Africa has defied the odds — and dire predictions — time and again to emerge as a leader in arenas as varied as combating the coronavirus to establishing an empire of marathon champions. Today’s Daily Dose dives into the trends emerging across the continent’s diverse nations and societies that indicate its future in tech and sports, politics and health, business and entertainment. Home to the world’s youngest population, Africa’s choices will affect us all in the years to come. Ignore it at your own peril.
Charu Sudan Kasturi, Senior Editor
1. Futurist Farming
Almost all of Ethiopia’s famed coffee is produced on small farms, susceptible to middlemen who rob farmers of what they could earn while denying global consumers transparency on the source of the beans they’re purchasing. Now the Ethiopian government is working with Hong Kong–based blockchain firm IOHK to use the technology to track every step of the coffee supply chain in a bid to end industry corruption. In Ghana, agri-entrepreneur Desmond Koney has built an Airbnb-like model for farmland: Small-scale farmers sign up with Complete Farmer, which then uses modern technology — sensors and drones monitor everything — to increase production on each farmer’s land. The common thread? A continent that for decades stood at the back of the queue in access to technology is now driving its future in a field as old as civilization: farming.
The Chinese app lost its largest market when India banned it last summer amid growing New Delhi–Beijing tensions. President Donald Trump has tried to ban it in the U.S. But TikTok is wooing Africa as its latest bride, pulling in major influencers in Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya and training the next generation of social media stars. The logic is sound: Africa is witnessing a rapid expansion in access to the internet, and it depends so heavily on China for investments and trade that taking on Beijing isn’t a realistic option. The net result: advantage TikTok.
Innovators in South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Zambia and Uganda are designing some of the most cutting-edge alternatives to Western sewage systems. Their technologies are reducing water usage by toilets while converting pee and poop into bricks, fertilizers and animal feed that can be monetized.
Like much of the world, Africa has witnessed a surge in cryptocurrency usage during the pandemic, especially with local currencies suffering. In Nigeria, protesters demanding an end to police brutality in October used bitcoin to finance their movement in a bid to stay off the government radar and formal banking channels. But the backlash is coming. A series of scams have bled innocent people and entire economies — Uganda has lost 4 percent of its GDP. Now, South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria are drafting rules to regulate cryptocurrencies. Will that bring more credibility to these digital currencies or stifle their growth?
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The Korean-pop wave has found an unlikely home in Algeria, sparking a broader fascination with Korean culture in a country with its own rich tradition of music. Young Algerians are dressing like K-pop stars and incorporating Korean phrases into their everyday speech, while the demand for Korean language schools is growing.
Bollywood’s song-and-dance routines have long enjoyed a home in Nigeria. Now, what was a one-way street is turning into a highway of collaboration between two of the world’s largest movie industries: Bollywood and Nollywood. Nigerian actors are finding roles in Indian films, joint movie productions are taking off and India is helping develop a film institute in Nigeria.
In most markets beyond the West, including China, India, Kenya and Russia, Apple and Spotify are up against local streaming competitors and have used their superior financial resources to break through. But in North Africa, they face a unique challenge from a relative dinosaur with deep pockets: YouTube, owned by Google, has been in the region since its 2005 birth and has built a loyal following while Apple and Spotify ignored it. Apple entered the region only this year, while Spotify launched here in 2018. Are they too late to the party?
The American firm doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes of Spotify and Apple. It’s rushing into the continent before global rivals entrench themselves. Its initial efforts were driven by Funa Maduka, the Nigerian American former boss of international films at Netflix. Now it’s diving in deeper. From acquiring low-budget films — like Zimbabwe’s $8,000 Cook Off — to producing originals like the South African spy thriller Queen Sono, Netflix wants to make sure no one topples its dominant global position in Africa. And it’s betting on a mobile phone blitz to circumvent the absence of Wi-Fi connectivity on the continent.
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Over the past two months, Sudan and Morocco have agreed to diplomatic ties with Israel, joining the UAE and Bahrain in seeking to normalize relations with a state they once — at least publicly — treated like a pariah. Controversy lingers — the U.S. has agreed to recognize Morocco’s rule over the disputed Western Sahara region, and the Trump administration is offering to shell out $850 million to families of 9/11 victims to get them on board with the pact with Sudan, which once sheltered Osama bin Laden. But Sudan and Morocco aren’t outliers. In 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Uganda, becoming the first leader of his nation to visit Africa in 50 years. The following year, he became the first non-African leader to address the Economic Community of West African States leadership in Liberia. Now Rwanda is mulling moving its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a potentially controversial step. And Chad is in talks with Israel to normalize relations.
There are two paths for South Africa. Which one it chooses could determine the future of one of the modern world’s most ambitious political experiments. President Cyril Ramaphosa and Ace Magashule, the current secretary-general of the ruling African National Congress, are locked in an intense power struggle over major corruption charges against Magashule. Ramaphosa — whom Nelson Mandela hand-picked as his successor but who had to wait two decades before winning the top job — has declared a war on corruption within the ANC. It’s his chance to redeem the legacy of the party at a time when it’s coming under increasing pressure from more extremist political groups like the Economic Freedom Fighters amid growing disenchantment over persisting economic inequality. But the influential Magashule won’t go away quietly.
