Opinion

Africa isn't a lost cause, and global consumers are making a difference

In spite of conflicts and humanitarian crises, there's change afoot in Africa. Seven of the ten fastest-growing economies during the next five years will be in sub-Saharan Africa. To support them, global consumers can use the Internet to gain direct access to the goods of African artisans.

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The news from Africa has been pretty grim lately. In the Horn of Africa, 30,000 children have already died, and the UN estimates 13 million people are at risk of starvation in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.

The mounting Kenyan military campaign to defeat Somali’s Al Shabab terrorist militia and recent outbreaks of violence in refugee camps – supposed havens from surrounding conflicts – will also fuel the perception that Africa is a continent in chaos where warring factions make it impossible to deliver basic services.

Fortunately, that isn’t the whole picture.

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In spite of conflicts and humanitarian crises, Africa is not a lost cause. Seven of the ten fastest-growing economies during the next five years will be in sub-Saharan Africa. The African Development Bank sees a growing middle class, and The Economist magazine projects Africa will soon have a higher growth rate than Asia.

I’ve been to Africa six times during the past seven years to buy crafts, clothing, and other goods sold through my organization, TheHungerSite.com. We cooperate with nonprofits (Mercy Corps, Partners in Health, and Millennium Promise) to alleviate hunger and poverty by promoting the work of Africans themselves.

The continent’s real wealth is not in its buried minerals or fertile fields (although those are worth plenty). It’s in the heads and hands of Africans, including a diverse group of world-class artisans: weavers in Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Swaziland; stone carvers in Kenya and Zimbabwe; woodworkers in Mozambique, and many others.

Part of our site’s mission is to link producers in the developing world with first-world consumers, because providing sustainable income to once-marginalized populations is the surest way to reduce intergenerational poverty.

To maximize income for local producers, we partner with organizations such as The African Trade Hubs, Global Mamas, and Aid to Artisans, that connect us directly with craft workers, eliminating a long chain of sellers and re-sellers. This enables us to deliver as much as 20 to 40 percent of the sales price for items from our online store directly to artisans.

In the long run, however, it is growing markets for African goods, combined with political and economic reforms that are giving Africans a chance to earn secure incomes.

In Rwanda for example, following the devastating genocide of 1994, sisters Joy Ndunguste and Janet Nkubana started a small company to distribute handwoven baskets. From an initial group of 20, Gahaya Links has grown to a network of more than 4,000 weavers. When a new weaver joins the group, Joy and Janet insist that the first paycheck is used to buy shoes for the weaver’s children; going barefoot in Rwanda creates a high risk of contracting hookworm.

In the KwaNatal/Zulu province of South Africa, a crafts project at the Hillcrest AIDS Center Trust has enabled women infected with HIV/AIDS to earn a living by making beaded jewelry and tiny travelling pins. "They may be small," says artist Thandi Chamane, "but they have made a big difference to me and my family. I was dying when I started making them...and I had nothing to live for. I now have a house, and my children are going to school."

Bettering these individuals’ lives has a broad impact on their families and communities. When I first visited Ethiopia in 2002, it was common to see elderly women in Addis Ababa carrying bags of sticks on their heads; they would walk 10 or 15 kilometers to make a few pennies selling wood to be burned into charcoal.

When I returned three years later, no women carried sticks on their heads. Economic growth has lifted local incomes, and charcoal is readily available on most street corners. This year, the capital city is filled with construction cranes and new highways. Rural areas are also better off. The Tigray region, epicenter of the 1984 famine that inspired LiveAid and other relief efforts, now has irrigation systems and food reserves in place that prevent drought from becoming a catastrophe.

That’s not to say that hunger and food scarcity aren’t pressing needs still in this region. A rising tide does not always lift all boats, especially if the water is unusually low. One reason the African economy has a high rate of growth is because it’s starting from a very low base. More than 315 million people still subsist on less than a dollar a day. That’s one of the reasons why the drought that has stricken East Africa, after three years of declining rainfall, is having such a severe impact.

Disaster strikes all corners of the globe, but famine only happens when natural calamity intersects with man-made poverty. There was no mass starvation following the Japanese earthquake or the floods this summer in Missouri and Iowa. Consumers in Japan and the US have sufficient income to make it worthwhile for distributors to deliver food to affected areas, or they have access to transportation so they can reach stores that are still open.

Thanks to rising incomes, the same is now true in many parts of Africa. But not everywhere. The severe drought has made food unaffordable in many parts of Kenya and Ethiopia, and the situation in Somalia is many times worse because of conflict, and the lack of an effective government.

The UN says $2.4 billion is needed for emergency relief – but only $1.4 billion has been pledged so far. Private individuals and organizations can fill the gap left by insufficient government contributions. Aid and immediate relief are vital, but they will only take progress in these regions so far. 

To combat the entrenched economic problems and rural poverty, consumers can also harness the power of the Internet to gain direct access to African artisans. Every day, they are creating valuable goods that enhance the quality of their own lives – and those of global consumers.

Tim Kunin is CEO of TheHungerSite.com, where clicks, donations, and purchases support emergency aid and long-term development in Africa and other regions.

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