The answer to Senegal’s prayers

The celebrations of the birthday of the prophet Mohammed are a big deal in Senegal, where almost all of the population are devout Muslims. Hundreds of thousands of people are congregating in the town of Tivaouane for prayers on Monday to mark what they call Gamou.

For the people of Dakar, the journey to Tivaouane – just a few kilometres — is long, slow and arduous. That’s because the capital’s infrastructure – barely able to cope with its daily workload — seizes up when faced with a mass movement on this scale. Dakar is at one end of a peninsula, and all traffic out of the capital is funnelled through a spit of land.

Every time we’ve tried to leave the centre of town, we’ve had to sit and suffer in the back of a taxi or car and admire the driver’s adroitness in beating his rivals to the few metres of spare tarmac that’s open. As the masses begin to make their way to the traditional holy site where the prayers will be said, the competition for that space has been hotting up. And it’s only going to get worse.

The government is pumping money into Dakar’s road network. Tunnels were built before last year’s Organisation of the Islamic Conference summit – but that meeting had been delayed for two years because the preparations overran. And a brand new road is being built for a brand new airport – the road is badly needed but many question the wisdom of the airport project.

But much more is needed, particularly in less sexy projects if the country is to run efficiently. It’s estimated that thirty per cent of the agricultural produce goes to waste because of the lack of proper storage capacity. And many producers struggle to get their goods to market, especially in the rainy season.

It’s not easy being green

I can’t believe I’ve become this cynical so soon. My first impressions of Lusaka had me convinced that agriculture would be this country’s future. The land was so green, the soil so fertile! Well, I hate to burst my own utopian bubble, but after speaking to some people in the industry, I’m realising just how difficult conditions are.

Sure, Zambia is green. It’s fertile. it has incredible potential. But consider this: Much of the green land all around is bushland. To turn it into farmland would cost ten thousand dollars a hectare. That’s just to get things up and running – to organise the electricity and irrigate the land. That’s before all the other overhead costs.

Then there’s the financing. Banks in Zambia only lend in US dollars. The farms will be generating their revenue in the local Kwacha currency, which has been depreciating. And with such strict lending conditions these days, many aspiring farmers would not even get past the first hurdle – credit. So there’s a good reason why Zambia has been slow to diversify it’s economy away from cooper. Investing in agriculture is a risky business.

That’s not to say it’s impossible. Zambia’s farming exports have increased from around 5 percent in the 1980s to around 20 percent, and the country is becoming more self sufficient in staples like wheat and maize. But is agriculture the answer to all of Zambia’s economic problems? Don’t bet the farm on it just yet.

Taxing the touts?

You can’t escape the informal economy in African cities. On every street dozens of men, women boys and girls are out hawking everything from newspapers and batteries to tourist souvenirs and football shirts.

Their noise and vivacity are part of the make-up of Dakar, here in Senegal, but equally in Nairobi, Luanda, Dar-es-Salaam and Lusaka. They’ve been there for all the years I’ve been visiting and working in Africa. All that’s changed is the wares; mobile phone cards are now the most common item on the moving shop front of the sidewalk.

What’s been challenging governments and economist for almost as long is how to reap the benefit of their endeavours, how to grab a slice of the illicit action. Channel just a few small percentages of that action into the national economy and the amount available to spend on hospitals and education – or on the grand projects that some leaders are fond of — could increase considerably.

Numerous courses of actions have been considered. One that is currently under the review here in Senegal is to levy a small flat annual fee on the traders. How practical or enforceable it would be is uncertain. One can foresee many difficulties in gathering such a revenue, and of ensuring that all proceeds accrued to the national coffer.

Certainly the traders would be reluctant to pay – Dakar is one of the forty most expensive cities in the world. Senegal is one of the eighteen poorest countries and surviving here is an art for many.

Thoughts about Zambia

I’ve only been in Lusaka few hours, and of all the adjectives to describe it, I really didn’t think I’d be reaching for this one first: green. Looking out the airplane window, the sheer greenness stretched for miles in every direction. It was like peering down over Galway in Ireland. Ok, minus the clouds, cliffs and sheep.

I guess what I find so extraordinary about the green is what it says to me about Zambia’s economic potential. This is not desert, swamp or jungle, but a country of lush, fertile land. And yet, tragically, it remains one of the poorest places in the world, ranking 163rd out of 179 countries in the UN human development index.

Zambia’s biggest industry by far is copper. It is, in fact, Africa’s largest copper producer. But the need for a more diverse economy is a theme that comes up again and again. With copper prices on the ropes (they have more than halved since the start of the downturn), it may really be the time for the government (and investors) to take agriculture more seriously.

Over the next couple of days, my colleague, Komla Dumar, will be exploring the factors that have kept investment out of the sector. He’ll also be profiling one Zambian company that is becoming a regional farming powerhouse. So listen out.

As I say, I’ve only been here a few hours, but something tells me I’ve already seen the future – and it’s green!

A briefing from Andrew Walker

If you find IMF reports a bit daunting and are perplexed by African economics then try this briefing from Andrew Walker our economics correspondent. Andrew is in Tanzania covering the IMF conference and he knows how to make things clear . . .  PC Read more

Senegal — disappearing traditions

Every country’s economy is unique, and fragile in its own way too. What’s becoming clear from my visit to Senegal is just how fragile this country is. It’s always been one of the poorer nations in Africa – with precious few natural resources – but many people have been voicing their real concerns that the options available to the government are now few, and becoming fewer by the day as the currents stirred by the global economic crisis threaten to wash over Senegal’s coast. Read more

Unlucky 13

The 13 African countries identified by the IMF as vulnerable to the economic downturn are as follows :

  1. Angola
  2. Burundi
  3. Central African Republic
  4. Democratic Republic of Congo
  5. Côte d’Ivoire
  6. Djibouti
  7. Ghana
  8. Lesotho
  9. Liberia
  10. Mauritania
  11. Nigeria
  12. Sudan
  13. Zambia

I’m personally surprised not by the inclusions but by certain absences (Zimbabwe anyone?).

The IMF refers to these countries as LICs — Low Income Countries (the full report is here . . . warning 70-page PDF, alternatively try Andrew Walker’s briefing) .

But are we in the developing countries guilty of appealing to Africa’s sense of shame rather than its dynamism when we categorise countries in this way?

It’s a point former World Bank Africa boss Robert Calderisi makes in his book The Trouble With Africa. A timely tome I’ve decided to read. If you’re after an insider’s view of how the IMF and the World Bank treat Africa and Africans it’s an authoritative source.

Senegal — past and present

Goree Island is a reminder of an earlier economy in Africa – that of slavery.  Just off the coast of the Senegalese capital, Dakar, the island witnessed the passage of hundreds of thousands of slaves from the 15th to the 18th century. Read more

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