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Where are Africa’s big ideas?

Reflections on a time of change

Where are Africa’s big ideas?

An economist by training and an admirer of intellectual and original thinkers, Omar Ben Yedder, Group Publisher and Managing Director of our publishing house, joined the group 19 years ago. On being asked what drives him, he puts it simply: “I’m part of Team Africa, I’m playing for Team Africa and I bloody want Team Africa to win.” In this short essay, he expresses his dismay at the dearth of big ideas and big thinking coming from Africans, both at home and on the global stage, and sets a challenge to Africa’s thinkers to come up with powerful new visions.

I’ve started the year with a deep commitment to read more, motivated not least by Standard Chartered Chief Economist for Africa, Razia Khan who devours some 70 books a year.

Africans last year dominated the most prestigious awards for books written in the English and French language, including the Nobel Prize for Literature that was won by the novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, a longstanding friend of our editor. Our writers (in fiction) have thrived these last few years and undoubtedly we have an array of talent and many established writers.

I’m more inclined to read non-fiction (interestingly, boys and men are less prone to read fiction) and am finishing the autobiography of Bechir Ben Yahmed, founder of the Jeune Afrique Group, both partners and competitors.

It’s a fascinating read, full of anecdotes and also his frank assessment on some of the many people and events that have shaped the Africa we live in today. 

In our line of business, we spend a lot of time observing, and, pre-pandemic, we used to have a front-row seat at the major events taking place in and on Africa. One thing that has irked me a little over the past few years, even before Covid, has been a lack of big ideas.

When I first joined IC Publications, and maybe one tends to romanticise a little when reflecting on the past, there seemed to be a number of leaders across Africa, from small and large economies, who had a vision for the continent.

Even if they disagreed on how to achieve it, with many competing egos, there was a common purpose. This, today I feel is lacking and we can only have the leaders of our big economies to blame. Nigeria and South Africa, please stand up!

Where are our public intellectuals hiding?

What we seem to be lacking also is a stronger voice amongst our public intellectuals – who are they, and where are they hiding? Our think-tanks are conspicuous by their shyness, too often focusing on outdated problems and not providing the originality of thought and solutions that our increasingly digital and complex world necessitates.

Too often, our reports are focused on the unoriginal and the obvious. One such debate is the one around democracy which occupies so much headspace but with little impact. If anything, we’ve mastered the art of democracy, all its arguments and how to sell it to the outside world, but we haven’t mastered the art of development and delivery.

Lee Kwan Yew famously said that when it comes to development, discipline is more important than democracy. I tend to agree. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against democracy, and democracy and development are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, democracy and freedom of expression provide the basis for the creation of ideas. But what we need is delivery and big ideas, or at least lots of small transformational ones!

While we have grown in confidence these last two decades, our ideas and discourse are being held back by our own lack of ambition. Admittedly, there are people shaking things up like we’re seeing in the tech space. Some exceptional leaders, and Fred Swaniker comes to mind, are also trying to deconstruct problems to bring about an appropriate solution that can be scaled up and have transformational impact.

A challenge for Africa’s thinkers

But our intellectuals are not thinking hard enough. Maybe they’re in their comfort zone. Maybe they’re not being supported enough. Maybe they’re unprepared and too anxious. But what is certain is that there’s a gaping hole when it comes to new ideas on this continent.

So my challenge is, where are the big ideas? We, in the media, are as guilty as anyone else. We need to be the ones questioning and challenging the status quo and providing the platform, at least, for debate and for these big ideas to grow. We should be challenging western orthodoxy and lobbying for innovative solutions.

A no-brainer – and this is a small idea that can have big impact – is to re-direct the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights to some of our most impactful development finance institutions, who can leverage and deploy these at speed. In science, education, healthcare and more, we’re yearning for a big reset and original thinking.

Internally at our Group, we’ve been wanting to organise a Big Ideas festival and it’s still on the cards – hopefully for Q4 this year. But whether we do it or not, we need to get our best brains to think more, or at least be vocal with their thinking. Let’s stop hiding. Our post-pandemic recovery depends on it.

 

Reflections on a time of great change

Fingers crossed, we may be entering the end-game of the coronavirus scourge and life may soon return to pre-pandemic normality. The last two years have been like nothing else in most of our memories but somehow, most of us managed to survive with health and mind intact. This is a good moment to take a breath and look back on what has been a period of great change. What did we learn about ourselves? In our Reflections on a time of great change series, some of New African‘s regular writers present their personal essays on what this period has meant to them.

Reflections on a time of change

Fingers crossed, we may be entering the end-game of the coronavirus scourge and life may soon return to pre-pandemic normality. The last two years have been like nothing else in most of our memories but somehow, most of us managed to survive with health and mind intact. This is a good moment to take a breath and look back on what has been a period of great change. What did we learn about ourselves? In our Reflections on a time of change series, some of New African‘s regular writers present their personal essays on what this period has meant to them.

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Written by Omar Ben Yedder

Omar Ben Yedder is the Publisher and Managing Director of IC Publications. After a short stint at investment bank Merrill Lynch, London, Omar joined the group in 2003. Omar's work and personal interests include media, development economics, leadership and education. Omar studied Economics and Languages at Durham University and also is a chartered management accountant. Omar is Tunisian, and is based out of London, spending two weeks a month on the road.

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