Stephen Hayes is president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.
In 1987, I visited Shanghai for the first time. As I walked the
streets, it was as if I were walking on a movie set that focused on
1930s China. Vendors were cooking along the streets, and there wasn't
much you couldn't buy if you were hungry or looking for cheap goods.
The hotel in which I stayed had been built in the 1920s of brick, and
the bare rooms were adequately but simply furnished. I was shown the
plans for Shanghai of the future and thought them highly imaginative
and hopeful, but in my mind they were dubious.
Seven years later I returned to Shanghai and I could not
believe that any city anywhere, even with the most modern technology,
could possibly change in such ways and in such a short time. The plans
I had been shown in 1987 had not only been realized, but the city had
pushed beyond them. There were new cities within cities, giant
throughways, and where there had been thousands of bicycles there were
now thousands of automobiles, so many that one imagined they had been
hidden all along.
Now, more than a quarter century later, the transformation of
Shanghai, and really most of eastern China, remains the most
spectacular feat I have witnessed in my lifetime. Although I think they
would have been far better off using bicycles instead of so many
automobiles, the transformation was simply overwhelming. Shanghai in a
decade became one of the greatest cities in the world. Impossible to
imagine and almost as hard to believe.
I say this thinking of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. If one goes outside
the city to the hills around, and looks down at the bowl into which
most of the city fits, I think that this too will be a very different
city in less than ten years, as will many African cities. In Abuja,
Nigeria, they are enacting a twelve-phase development plan, and are
now in phase four. For nearly all the development work for phase five,
the Chinese have invested, ensuring that phase six is not so far
Addis Ababa, at 8,000 plus feet above sea level, is the third
highest capital in the world, but because it sits in a bowl, at times
of thermal inversion it will be a city increasingly hard to see from
the hills, just as Mexico City and Los Angeles are on some days now.
The pollution of progress will wash over the city, and what one will
see will be the peaks of buildings that have yet to be built. Addis
Ababa will be a very different city than even the hub of activity and
perceived chaos it is today, a mix of old and new, just as Shanghai
was thirty years ago.
There are several similarities to China of 1987 in the Ethiopia of
2013, though it seems difficult for Americans to comprehend. The
standard of living for the people is rising and there is slowly,
cautiously, a creeping openness in public discussions. By American
standards, political control is too heavy-handed, but one must realize
what the country's recent past has meant. China had the Cultural
Revolution and its aftermath into the early 80s, and Ethiopia had its
own horrific oppression in the 70s and 80s. Both countries took a
giant leap backwards before beginning to come out of the abyss.
It is difficult to have perspective if you haven't ever been
through these type of experiences. We can look at how our own Civil
War affected our nation and see some of those wounds still affecting
us more than 150 years later.
In ten years, Ethiopia may be the most changed nation on the
continent. Its investment in building a national power grid is greater
than any other nation in Africa. This alone presents major
opportunities for American power companies large and small. China, and
to a lesser extent Japan, are building its road and rail
infrastructure. The Ethiopian Government is investing $5 billion in the
light railroad project between Djibouti and Addis Ababa, as Djibouti
serves as the major port for landlocked Ethiopia. Of its total annual
budget, Ethiopia is allotting ten percent to infrastructure
development, the highest such percentage in Africa. A $1.2 billion
dollar power line to Kenya is also in planning.
Ethiopia is challenged by a population of 90 million people, and as a
country with one of the highest population growth rates in the world,
there will be a younger and growing population, a potential reservoir
of discontent without jobs. This was not so different from Shanghai
and the surrounding area in the 1980s.
Telecom and IT investors such as Samsung are also entering Ethiopia,
and as noted in a previous blog, dialogue and debate will slowly open
up in the country, just as it did in Shanghai and throughout China in
the 1990s. Ethiopia, just as China, will see that they have no choice
but to ease communication restrictions if they want even more
investors and a supportive nation.
Not all changes will be improvements, of course. Pollution will
likely increase significantly, and global warming may be accelerated
because of all that we call progress. We can only hope that greater
investment in clean energy and a careful examination of our
transportation schemes worldwide will also be considered carefully. The
great cities of the future, of which Addis Ababa could easily become
one, depend on forward thinking. These are also great opportunities
for investors and entrepreneurs.