ANTIBES, France — Billions of viewers around the world are glued to TV sets to watch the 2010 World Cup. It's the biggest media event in the world, though not in the United States. The International Broadcast Center in Johannesburg has welcomed 13,000 journalists to cover the competition.
The irony in this media overkill is that as far as most Western news organizations are concerned, it might as well be happening on the moon. Under normal circumstances, they pay little attention to what happens on the African continent.
There are exceptions of course. Reuters provides business coverage of Africa. The Associated Press has correspondents in a few African capitals, despite budget cuts, as do CNN International and Al Jazeera English. GlobalPost, a relative newcomer, boasts 18 freelance and contributing correspondents on the continent.
But the mainstream Western media still consider Africa to be a backwater. Most have no full time correspondents based there. And when they do run reports on Africa, it is almost always bad news.
The rest of the world could be forgiven for thinking of Africa as starving children with swollen bellies, masses of miserable refugees, unspeakably savage wars and greedy dictators who stash their ill gotten gains in Swiss banks. The western media usually assume that nothing else about Africa could possibly interest their viewers and readers, except perhaps an occasional National Geographic type feature about wild animals or exotic native folklore.
So it's a breakthrough of sorts that the World Cup coverage has shown world class sports facilities in an African nation and even glimpses of a rising African middle class that is bound to change the future of the continent. Unfortunately, Americans are missing much of this because their networks don't like soccer.
Why, you might ask, should we care if most of the time the Western media fails to tell us what is really happening in Africa? The answer is that Western entrepreneurs and investors may be missing the next big thing in emerging markets because of the patronizing and stereotyped views promoted by the media.
Africa is not an amorphous continent. It is 53 individual countries with different challenges and rates of development. It is, in the words of a recent study by London's Chatham House think-tank, “the foundation of the global supply chain.” Just look at the figures. It has almost 40 percent of the mineral resources required for global industry, 15 percent of the world's agricultural land, as well as 10 percent of the fresh water supplies. ” The United States now imports more oil from Africa (22 percent) than from the Middle East (17 percent).
It is true that many African countries suffer from poverty and instability. Africa is taking off from a very low base. Its share of global trade is less than 4 percent. Its combined economies total less than 2 percent of global income. But from an investor's point of view, that is an opportunity as well as a challenge.
In the past decade, a lot has been happening in Africa, but most of the Western media haven't found that newsworthy. Economically, it has become one of the world's fastest growing regions. Almost 75 percent of African children go to school compared to 58 percent ten years ago. Mobile phone subscriptions have ballooned from 55 million to 350 million in five years. An estimated 330 million Africans are now considered middle class. African growth is not just being fueled by rising commodity prices. Africans themselves are becoming increasingly important consumers.
China knows this, as do a number of other emerging economies such as Turkey and Brazil. But the developed western countries seem stuck in a post-colonial mindset that sees Africa as a foreign aid problem rather than an investment opportunity. That's not only short-sighted. It's stupid. Just ask the Chinese entrepreneurs who are building and investing all over Africa.
As the McKinsey Global Institute (a business research consultancy) points out in a recent study, investors and businesses cannot afford to ignore the continent's potential. The Western media are missing a big story. And it has nothing to do with soccer.