Africa: a Case Study in Consumption rather than Production

The largest francophone city in the world is Kinshasa. Despite speaking a global language, having a population of over twelve million and being awash is natural resources, Kinshasa, like many African metropolises, is isolated and consumes far more than it produces.

Daniel Knowles explores the reason why Africa is urbanising without globalising in his thought-provoking essay.

What most African cities get by on is money from natural resources. As the Brookings Institution explains here, African cities are built for consuming, not creating, wealth. The elite who capture oil or mining revenues have to live somewhere – and they concentrate their spending in cities. That is why the nightlife and restaurant scene in Kinshasa is so good, even though nothing else works. It’s the main thing the city produces. The poor flock in, hoping to feed on the scraps. Extreme inequality isn’t so much a product of the system; it is the cause of it.

I’ve observed this same phenomenon, albeit on a much lesser scale, in Eastern Europe. Despite being a ‘poor’ country, it’s not uncommon to see Ukrainians with phones that cost more than a month’s salary, grocery stores are stocked with expensive European goods and people are willing to pay top dollar for Western brands. Even the isolation aspect mentioned by Knowles is familiar: I can get from Kyiv to the beaches of Turkey, Egypt, Sri Lanka and Thailand on direct flights whereas getting to a global economic hub from Kyiv is expensive and inconvenient. This is a system designed for consumption, not production.

This trend of creating consumers rather than producers is not isolated to the developing world nor is it anything new. Apple, Microsoft and Google have long been pushing schools to use their products to teach children how to consume. I’ve yet to see any of the big tech companies support schools using linux distributions and teaching the fundamentals of computer literacy with free and open source software. Google has made deep inroad in American classrooms, not without some misgivings.

Cal Newport makes the argument that many confuse the ability to use apps, a consumer product, with professional skills. I quote his plea for people to quit social media:

In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable. Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable. Any 16-year-old with a smartphone can invent a hashtag or repost a viral article. The idea that if you engage in enough of this low-value activity, it will somehow add up to something of high value in your career is the same dubious alchemy that forms the core of most snake oil and flimflam in business.

What can be done on both a macro and micro level to encourage production and creation rather than consumption? Should fledgling economies use protectionism to develop a local production base? How should our approach to education be changed in order to foster production and not just consumption?