Africa? Not so fast

Africa? Not so fast

The good news is that Turkey has become the world’s fastest-growing major economy. The bad news is that the revolutions in North Africa have dried up Turkey’s once-flourishing business prospects there. Where to go next? There’s rash entrepreneurial talk about a plunge into the real Africa – the sub-Saharan one. That could turn out to be a fool’s errand.

It’s true that on the face of it a number of black African countries do have bright market potential. By 2015, according to the IMF, eight of the world’s fastest-expanding GDPs will be south of the Sahara. The Economist has referred to countries like Ghana, Nigeria, and Ethiopia as “the lion kings,” and there are predictions that they and others such as Zambia, Tanzania, and Congo will outpace Asian countries in the coming years. Further, Turkish entrepreneurs bound for black Africa would be joining such savvy players as China and Saudi Arabia, who do not tend to put their money on lame horses.

The trick, though, is to see why the Chinese and Saudis are there. The Chinese are mainly after oil and metals, the Saudis cropland. Both have locked in what they want with long-term leases, and are not in black Africa to set up businesses. They know that the tangled bureaucratic environment would have then chasing their own tails. It’s not for nothing that Africa ranks at the bottom of the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business scale.

Put simply, there’s a stark difference between black Africa and anything most Turkish entrepreneurs have experienced. The great successes Turks have had with markets, malls, and infrastructure building in the former Soviet nations, North Africa, and some of the Arab countries is more or less irrelevant in places as unskilled, haphazard, and corrupt as the run of sub-Saharan nations. It’s the rare Turk who will shrug off the routine risks and setbacks and happily cope in black Africa. In my 11 years in five countries there, most of the Turks I knew, diplomats included, were like fish out of water. Not only Turks: Japanese, Norwegians, and Russians were among the first to bail out. Tropical Africa is a trying environment. I loved it, but I am known to be offbeat.

Yet if the intrepid Turkish businessperson insists on heading for Africa, which would be the go-to countries? Ghana would be the West African destination; Uganda in the east-central part of the continent; South Africa in the southern tier. In all of them the inquiring visitor had better have good English.

Of the western coastal countries, Ghana is probably the least likely to make expatriates join the past thousands who have thrown up their hands and cried “Wawa” (West Africa Wins Again). Ghana is on its way to important oil income, after recent sea-bed discoveries off Takoradi. In Uganda, also, major deposits have been verified across the Lake Albert Rift Basin. There could be something for Turkish oil exploration/development companies in these two foreigner-friendly and relatively stable countries. Uganda, interested Turks might note, has a blessedly temperate climate. Most of the country lies more than a thousand meters above sea level.

The good points aside, the determined Turk or other foreign businessperson in Ghana, Uganda, or any sub-Saharan country will have to arrive with substantial spare bills for bribes (“administration facilitation fees”), and will need to buy industrial-grade generators (the electricity goes off on a daily basis), sleep under bed-nets (to fend off malaria), and hire 24-hour residential guards (to keep robbers away).

Of course those caveats will mean nothing to the smitten foreigners who keep going back to black Africa. They’ll tell you about the silky air. The sudden wonder of sunrise on the Equator. The taste of goat stew on mashed cassava. The smiles of people making way for you on the street. And despite yourself, you’ll listen. But you’d be wise to curb your enthusiasm.