“Good evening Madam, chocolate made in Ivory Coast, 200 francs,” calls out a vendor to a lady pedestrian, toting an ice cooler and sporting a printed T-shirt. This is in Abidjan, the commercial city of Cote d’Ivoire. Up until about 10 years ago, Cote d’Ivoire used to grow and export cocoa but never really enjoyed the proceeds from the huge world chocolate trade.
This was so because Ivorians, like the majority of sub-Saharan Africans, only traded in raw commodities, cocoa powder especially, in their case. It is only those who add value to commodities that control the terms of trade and get the lion’s share of the proceeds. In Malawi, our farmers work their lungs out every year to grow tobacco but when they bring it to the market, it is somebody else who is in total control. The buyer, not the seller, determines the price at which the commodity will be sold. What the farmers get is a tiny and insignificant fraction of the proceeds of international tobacco trade.
Ivorians are now determined to change their lot, having observed that despite being the growers of cocoa, they have been on the fringes of the chocolate trade far too long. Some Ivorian entrepreneurs are working together to launch into the production of chocolate within Cote d’Ivoire. One of them, Kabbani, started making chocolates 10 years ago but, according to HowAfrica, she noticed that it was difficult to convince the Ivorian consumer that it could be done.
This, at any rate, is a consistent attitude in Africa. When news broke out that Felix Kambwiri had assembled a helicopter, many people asked in near total disbelief: “Will it fly?” At face value, this is a genuine and harmless question, but it is one that is, I dare say, laden with doubt mingled with jealousy. A better question would be: “What needs to be done for the helicopter to fly?” The former question is negative, leaning towards proving that it cannot be done by a mere mortal like Kambwiri, who has not even gone through secondary school. The latter question leans towards exploring what it is that the inventor or somebody else can do so that the chopper takes to the skies. It is a more positive question than the former.
We live in an era that can be described as the “African Renaissance”. Renaissance was a period in which Europe experienced a rebirth of knowledge, following some landmark inventions such as Gutenburg’s printing press in 1450. With Gutenburg’s invention, it became possible to mass produce books and other forms of literature. Prior to that, books were the preserve of monasteries and other church institutions. Their production was a painstakingly long process because individuals had to copy the text out by hand. It, therefore, required many months, typically, to complete one volume. All that changed when the production of books was mechanised, thanks to the ingenuity of one Johannes Gutenburg.
The availability of books made it possible for knowledge to be shared throughout a larger portion of the European population than had hitherto been possible. It has been argued that the printing press spurned other inventions that have contributed immensely to the building of the modern civilisation.
I am not sure what has triggered the African Renaissance, but I would postulate that mass education and the Internet have gone a long way towards making it possible. More Africans than ever before have acquired some education at all levels. Additionally, these days it is so easy to access all manner of information because of the Internet. The educated Africans are taking advantage of this to make huge strides in social and economic advancement. We have vehicles being assembled in Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya. We now have helicopters rolling off the assembly line next door, in Tanzania. So much is happening.
But somehow Malawi is left behind in this African Renaissance. Despite having taken off in the 1970s, most of the projects that characterised Malawi then have been discontinued. In one of my previous articles, I featured the once locally made vehicle, ‘Zonse’, a project which a local company called Catco embarked upon in 1975. Sadly today, that project is long forgotten, as are other projects such as bus and truck assembly by PEW. Unilever, BAT, Brown and Clapperton, among other manufacturing companies, have folded up their manufacturing operations.
We need to seriously search within our culture, our education system, our banking operations to see where we are not getting it right. If we do not do that, we will surely miss the renaissance train. n