Martin Schram: A rare glimpse at a hopeful Africa
Africans who invest in domestic companies are the ultimate solution to the troubled continent.
Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Today is a rare moment. We are about to get, not just a glimpse, but a good look, at a hidden part of the planet's undercovered continent. It is Africa. And we are about to see the sort of Africa news that rarely makes it to the West.

It is good news. Solution-oriented news for a continent that makes news in the West only when some American or European comes to cover a massacre, a famine, a government in ruins or a dictator's declaration that he just won re-election by 99 percent.

To a nation of theatergoers whose most recent insight about Africa came from the riveting "Hotel Rwanda" comes now a new documentary film that simply tells stories that are as hopeful as the Oscar-nominated film was troubling.

"Africa: Open for Business" — a documentary produced by Carol Pineau, a Washington journalist who covered violence and starvation in Africa for more than a decade for CNN and other outlets — portrays the Africa that hasn't made it to the page-one, prime-time print and TV news. Pineau introduces us to something unseen in the West: prosperity in Africa. Indeed, the best sort of prosperity, generated not by foreign handouts but by Africa's own resourceful entrepreneurs: Africans who are investing and profiting in Africa.

We meet Adenike Ogunlesi. She is a sophisticated, upper-middle-class woman in Lagos, Nigeria, who tells a story that is heartwarming, uplifting and — hold the front page — newsworthy. She explains that it was "quite by accident" that she started her company that makes children's clothing: Her kids ran out of pajamas and she made them some new ones, then a few shirts and shorts. Soon, friends were asking her to make clothes for their kids.

She talks about how she couldn't get financing from any bank, and poignantly about how she was treated with disdain when she traveled through Europe on her Nigerian credentials; when she asked why during a visit to Zurich, she says, emotionally, that she was told: "There is nothing good about Nigerians."

Now her company, Ruff 'n' Tumble, is a label much in demand in Nigeria. Her company is quite profitable, her employees well-paid, their working conditions and lives are better than ever. She concedes that there are problems. Workers are not highly motivated and the government (in this country rife with official corruption and crime) refuses to give her a copy of the laws by which her company must abide.

"Because if you know the rules, you can comply with them," she explains. Some officials prefer to catch companies violating rules. But still, her company prospers.

In Somalia, where there has been no central government for more than a decade, we meet Mohammed Yassin Olad. He turned the collapse of the government and the government airline into a business blessing. He leased one small plane and started his own airline, Daallo Airline. Now he's got big jets, big business and four competitors who have done the same thing. Maybe no government is a good thing, he opines. After all, it means no red-tape regulations.

We meet 10 people, telling 10 stories of profit and prosperity in Africa. Pineau's documentary was funded by the World Bank. As faithful readers know, I have long argued that bringing hope and investment to Third World countries is more than just a humanitarian notion — it is a national security imperative for all industrialized nations because impoverished nations, where hopelessness is pervasive, have become places where terrorists can operate unrestrained.

But big solutions don't always require big money from big powers. This column (and my last book, "Avoiding Armageddon") has celebrated solutions such as the micro-credit model started in Bangladesh when professor Muhammad Yunus founded the Grameen Bank, which granted one loan to one person in each village at a time. In just a few years the Grameen Bank had 2.4 million borrowers, 95 percent of them women.

"Africa: Open for Business" premiered the other day at the Washington headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is hardly an opening-night hot spot on the red-carpet circuit. But it will be a shame if this film remains just a flick of the business elites. It will open many eyes and many minds of all political persuasions when and if it comes to a theater — or a television screen — near you.

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.

©2006 Naples Daily News. All rights reserved. Published in Naples, Florida, USA by the E.W. Scripps Co..

Watch the Trailer

© Carol Pineau, 2006