Africa: What Do Africans Want? They'll Text You

6 August 2014
guest column

Washington, DC — The way to find out what Africans really want is to ask them.

Africa has too long been portrayed in sweeping generalizations, often about hardship and tragedy. In reality, the continent is a sprawling, diverse, and fast-moving place -- home to 55 countries, hundreds of languages, one-sixth of the world’s population, and seven of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world.

As dozens of African heads of state come to Washington this week for the first U.S.-African Leaders Summit, they are discussing macro issues like trade, security, and investment. But what do the nearly one billion African people want out of the summit? What are their top everyday concerns? How do they want their leaders to approach solutions to some of the continent’s thorniest problems, such as extreme poverty, preventable disease, and governance?

The best way to answer these questions is to simply ask. But how do you reach people across cities, villages, and neighborhoods, where electricity is virtually nonexistent and the Internet is an afterthought?

The answer is the basic mobile phone. More than 600 million Africans own a mobile phone, and they are being used for everything from sending money to monitoring weather patterns. With the right infrastructure, phones can also be used to ask people questions, through surveys run on basic SMS technology. This is an incredible opportunity to hear from millions of people whose voices are making it to the world stage for the first time.

That’s why our organizations, The ONE Campaign and GeoPoll, polled a representative sample of citizens in nine countries in advance of the African Leaders Summit. We wanted to find out if the priorities of the people align with those of their leaders.

Among other things, we asked about their views of the United States and President Obama’s administration, their top health concerns, and how reliable energy access and agricultural investments would benefit their communities. We also wanted to know which partner – the United States, European Union or China – they consider most important for the future of their country.

And the results started flowing in.

As it turns out, the overall message from the African citizens surveyed is positive for the U.S. administration. Among those polled, the United States is considered Africa’s most important partner, with China not far behind and Europe a distant third. This is despite the fact that China has overtaken the United States as the continent’s biggest trading partner. Also, nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said the United States has a 'big' or 'some impact' on their communities. Only 11% believe America has a 'negative impact'.

When asked about their top concerns, African respondents cited jobs and education. However, when asked what issue their government best addresses, jobs and education weren’t at the top of the list. Other key concerns are electricity access and agriculture, two issues that are essential to unleashing Africa’s enormous economic potential.

Like any study, these findings don’t represent every viewpoint. But they do provide a window into the lives of everyday citizens across the continent. At ONE, we want to use results like these to support a new framework in U.S.-Africa relations - one featuring smart, targeted policies that leverage public and private partnerships to drive sustainable development.

It was because of feedback from African citizens and leaders that ONE began to emphasize the issue of energy poverty. In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 600 million people lack reliable electricity. This spurred us to advocate for the Electrify Africa Act - which recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives - and a similar bill in the Senate, the Energize Africa Act. Both bills aim to help African governments provide basic electricity access to 50 million people living in extreme poverty. By leveraging the private sector and using existing tools, such as loan guarantees and expanded insurance for American companies, the legislation won’t incur any costs to U.S. taxpayers.

Similarly, GeoPoll has engaged with the World Food Programme to conduct surveys across regions in Africa where sudden shifts in food prices and availability can greatly impact people’s lives and well-being. Accurate and timely data, provided by ongoing SMS polls, is helping WFP understand immediate needs, react quickly with the right actions, and shape future policies and programs. In addition, international corporations looking to expand in Africa can use mobile data to drive better decision-making, helping companies bring jobs and economic growth.

If we want development that is timely, sustainable and grassroots-centered, we must listen to the data. This has never been more important. Africa is now the world’s fastest growing continent by GDP, as well as the youngest - the average age is 18 years and 40% of the population is 14 or below.

As these new generations come of age, Africa’s population boom could be a decisive boost for economic growth and rapid development - or it could result in a slide towards increasing poverty. It all depends on whether African leaders, the international community, and everyday citizens can work together on smart, inclusive policies that take advantage of the continent’s vast potential.

Formulating these policies will not be easy. But fortunately, thanks to technology, we have a new tool: the ability to collect rapid, accurate insights from villages and neighborhoods across the continent. These are the stories that will guide our partnerships and show us where and how to invest in Africa’s future.

We’ll be listening.

Dr. Sipho Moyo is ONE Africa executive director. James Eberhard is president & CEO of GeoPoll.

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