Africa: A Diamond in the Rough

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 5, 2008 | Go to article overview

Africa: A Diamond in the Rough


Byline: Tony Das, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It was reminiscent of the iconic film scene from Five Easy Pieces.

Jack Nicholson's character orders two slices of toast; but the waitress says they have no toast. Noting on the menu she does have a toasted chicken salad sandwich, he orders that, sans chicken salad - getting his toast.

In 1979, I was in the capital of Upper Volta in West Africa attempting a phone call to my hometown of Abidjan in neighboring Ivory Coast. The operator said she could only send international calls to Paris, but allowed that they transited Ivory Coast. Asked to put the call through, but have the Abidjan operator call me back before she relayed to Paris, she did so and my call home was completed.

Three decades ago, the shortest and cheapest air routes among many African nations also involved expensive and time-consuming transits through the capitals of the continent's former European colonial rulers. Electricity was a scarce commodity, perhaps because so few Africans truly needed it. Government oil officials in Gulf of Guinea nations reveled over new oil discoveries, but scratched their heads about who would execute oil production in a region that makes the Middle East look easy. Western investors were just plain scared about commitments to Africa.

Over the last 30 years, Sub-Saharan Africa has speeded under commercial and investment radar screens to become a regional economy boasting: a 46 percent growth in mobile telecommunications subscribers with international access who were never fettered by the need to convert from traditional landline networks; increased air travel direct routes resulting in a 12 percent annual increase in revenue, even as Western airlines suffer; and the opening of an untapped market of 750 million consumers who really need a cutting-edge electrical grid.

Countries such as South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana, where power grid requirements 30 years ago were arguable, have emerged as significant economies that must upgrade capacity at scales and timetables never faced by any G-8 nation. The Gulf of Guinea accounts for more than 21 percent of U. …

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