Forget What You Think About Africa

Much of Africa today is not what most people think it is. 

In the Western world, prejudicial and stereotyped views are pervasive about Africa’s backwardness. Fifteen years ago, The Economist labeled Africa ‘the hopeless continent,’ and many still believe Africa is a country not a continent — meaning that they are missing capitalizing on the next booming emerging market. 

Gleaming glass and steel corporate towers stand firm and proud in the sub-Saharan African urban centers of Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; and Johannesburg. On roads such as the Thika superhighway, BMW and Lexus vehicles careen next to the colorful and jam-packed microbuses, matatus and lorries. Incomes have been rising — doubling in some countries in the past decade — dropping poverty by hundreds of millions.

Africa's Economic Growth
Africa's Economic Growth

Africa, composed of 54 recognized countries and an estimated population of more than 1 billion people, is estimated to double by 2050. While counties in North Africa such as Libya still teeter on chaos, since 2003 the GDP across sub-Saharan Africa— 48 countries located south of the Sahara desert — has grown an average of 5 to 7 percent per year even through the global Great Recession, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Africa has one of the fastest-growing middle classes in the world. A key contributor to this growth is the growing stability in governments. Since 1991, there have been 30 peaceful elections to determine the countries’ leaders.

These governments as well as major foreign investors have poured resources into building up Africa’s infrastructure — highways, electricity, potable water, education, health care — while simultaneously increasing their battle against corruption.

It’s still a challenging place. For themajority of the continent’s billion people, disease and hunger are still big problems. Some 118 of every 1,000 children will die before their fifth birthday.

Economic and political modernization bring other challenges and counter-reactions. Along with rising expectations that aggravate existing tribal, racial and religious fault lines, there are labor strikes as well as jihadists. Boko Haram is a brutal reactionary force that threatens Nigeria’s quest for stability, and smaller but just as dedicated groups destabilize other parts of the continent.

Diversity and inclusion are also challenging. Even with Nelson Mandela’s legacy in South Africa, where black people are in the majority, the issue of race continues to dominate. Quotas are in place to have black people in different positions of management. Multinational companies struggle to comply, and diversity champions such as IBM have made a point to build up talent of color to meet the numbers.

With both mind-blowing opportunities and breathtaking challenges facing an increasingly educated population of professionals, several issues — such as a lack of mandatory education and higher percentages of locals not qualified to serve in management roles — make it challenging to source, assess and develop top talent to fill gaps in middle and senior management.

Now many organizations are focusing on raising black talent in Africa. For example, Korn Ferry’s Next Africa, an online community to connect senior-level leadership based in Africa or individuals of the African diaspora who left to get their education in the United States and Europe,encourages both to return. The site offers assessment tools, career resources, and a community of interest for professionals with a shared background to help source and develop this new generation of African leaders.

The need is now to engage professionals at the executive level — accelerating their professional development, and connecting them to the best opportunities across the continent. It is time to identify, unlock and develop the huge talent potential that exists in 21st-century Africa.