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Book Review: The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules & Making Change in Modern Africa

ARI’s Jamie Hitchen reviews Dayo Olopade’s new book.

The meaning behind the term kanju, ‘a specific creativity born from African difficulty’, is instantly familiar to anyone who has spent time stuck in the traffic jams that characterise modern African cities,  in which drivers can purchase a wide array of goods from roving vendors. Capturing and understanding kanju, a Yoruba word, is the theme that runs through Dayo Olopade’s recently published paperback The Bright Continent.

Dayo Olopade's new book, "the Bright Continent"

This is a journalist’s account that provides important insights into how Africans are changing their own situation through a framework of ‘maps’ looking at family, technology, commercial, nature and youth.

The book seeks to highlight the ingenuity challenging formality bias – the tendency to rely on rules and formal structures.  Olopade takes a libertarian stand in arguing that formality bias is holding Africa back. The integrity of formal institutions is in doubt, she says, and they need to be reconceived, to ensure they are viewed as vehicles for change by citizens.

Olopade provides valuable examples to counter pervasive narratives of Africans lacking agency, detailing innovations in technology and the design of indigenous systems to meet local needs.  She cites the cases of vertical gardens in urban Kenya, digitalising patient attendance records in Malawi, Shujaaz, a multi-media youth engagement production in Kenya and phone applications to provide rural farmers up to date crop prices in Uganda.  She reasons that ‘fat economies’, such as the USA, can learn from the resourcefulness and adaptability of the ‘lean economies’ that exist across the African continent.

Olopade’s argument against external decision-making for Africa, without African involvement, is valuable.  Yet her argument is weakened by the tendency to provide and interpret information that reinforces the hypothesis being set out.  The cases of successful local resourcefulness given are not contrasted with less successful, or failed, ventures. Furthermore, Olopade’s in-depth focus on middle-income countries like Nigeria and Kenya comes at a cost of ignoring low-income countries, particularly in French speaking regions, like Chad and Niger.

Beyond asserting the disconnection between politicians and their electorates, especially between government representatives and Africa’s youth, Olopade does not fully explain the capacity of informal structures to enact political change – to reshape the political sphere into something more representative and relevant.

Finally, while Olopade gives voice to African innovators insufficient space is devoted to the opinions of beneficiaries – in other words, those best placed to comment on the successes and failures of these initiatives.  Her example of paying for education through Bridge Schools in Kenya would be more powerful if the voices of parents and students were audible.

Overall The Bright Continent delivers a valuable snapshot in capturing what happens beyond the state and aid agencies, in Africa’s informal sector.  A sector which, according to the African Development Bank, contributes 55% of GNP and upwards of 80% of the labour force across the continent.

Moving forwards, academics should be striving to provide more rigorous research, on a country by country basis, to fully understand where the continent is bright and where the light shines duller.  Doing this, will help us to understand more fully, how kanju can meet the demands of a youthful continent striving for development and prosperity.

Jamie Hitchen is Policy Researcher at ARI.

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