but there’s another global growth story that is easily overlooked: Africa. In 2007 and 2008, southern Africa, the Great Lakes region of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, and even the drought-stricken Horn of Africa had GDP growth rates on par with Asia’s two powerhouses. During the depths of global recession, the continent clocked almost 2 percent growth, roughly equal to the rates in the Middle East, and outperforming everywhere else but India and China.
Africa will grow by 5.2 percent—the highest rate of growth outside Asia, and higher than even the oft-buzzed-about economies of Brazil, Russia, Mexico, and Eastern Europe, according to newly revised IMF estimates. In fact, on a per capita basis, Africans are already richer than Indians, and a dozen African states have higher gross national income per capita than China.
More surprising is that much of this growth is driven not by the sale of raw materials, like oil or diamonds, but by a burgeoning domestic market, the largest outside India and China. In the last four years, the surge in private consumption of goods and services has accounted for two thirds of Africa’s GDP growth.
The rapidly emerging African middle class could number as many as 300 million, out of a total population of 1 billion, according to development expert Vijay Majahan, author of the 2009 book Africa Rising. While few of them have the kind of disposable income found in Asia and the West, these accountants, teachers, maids, taxi drivers, even roadside street vendors, are driving up demand for goods and services like cell phones, bank accounts, upmarket foodstuffs, and real estate.
In fact, in Africa’s 10 largest economies, the service sector makes up 40 percent of GDP, not too far from India’s 53 percent. “The new Africa story is consumption,” says Graham Thomas, head of principal investment at Standard Bank Group, which operates in 17 African countries.
Despite Africa’s well-founded reputation for corruption and poor governance, a substantial chunk of the continent has quietly experienced this economic renaissance by dint of its virtually unprecedented political stability. Spurred by eager investors, governments have steadily deregulated industries and developed infrastructure. As a result, countries such as Kenya and Botswana now boast privately owned world-class hospitals, charter schools, and toll roads that are actually safe to drive on.
A study by a World Bank program, the Africa Infrastructure Country Diagnostic, found that improvements in Africa’s telecom infrastructure have contributed as much as 1 percent to per capita GDP growth, a bigger role than changes in monetary or fiscal policies. Shares of stocks in recently privatized local airlines, freight companies, and telecoms have skyrocketed.
While it is hard to dispute the economic transformation happening in the continent, the challenge remains in translating the economic miracle into poverty reduction and improved quality of lives for the majority of the people. This area is largely ignored and sooner or later African policy makers will have to come up with strategies to ensure that the prosperity is shared.