ON the face of it 2014 was a horrible year for Africa; Boko Haram continued its massacres and kidnapping, the worst of the latter being the April abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls in northeast Chibok. Their second cousins Al Shabaab too didn’t let up, continuing to ramp up their kill in both Somalia and Kenya.
Then Ebola wreaked untold havoc in parts of West Africa, and soon its will death toll will reach a record 8,000.
South Sudan and Central African Republic (CAR) continued their descent into hell. The continent’s politicians didn’t want to be outdone, oppressing, thieving, and fiddling elections like they were going out of fashion.
The list is long. Reason to despair? No. On the contrary, there is cause for optimism.
This might be the familiar old “failing” brutal and mean Africa, but if these things didn’t happen, then one would actually be concerned. Those are Africa’s birthmarks, and they are important because they tell us that when progress is made, it is against overwhelming odds and therefore not a fluke. It is substantial, and the kind that is unlikely to be rolled back easily. Thus if one asked “what is African progress look like?” the best answer would be its “when you take one step forward, and two backward”. You are still better off than when you started out.
Against this background, there were a couple of moments that brought cheer, and spoke to positive changes that run deep:
1. In elections in Tunisia, the semi-autonomous Somalia region of Puntland, Malawi, and Mauritius opposition parties or leaders won elections. I t was the first time that oppositions won four elections in a year in Africa. And the fact that it was not the biggest story of the year suggests that the novelty of the opposition winning an election in Africa is dying out.
2. Nigerian billionaire Tony Elumelu committed $100 million of his own money to create 10,000 African entrepreneurs in 10 years. For the longest time, rich people in Africa were synonymous with corruption and rent seeking, and stashed their millions abroad. Elumelu represents a trend toward social investment on the continent by its wealthy citizens that has been happening on a smaller scale, and is beginning to get to maturity.
3. In October Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta commissioned the Olkaria IV power plant. Compared to the scale of new power plants coming online in Africa, it will produce only 140 megawatts of power. The most significant thing about it though is that it is the world’s largest geothermal power plant. It confirmed a definitive turn toward renewable and clean energy in Africa.
Last year Morocco launched the world’s largest solar energy project costing an estimated $9 billion. The complete project is to create 2,000 megawatts of solar generation capacity by the year 2020.
Kenya, South Africa, Ghana, Ethiopia, and Uganda, are among the countries that have brought to market or are working on mega solar or wind farm projects.
4. On December 16, the Henri Konan Bedie (HKB) opened in the Cote d’Ivoire capital Abidjan. It cost $330m and was funded by the usual suspects – the African Development Bank (AfDB), the West African Development Bank (BOAD); the ECOWAS Investment and Development Bank (BIDC); the Moroccan Bank for External Trade (BMCE); the Netherlands Finance and Development Institution (FMO)—and the African Finance Company (AFC).
The AFC is a young Nigerian-based private-sector led fund (using Nigerian money) that invests in infrastructure and other development projects on the continent. Expect more, not fewer AFCs, in the years to come.
5. Africa has the lowest research and development (R&D) budget of any continent, one of the reasons analysts argue it is technologically uncompetitive globally. African companies led by a younger tech-savvy worldly crop of entrepreneurs, however, have started to make small but significant baby steps that promises to build into a wave. Nigerian online Konga retailer, for example, announced the opening of vast engineering centre.
6. In late July it was reported that a genetically modified banana enriched with vitamin A that could dramatically reduce infant mortality and blindness in children in Africa was to undergo its first human trials in the USA.
The banana was developed by scientists at the Queensland University of Technology, in Australia. The results of the trials were scheduled to be out by end of 2014 and possibly early 2015. There are plans to have the bananas growing in Uganda by 2020.
Millions of Africa children are likely to be saved, but there was something else: Five Ugandan PhD students have been working with project leader Professor James Dale on the nine-year project. They are just a few of the crop working in many areas, including malaria research in Africa. They might just collectively yet give Africa its first scientific revolution in the near future.
And so 2014, was another good year.
Read more from Charles Onyango-Obbo