From Wakanda to reality: Building mutual prosperity between African-Americans and Africa
By Landry Signé, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
This year’s Black History Month is being celebrated with a higher sense of African pride, given the unprecedented enthusiasm generated by Marvel’s “Black Panther” last year and increased conversations about a better representation of minority groups. “Wakanda”—a fictitious, prosperous, “futuristic, powerful, and proud African nation”—salutes black culture by “shedding light on black excellence.” After the movie’s release, many in black America—and across ethnicities—and around the world are wondering how to turn this fiction into reality.
During the hype of “Black Panther,” we both were giving talks on how to unlock Africa’s potential to African-American professionals, community, and business leaders. Many of them asked us how they could help make Africa as successful as the imaginary Wakanda. In other words, where are the opportunities to develop mutually beneficial relations between Africa, African Americans, and the United States?
We propose strategies focused on three themes: tourism in Africa; trade and investment in and with Africa; and knowledge, innovation, and technology sharing to improve U.S.-Africa relations.
Educational, recreational, and sustainable tourism
“Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”—James Baldwin
Black people around the world, particularly in the U.S., have much to contribute to Africa because the continent’s tourism industry has so much potential. In 2015, tourism generated $39.2 billion and created 9.1 million direct jobs in Africa. But tourism not only benefits Africa’s growing economies, it can also be personally fulfilling to those who travel.
Tourism allows people to celebrate the history and culture of their ancestors by visiting their homelands, enjoying the culture, and building connections with the people and the physical space. Pioneers such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Maya Angelou have led the way in reconnecting with Africa, followed by influencers such as Oprah Winfrey, Barack and Michelle Obama, Beyoncé, Lupita Nyong’o, Forest Whitaker, Will Smith, and Rihanna, to name a few. But you do not need to be a celebrity or influencer to visit Africa.
Marketing campaigns have typically targeted white, affluent Europeans and Americans who are easily fascinated by safaris in Kenya, riding camels in the Sahara, hunting for wild game, or exploring West African beaches; although, these experiences are not off-limits to African-Americans, they may be more interested in cultural heritage sites. The number of African-Americans visiting Africa is increasing, but many more should make the journey. Indeed, all people of African descent—and everyone else—should visit the continent at one time in their life. Planning the trip is easier now than ever with the advent of the internet and social media and great destination suggestions from National Geographic and others. And one trip usually will not be enough for African diaspora, as the continent’s culture and history is rich and complex.
Trade and investment
Africa has six of the 10 fastest-growing markets and the fastest-growing population in the world. By 2030, Africa will be home to 1.7 billion people and $6.7 trillion of combined consumer and business spending. African-Americans have the opportunity for highly profitable investments while contributing to Africa’s economic growth. In fact, Africa has more than 400 companies with annual revenues of more than $1 billion. In a period of global economic stagnation, African countries are continuing to work toward closing gaps in infrastructure, creating jobs, decreasing poverty, and increasing domestic production of goods and services to fulfill Africans’ demand. As investment in the continent grows as well, more countries are gaining access to global supply chains and exporting demand for goods and inputs from Africa.
The nearly 2.6 million African-American-owned businesses in the U.S. could partner with their fellow American entrepreneurs from other ethnicities to find tremendous market, investment, and sourcing opportunities in Africa. Americans’ growing appreciation of African consumer goods—such as clothing, music, jewelry, food and beverages, and art—is one method of supporting African economies. Many U.S. entrepreneurs are already capitalizing on the high demand of American products such as industrial equipment, motors and vehicles, agricultural and agro-industry equipment and products, technology-related consumer goods, hair, body-care and pharmaceutical products, mining and extractive industry products, clothing, and packaging, among others.
Africans know that development will come from investment, not aid. New entrepreneurs and investors should seek out goods and services that originate from the continent and are in demand in the U.S., then establish supply chains or wholesale retail connections between the U.S. and Africa. Multinational corporations can also identify special economic zones, such as Nigeria and Morocco, and invest in these countries’ infrastructure and manufacturing sectors while simultaneously building their profits.
Knowledge and technology sharing and advancement of US-Africa relations
Many African-Americans have made significant contributions to the world with innovative ideas and technologies—clothes dryers, the lawn mower, and the pacemaker are just a few examples. Many innovators on the continent and collaborations between African and African-American innovators have the potential to advance U.S.-Africa relations on several levels. African-Americans who have had varying experiences with education in the U.S. may be best suited to take up the mantle of American investment in education and innovation in Africa.
Within the opportunities for trade and investment, education systems throughout the continent would benefit from the American experience and brands in leading world-class universities. This exchange of knowledge, wealth, and technology can go both ways to equally benefit Americans and Africans. For example, many American universities such as Stanford, Harvard, and Cornell are hosting some of the brightest African minds. Some of Africa’s leading universities have been supported as well by their American counterparts, including the University of Cape Town and the University of Witswatersrand in South Africa. With 1.7 billion people by 2030, Africa will need to innovate to address some of its most critical challenges—education, energy, health, nutrition, infrastructure, and technology—and this starts with education, research, and development.
Fiction to reality
The idea behind Wakanda can become a reality by engaging with Africa through its many legacies, histories, cultures, and societies. African-Americans may be most particularly suited to this kind of engagement due to their complex historical connections to the continent, though all people should begin to recognize Africa as a place with tremendous resources and potential. The road ahead to increasing the standard of living of all the people of African descent—and humanity—remains enigmatic, but there is hope that, with effective leadership, more entrepreneurship, and improved policies, the future will look more like Wakanda.