A chat with the Africa man at the Financial Times

Keeping the world informed on global financial matters for over a century, the Financial Times (FT) is a household name in many regions. Read by Heads of State, blue chip company CEOs, industry captains and policy makers, the FT is one of the world’s leading news organisations, recognised internationally for its authority, integrity and accuracy.

David Pilling is  FT’s Africa Editor. He is the man that decides what stories on and from Africa get published on the paper. And he has earned his stripes; he has interviewed almost everyone you can think of from Presidents and Prime Ministers to farmers, activists, innovators, economists and ordinary people with a story.

Waiganjo Njoroge, our Interim Head of Communications spoke with him to get his views on the continent, its social economic outlook and, more importantly, the place of agriculture – Africa’s economic mainstay, in growing inclusive economic development.

 

You are now about 3 years as the Africa Editor at the Financial Times? Having held the same position in Asia for nearly a decade what’s your impression of Africa?

We often make the mistake of forgetting that Africa is made up of 54 distinct countries. That said, sometimes you’re obliged to look at the continent as a whole. To get a clear sense of where the continent is, I advise looking at trends over 20-30 years which look a lot better than we imagine from looking at headlines. For example, life expectancy, infant mortality, vaccination rates, and access to education for both boys and girls have all improved. Politically, most African countries are less susceptible to civil war and they are more amenable to peaceful transfer of power through the electoral process.

However, and there is a big however, it is possible to be quite pessimistic about much of Africa. If you look at the participation in global trade, if you look at the capability of manufacturing, if you look at the infrastructure, the continent still has a lot to do.

 

A mixed bag of goodies?

The economy and quality of life are improving in many countries, partly thanks to China’s big engagement in the continent, which personally I see as a net positive besides many shortfalls. Challenges still abound including an exploding population because the fertility rates are yet to come down compared to other parts of the world. For example, in Bangladesh, the fertility rate is two, in Africa as a whole, it’s more than five. That means that populations are going to double and triple and quadruple. This will either be an opportunity or a challenge depending on how governments respond today and in the future.

 

What is Africa’s immediate and distant future outlook?

There will be a mix of success and failures. I guess the question is, will there be 40 success stories and 10 failures or will there be 10 success stories and 40 failures? For the continent to grow as a whole you’re going to need economies of scale and for that, the intercontinental free trade area could play a role. It’s going to be difficult for smaller individual countries to really go alone.

 

I will switch to agriculture now, which I believe is the surest path to our prosperity. When we last spoke, you described the topic as deeply frustrating and exciting at the same time. Why that description and is it starting to change?

I am still looking at agriculture. Not too long ago, I was in Madagascar where people are farming vanilla which is worth more than silver. Yet half the children in Madagascar are stunted which means that they run the risk of growing up with mental and physical disabilities.

You’ve got farmers who don’t know the full value of their produce and have no access to the global market. This creates an unequal relationship between buyers in the west and the producers in places like Madagascar which is made worse by exploitative middlemen with the farmers as the greatest losers.

 

Are there places where this is changing?

Generally, across most of Africa, yields of many crops are very low. The good news is that it’s easy to double or triple yields with the right seeds and fertilizer, a little bit of extension services, a little bit of help from government and the right policy environment. I believe that any government that has agriculture in the top three priorities will inevitably witness economic growth.

 

Does agriculture really hold the potential to transform the continent?

I believe it does, or at least it is a part of what’s required. Once you start increasing yields by planting the right seeds coupled with mechanization, use of fertilizer and digitalization of farming, you increase efficiency and productivity in farms. While this can sometimes be a challenge as some people will lose employment, if well managed, it can create opportunities in the cities and not necessarily the biggest capitals but also in the second and third tier cities.

The population that transitions out of agriculture finds employment in other sectors of the economy. We have seen this in other countries including India, China, Vietnam and South Korea that have become manufacturing powerhouses.

 

Is this the path for Africa?

It’s going to be difficult for many African countries to replicate the Asian manufacturing model. I could be wrong but to me it looks as though that might be difficult to replicate.

 

Why is this so?