For years, West Africa has been a beacon of democratic progress in Africa, with transitions of power and greater freedoms than other parts of the continent, according to Freedom House. Now it’s slipping — fast. In Ivory Coast, President Alassane Outtara won a controversial third term this year after earlier saying he wouldn’t run after two terms. In Togo and Guinea, leaders are using referendums ostensibly aimed at instituting term limits to actually extend their rule (the clock starts again with the new rules, so their previous terms don’t count). Liberia’s soccer star turned president, George Weah, appears to be following that script too, through a referendum held earlier this month.
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Across the world, modern medicine has long looked askance at traditional practitioners, never mind the centuries of anecdotal evidence. Now, healers on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar are partnering with their erstwhile enemies, directing patients with severe mental health conditions — who usually reach out to traditional practitioners first — to trained therapists, uniting local credibility with modern science.
Khat, a leafy shrub used to induce excitement and euphoria, is the most popular intoxicant in the Horn of Africa — 90 percent of adults in Somaliland are believed to consume it. The pandemic has disrupted khat’s supply chain in East Africa, which has hurt the livelihood of khat sellers, mostly women. But this cloud has a silver lining: Experts are hopeful the disruption will make male khat addicts turn over a new leaf and use the money they would have spent on the intoxicant to support their children’s education. But will the change be permanent?
Getting ambulances to patients on time is a challenge across developing nations, where road signs and GPS connectivity are often poor or missing. Ghanaian app SnooCODE RED could be the lifesaver of the future. It helps ambulances pinpoint the location of a patient down to 10 inches, even when the patient is on the move. It’s only one of a series of groundbreaking innovations emerging from West Africa. Cameroon’s Cardiopad enables medical professionals to perform heart tests in remote regions and send them electronically to distant specialists — it has spread to Gabon, Kenya and Nepal.
South Africa’s famed diamond industry has found new glitter amid the chaos of 2020. Locked-down lovers in the country are buying up more diamond jewelry than before to cater to what industry insiders say is a rise in proximity-driven romance. Sure, there’s a global recession. But some diamond cutting and polishing firms are seeing sharp spikes of as much as 60 percent in jewelry sales. Diamonds, it seems, truly are forever.
2. Payback Time, Portugal
How the tables have turned. Forty-five years after Angola gained independence from Portugal, it wields unprecedented economic clout over the European nation that colonized it for 400 years. Portuguese leaders beg oil-rich Angola for investments. Angolan capital Luanda can threaten Lisbon if it isn’t happy with the state of the relationship. Angolan businesses have major stakes in Portuguese banks and soccer clubs, and migrants from Portugal are streaming into Angola for work.
But the movement of people flows both ways. With political instability increasingly a way of life, wealthy Kenyans are making use of a constitutional right to dual citizenship to buy nationality from other countries through investments. They’re focusing on European nations and the U.S. for secondary citizenship, in the belief that their investments will be safer there.
4. Konnichiwa, Africa
For years, China has dominated funding in Africa, its unmatched investments making nations dependent upon Beijing. Now a wave of Japanese venture capitalists is flooding African tech with cash and offering an alternative. Since 2017, three major Japanese VC firms have invested tens of millions of dollars in African startups, from health care in Kenya and microfinance in Uganda to agribusinesses in Ghana. For investors from Japan, the move is a critical step toward fixing an image problem: They’re traditionally seen as slow to move and risk averse.
It was no longer a surprise when FIFA, global soccer’s governing body, announced year-end national rankings. For the fourth year in a row, Senegal was at the top of the heap from Africa, and 20th overall. Historically, Nigeria and Cameroon are the African nations that have drawn the most attention on the international stage. Egypt has won the continent’s top soccer tournament, the Africa Cup of Nations, more times than any other country. But a homegrown soccer development program, pioneered at the Generation Foot academy, has helped shuffle the African hierarchy. Now Senegal is the continent’s big soccer hope. It narrowly missed out on the knockout stages of the 2018 World Cup. There’s no reason it won’t go further in 2022.
What stake could South Africa possibly have in Britain’s big debate over its exit from the European Union? Plenty, it turns out. For years, South Africa has lost many top cricket stars to England under an EU rule that required them to stop playing for their home nation if they chose to play for British clubs. Deals are more lucrative in England, so many players had to choose between patriotism and economic security. That will end with 2020, as Britain leaves the EU and no longer has to follow that rule. Starting next year, South African cricketers will be able to earn the big bucks during the club season in England and still represent their country nationally.
Chinese marathoners have a new mecca. Ethiopia is fast emerging as the training ground for the next generation of elite Chinese long-distance runners. Along with Kenya, Ethiopia has produced a disproportionate number of marathon champions, so much so that scientists and experts have tried to decode whether the success lies in their genes, poverty, the fact that they walk and run a lot as children, or something else entirely. Whatever the answer, one thing is clear: There’s no bigger tribute than another sporting superpower wanting its athletes to train alongside yours.