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Mo Ibrahim, Africa's Bill Gates: Africa's Moment Has Come, and We Shouldn't Waste It

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Mobile phones are transforming Africa. Mo Ibrahim is the man who brought them there. Spotting a new market in the 1990's, the Sudanese-born entrepreneur introduced a vast mobile-phone network covering East Africa. Today his company, Celtel, covers 23 African countries. Ibrahim sold Celtel in 2005 for $3.4 billion and now focuses on transforming African leadership with his annual $5 million prize for democratically elected leaders who have governed well and voluntarily stepped down.

More countries are stable, economies are improving... Has Africa's moment come?
Yes. Many factors are coming together. One important thing is the end of the Cold War. People talk about colonialism as a bad thing for Africa, but so was the Cold War. The superpowers had clients and turned a blind eye to democracy, human rights, thefts and good governance. They said, "these guys are on our side". That was a very damaging period for Africa. It's no coincidence that things started going in the right direction when the Cold War ended. There's a huge generation of young Africans coming forward has also changed the narrative about Africa. Africa has better communications now, with phones and the internet. They're able to watch more TV channels. When I was young, there was only one TV channel, sponsored by the government, and it only broadcast things like what the leader had for breakfast. There was no real media. Now we have a free flow of information. Today anybody anywhere in Africa knows what's going on. People look and say, "Why do people in other countries have higher living standards than us? They are their countries more peaceful?" The new generation is much more courageous than my generation. These are the guys who started the Arab Spring in northern Africa. In the past it was unthinkable that young kids would topple dictatorships. There's also the rise of Asia and the huge demand for raw materials. Because of competition, suddenly people are starting to get better prices for raw materials. At the same time we're seeing more democracy in Africa, along with an improving business environment. Jobs are being created, which leads to prosperity. It's a perfect storm, though a benign one! Africa's moment has come, and we shouldn't waste it.

Africa has always had a remarkable potential for entrepreneurship, but politics has come in the way. Is that changing?
It's slowly changing. Many Africans are used to a life where they get up in the morning and don't know what they're going to do that day. I may buy this, I may sell this, I may carry this. People are willing to do whatever it takes to get food back to their families at the end of the day. The rule of law, transparency, less corruption - all of this contribute to improving the situation. In 20 years Africa will be a different place.

...and it might be different, too, because young Africans are returning from the diaspora to start companies at home. Will that change Africa's business potential?
Yes, these days young Africans get degrees in the West and then go back home. They have the know-how, which is what Africa has been missing. They know how to do business, how to build companies. The brain drain from Africa has been reversed. Once Kofi Annan [a Ghanaian] told me, "Mo, we have more Ghanaian surgeons here in New York than in the whole country of Ghana." But now those qualified people are going back to Africa, because there are opportunities, and they're creating jobs for younger people.

China is investing heavily in Africa, too, but uses Chinese workers rather than Africans. Does that concern you?
Absolutely! China has massive projects in Angola but has imported 250,000 Chinese to work on them. China is obviously playing a very important role in Africa today, but it also has to learn from where Western powers in Africa ended, not where they started.

Today almost every African has a mobile phone. Is this an area where Africa could leapfrog the West?
Our lives have changed completely in the past 20 years, and I can't tell you what will happen in the next 20 years. But it will be a totally different world. There are vast changes in the way we're doing business, even in manufacturing. Today we have 3D printing. Tomorrow somebody can sit in Arusha [Tanzania] with a 3D printer, building Boeing engines. And look at the demographics. Europe is an ageing continent. It's great that people can live longer -- a new heart? No problem - and we can just keep renewing people. But who will pay for it? Then look at Africa, where half the population is under 25. There's a huge pool of young people, but this valuable future workforce needs training and education. What kind of training and education? That's something we need to understand, because the jobs we'll have in 20-30 years' time don't require the kind of skills we have today. If it understands this, Africa's demographics can be its trump card.

