Washington, DC — Business activity is a subject that is sometimes missed in international reporting about Africa. Despite that, Africa produces some impressive economic statistics: a 144 percent annual return by the Ghana Stock Exchange, high savings rates and low corruption in Botswana, and South African firms that are investing across the continent and listing on stock exchanges in Britain and the United States. With large and expanding markets for communication and technology, agriculture and mining, Africa has countless untapped investment opportunities.
In a one-hour documentary entitled "Africa Open for Business," Carol Pineau, who has reported from Africa for CNN and French radio and television, explores stories she says are generally missing from coverage. She interviews local entrepreneurs who are seeking opportunities and making business happen, portraying a side of Africa that most people outside the continent do not see. The stories of 10 companies tell a balanced tale of the struggle, the costs and the potential of doing business in Africa. She spoke with AllAfrica about the film and her efforts to improve the quality of reporting on Africa. Excerpts:
What made you want to do a film about African business?
The issue to me was to show a different Africa, an Africa that I knew was there, that anyone who has been there knows exists, but is never shown in the media. Something that was asked of me recently, "Have you ever seen Africans in love?" We show Africans as if they have no love life. How did the continent get so populated? We don't show them having any family life, no civic life. We show an Africa that is void of any economic life.
I wanted to show that Africa is as complex as America, as Europe, as everywhere else, and not this one-dimensional caricature. The wars, the famine, it's all been done. We've seen that. I wanted to show the people who are in charge of their own destiny, who are making their own decisions, right or wrong. I wanted to make a film where there were no victims. You could love them, you could hate them - it didn't matter to me. It was going at the story of Africa in a very different way. After years doing reports on Aids and wars and things no one seemed to care about, [I thought] what do Americans like? They like money, so let's do money.
What criteria did you use to choose the countries and businesses you show in the film?
People think that I am selling 10 countries or 10 businesses, and I've been really clear that that's absolutely not it. Clearly, I am not selling Somalia as a great business destination! The idea was to show a balance geographically, a balance linguistically, a balance as far as the good and the bad. You have Botswana and then you have Somalia. What I wanted to show was that no matter where you are, no matter what your country is, no matter what your governance or lack thereof is, entrepreneurship goes on. There is an African spirit, a drive, there in the continent and many times it's thwarted but it still exists.
As far as the businesses [featured in the film], I found them in a haphazard way. Anyone who has done reporting, [knows] that, you get into Kampala and say, "I wanna do coffee. The president is always talking about coffee, what am I going to do? This guy is not home and this guy is out of town, and this guy his partner is not here so he can't meet with me." I found this guy and he's so fabulous.
A lot of these were found through Google. It's as simple as that. What I think is so incredible is that [if] through such haphazard means I found 10 incredible stories, there's got to be thousands more like them throughout the continent. They're under the radar because we're just not looking in that area. But they're there and a lot of them you can't say necessarily they're thriving, but I don't think the issue is thriving or not thriving. The issue is that they are really working to get in charge of their own destiny, and that's the Africa we don't show.
What reaction have you received from U.S. and other businesses?
There have been specialized screenings with businesses and we've targeted policymakers, investors and image makers - people who can change the way we think about investment into Africa. Africa offers the highest return on direct investment in the world. That's well established. The interesting thing though is that Africa attracts the least amount of foreign direct investment. And that doesn't make sense. Money goes where it makes money. Why isn't it going into Africa? A lot of people say it's because of risk, bad governance, and corruption. But that's not the complete story.
Look at Botswana: A+ credit rating, absolute democracy since independence more than 50 years ago, highest per capita savings in the world with maybe a handful of other countries in the world like Singapore, listed in the top ten of least corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International. So why isn't money flooding into Botswana? It's not. They're having just as hard a time as everyone else. It's because the image of Africa is coast-to-coast violence and mayhem, interspersed by a few animal parks. So where am I supposed to send my investment money? Am I supposed to send it to a refugee camp? Am I supposed to send it to an animal park? What is there? People don't even know that there are buildings, high-rises.