I guess what I worry a lot about in many African countries is that you have governments that don’t have development plans, their raison d’etre is not sufficient to develop the country and to provide the framework through which as many people as possible can escape poverty and have the lives that they would like to live. There’s too much corruption and too many elites looking after their own interests and [3 not really worrying about the nation as a whole.

There are historical reasons for that. These are very young countries that were created under colonial dictates. The more I look at it, I realize it’s hard to create a nation state after 60 or 70 years of independence.

That said, the more I look at parts of Africa, the more impressed I am that despite the awful beginnings with many African countries starting their journeys as modern states with lines drawn on the map by imperialists sitting in Berlin or other European capitals, they are emerging as true states. Still, Kenya or DRC or Nigeria or any other Africa country for that matter have a long way to go before they can look back with the same sense of history as china, with its supposedly five thousand years of continued history, continued civil service and therefore a sense of national purpose.

 

Why is this sense of a nation important?

While this may sound intangible, I think it’s actually extraordinarily important that if a country is to move forward it needs to have that sense of really being a nation. Some of the countries that we’ve seen in Asia that have been extraordinarily successful like Japan or China or Korea or even Vietnam all have very strong sense of national identity dating back 100s of years. Therefore, even if you have corruption and even if you have dictatorships, there’s a sense that they want to raise the nation up.

 

Are there African countries that are starting to build this national purpose?

This is starting to emerge in some countries most driven by a sense of national pride. While I cannot give an exhaustive list, I think Ghana might be one example. Even in a place like Nigeria, you sense a Nigerian pride. You sense that if you could have a government that could begin to put in place a true national project that there is a nation there that might respond despite the challenges.

 

We once drove up together for a field visit and you called your mum to tell her what you were seeing. Do you do that often? What does she think about the job you do?

Yeah, my Mom’s really interested in the world and because I’m her only son and my father died 20 years ago. She is extremely interested. She’s always reading all of my stuff. Much more than that, she is very interested in the world and she’ll read lots about it anyway. I guess the time in Japan, she read a bit more on Japan than she normally would and now that I’m covering Africa she reads a lot more about Africa. It’s not unusual for her to tell me about stories that I haven’t noticed and to say, “Hey, why don’t you look at that?” So yeah, that’s quite normal. I think it’s something that any son or daughter should do so I take no credit, it’s just a normal thing.

 

As we conclude, it would be remiss of me not to ask about your recent book ‘The Growth Delusion’. Why are you frustrated with GDP as the main measure of social-economic wellbeing?

GDP is something we take for granted. I mean we write a lot about it in the Financial Times, we compare things to GDP, tax to GDP, debt to GDP. What is GDP? Why is GDP a good measure of progress? What does it mean? That was the starting point really. I lived in Japan where GDP has been flat for 20 years and because of what I think is the over reliance on GDP as a measure, we assume that Japan was a total failure.

I wanted to find out what this measure is and critique it. GDP is good at measuring manufactured goods but very bad at measuring services. It measures all production resulting in good, bad or indifferent outcomes. So pollution, crime and arms all contribute to GDP, while volunteer work does not.

We tend to equate GDP growth to mean an improvement in all of those things that it has no ability to measure including mental health. It is an overrated measure especially for nation states that are already reasonably wealthy.

 

Finally, the Africa man who lives in London! How come?

There would definitely be a case for living on the continent and I probably should especially because of the way I do journalism which is a kind of sensory approach. I like to feel stories around me much rather than read about them or discover them down a telephone.

My current choice of location is mainly informed by ease to travel between African countries, which can sometimes be challenging and more expensive than travelling from London. There’s also a different way that newspapers work. If I’m in London, I can advocate for Africa and easily go into meetings, whereas if I’m on the continent, I would do less of that. On balance, I actually agree with you, I think I would like to move the job to somewhere on the continent. Then of course the question becomes where? I could live in Johannesburg, Lagos, or Nairobi, but equally you could choose to live in Addis Ababa or even Dakar or Kampala. There’s a lot of great options.

 

TurnTables is an interview-based feature that tells the story through the eyes of journalists who bring stories of the world to us. They have interviewed farmers, teachers, scientists, Heads of State, business captains and many people in-between. It’s time to hear what they think.

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