What are the remaining challenges?
We need two things: leadership and good governance. I don't just mean and end to theft and corruption. It's about education, healthcare, economic policy. We also need visionary leaders who make the right decisions, and tough decisions. If we have that, the road forward is absolutely clear. Good governance and leadership go hand in hand? And good governance is something that can be measured. That's why my foundation does every year with its Index of African Governance. People have to see what, exactly, has been done: how many kilometers of road have been built? How many hospital beds have been added, how many school spots?

Each year you award a $5 million prize to an African leader who has voluntarily stepped down, except the years when you can't find a suitable recipient. Why do African leaders need money incentives to step down after finishing their terms?
Think of it as recognition. The Nobel Prize is worth $1.5 million, but that's not the issue. Do the distinguished scientists who win the Nobel Prize need the money? Probably not. The honor is more important the money, and that's the case with the prize for African leadership as well. We want to bring out the unsung heroes. Take Joaquim Chissano. Everybody says, "who is Chissano?" Why? Because everybody just knows the bad leaders of Africa. As President of Mozambique, Chissano stopped the civil war, liberalized the country -- and stepped down! Isn't that wonderful? Or Festus Mogae of Botswana. Botswana was the first African country to leave the group of the least developed countries. Botswana has diamonds, but nobody stole anything. Yet nobody knows who Mogae is. You guys in the media only write about Mugabe and Mobutu! It's important to say, "look here, we have role models in Africa". That's important for our kids in school. I want the Ibrahim Prize to find those kinds of leaders. Last year the winner was Pedro Pires of Cape Verde, the second African country to leave the group of least developed countries. It's a country that has no resources! Why? Because it has good governance! Even a poor country can become a success, and other African countries can learn from that. When Pires lost the election, he took his wife and kids and went home to live with his mother because he had no assets -- no house, no car. So he took his wife and kids and went home to live with his mother. Then he won the following election. Isn't that a great story of an African leader? Africa has heroes, leaders who serve and then step down, but unfortunately people only know about Mandela.

But what about the money the Ibrahim Prize awards?
When honest leaders like Pires step down, they have no money. The prize helps them lead a decent life. They can join civil society; they don't have to worry about their kids. They can go on campaigning -- not for political office, but for issues! Mogae wanted to campaign for the education of young girls and also for AIDS awareness. What he does now is travelling around to meet with African presidents to advise them how to fight AIDS. There's nothing more effective than a successful African ex-president going privately to leaders, counseling them on AIDS policies. That's something Western leaders can't do, and that I can't do. And Mogae now sits on the UN Committee on Climate Change, which is a good thing, since Africa is the continent most affected by climate change. Now they can do those things without having to consult or go to people and say, "please give me a job".

Have you seen the prize having any effect on other African leaders yet?
I think it will create a debate among Africans. There are always a lot of rumors about who's going to win each year, with people saying "no, he shouldn't win it because he does this and that". The prize focuses people's minds on good governance. Who are the Presidents doing a good job? That's the debate we want. I don't know now how much effect it has on leaders, but I know that it's changing the narrative in Africa. It's not about aid, it's not about help. It's about us Africans! We can only change our continent if we change the way we're running our countries.

Do you hope that your prize won't be necessary in the future?
Absolutely. Maybe I should start a prize for European leaders, because now there's a deficit of leadership in Europe.

...like Russia.
Exactly. But that's up to the Russian people. People in Europe need to start assessing the nature of leadership in their countries. One day Africa will match you guys in leadership, be better even!

When should development aid end? Now, perhaps?
We need to put it in perspective. People think of aid as being the main driver of African economies. It's not. The total amount of aid to Africa is somewhere around $30 billion per year. African national budgets surpass $500 billion. We should focus on the $500. What are we doing with it? How much of it is spent legitimately? Development can be a catalyst for good governance. It helps people move in the right direction, but it won't build Africa.

Previously published in Metro www.readmetro.com.