There are a lot of Africans in this room. How many of you have been asked: Did you grow up in a hut? Did you ever wear shoes?
That's the purpose of the specialized screening: to get people to visualize it. Once they can visualize that there is an Africa that can absorb investment, then they start looking at where the risk [is] good. Where is it bad? Where should I invest? Botswana is very different than Sierra Leone. You can start to make some realistic risk decisions.
People are not always aware of just how powerful the constant image of a dysfunctional Africa has been. [A] medical investigation drama on one of the networks in the U.S. [did] a show about anthrax. We all know the only anthrax scare the U.S. has had has been home-grown, but in this show there was an anthrax scare and it turned out to be illegal African immigrants. They were playing their drums in the market and anthrax drifted off from their drums and an innocent American put a dollar in the basket and breathed in the anthrax dust and started an epidemic.
I was so mad I was screaming at the television, "Why are you always making bad stuff about Africa!" I've lived in Africa, I feel completely comfortable [there], but every time I walk by one of those markets with the drums I feel myself sort of pull away. My mind is telling me that is absolutely nuts, but my body has that reaction. And then you think about somebody who doesn't know Africa, who's never been there, how are they going to react? I think it's something that really has to be looked at.
Everyone is always saying, "The media has to do positive stories." We're not publicists. We are journalists. What we do is news and it has to be a good story, not a positive story. What is newsworthy to me is the Ghana Stock Exchange making 144 percent and the best return in the world for a stock market. That's news. We shouldn't be selling that as a positive story. We should be saying that's news and it deserves to be covered. I think readers and viewers want to know where they can get a higher return than anywhere else in the world.
I think that Africans need to start demanding that Africa is covered in all its complexity. Right now this is lying by omission. It's unbalanced reporting. Imagine if we were only talking about the negatives in the U.S. If [all] the French media talked about [was] 9/11, the Oklahoma bombing, and all those things how quickly would the U.S. State Department or even the White House demand to see the French ambassador? Africans have to start demanding a different kind of coverage.
What were some of the difficulties African business owners reported?
Each of the interviews is an hour long. We're hoping to do a book so you can get the complete story from each one. In cutting them down, there was a decision - she speaks really eloquently about corruption and he does too so we'll leave it to those two. We'll free up the space for the others to talk - this one about infrastructure, this one about financing. But every single one of them talked about corruption, infrastructure, financing, regulations - all those things. Financing was one of the biggest things.
Small and medium enterprises have no access to funding. You have a lot of NGOs that are taking care of that at the micro-enterprise level. You have the mega industries, like the cell phone companies, that are getting these huge deals. At the top of the pyramid, there would be the oil companies and they have access to international finance. They have all the capital they need. It's that central section - somebody called it "the missing middle." - that can't get access to any of the government people to solve problems they have internally. They can't get access to international capital. There's just nobody watching out for those people and that's where real job creation comes from.
I'm not an economist, but it's very clear to me that this has to be solved for Africa to go forward.
What can small and medium-sized businesses do to increase their profitability?
Those little $3 or $4 purchases - that's where people are starting to realize there's a fortune to be made. You heard the guy from Congo talking about "When we did the $2 scratch card our sales tripled." These are the types of things that many companies really make money from.
There's this impression that Africa doesn't have capacity. That was what was most amazing to me in the Ugandan story. There's a guy in a little café in downtown Kampala with six employees who's talking just like a Harvard MBA. "When you go into a market you have to differentiate your product, so my packaging..." We were so blown away by the interview [and] by the capacity on the ground. Is it as good as in Europe? No, but there is so much there that is not being utilized. What's needed is to recognize the home-grown capacity and start using that and putting it more to use.
You hear people say [about Africa]: "If only we had good governance, then suddenly African entrepreneurship would happen." That's the not the lesson of Somalia or DRC [Congo]. Even without good governance, even without any governance, there is still entrepreneurship. We act like [Africans are] missing the entrepreneurial gene. They aren't. The question is: how much of the limited resources that Africa has can be put towards growth and how much has to be wasted on corruption and lack of infrastructure and dealing with changing regulations. That to me is really the issue, not do they or don't they have an entrepreneurial spirit.
You stress the importance of differentiating between African countries now, but in some parts of the documentary, you group all of Africa together with general statements. Do you worry about falling into that trap?
There was a big debate with the graphics people and the production team, "Should we put the maps in or not?" - individual country maps. Because what I wanted to say was: it's not about 10 countries. You could parachute in anywhere and you could find a story like this, no matter where you are.
We're talking about Zimbabwe as though it's a complete hell hole right now. Somebody just told me about his sister in Zimbabwe. She realized women are always going to have children and they're always going to want those children to look good. So she started a children's clothing shop. Stuff goes on. I think that's the thing I wanted to show.
Why did you decide to cover formal businesses, not the informal economy?
Because no one would expect it. I tell people I want to do a film on businesses in Africa [and they say,] "Oh, I know those market women! They're so cute!" I actually didn't interview any market women. I interviewed airlines and cell phone companies. This is not a representative sampling of Africa. It's a vision that Africa can do it.
Do you think that this film will help to attract investment?
I certainly hope so. I think no one is going to watch the film and pick up the phone and say, "Get me into Africa." The hope is that it will start a dialogue. When time and time again, you show starving Africa and nothing else but starving Africa, it's a stereotype. There is a portion of Africa that is starving, but there's a huge portion of Africa that is not.
Even the people living on a dollar a day in Africa, and I've been to many of those villages, they are not starving. Sure, you don't have as much to eat as you'd like, but that doesn't mean you're starving. This image of the starving Africa makes it so that Africa cannot attract investment.
I talk to investors who tell me that the minute they mention Africa the doors just shut. There is no discussion. If investment doesn't get into Africa, jobs are not created. If jobs are not created, wealth is not created. The estimates I've heard range between six and 10 people are fed for every one job in Africa. So you bring in one major factory in Lesotho and you've got 1500 people working, 15,000 people [are] fed from that. What aid agency can do that on a continued basis, year after year after year? By showing an Africa that you can't invest in, you're starving away investment, unreasonably, because it's not a realistic picture of Africa. I think that's costing lives in a very real sense.
Do you run into critics who call you an advocate instead of a journalist?
I'm not a cheerleader for Africa. I'm talking about a much more realistic Africa. Let's be fair. I think the most difficult screening and Q&A that I've had was a press conference up in New York. There was a woman who got so mad, she got up and walked out and she said to me, "You haven't talked about security at all. There's so much insecurity!" I said, "Well, actually, I did." There were a lot of negatives that I talk about in the film. But they're talked about in terms of overcoming them.
All of those things, Aids, corruption, trading regulations, [are in the film] but it's in terms of, "Okay, this is the cost of doing business." But this woman was angry: "How can you not talk about this? I was in Johannesburg, and I was mugged! All of Africa is like that!" That's when I got mad and I said, "You cannot say that about Botswana. You cannot say that about Namibia. You cannot say that about Ghana." When I lived in Eritrea, we were leaving nightclubs at 2 o'clock in the morning and walking home. Nothing would ever happen to you on the streets. Never once has Asmara had a capital murder case. I wish Washington could be so nice.
We have to be realistic. It's not just the media. It's our entire cultural perception. From the time that we are little children we are told, "Eat everything on your plate, there's starving children in Africa." Everything reinforces "the Dark Continent."
What the film is saying is "Everything you've been told about Africa, it's not exactly true." For some people it is upsetting to see that. But some are won over, fortunately.
To learn more about the film, visit its official web site.