Imagine that it is
May 25, 2063, the 100th anniversary of Africa Day, a day for reflecting on
Africa�s successes and failures. The newspaper headline announces, �Last
Remaining Oilfield in West Africa�s American Territory Dries Up.�
continues: �The last patch of rainforest will soon be empty land scarred by oil
pipelines, pumping stations, and natural gas refineries. Wholesale pollution
will be the environmental legacy for future generations.
oil reserves will ebb away. Abandoned oil wells could well become tourist
attractions, and oil-boom settlements will be transformed into derelict ghost
�In a world without
oil, air travel will disappear, and people will voyage overseas on coal-powered
ships. Farmers will use horses instead of tractors, and scythes instead of
combine harvesters. As crops diminish and populations soar, famine will grip
the globe. With no means to power their vehicles, parents will be housebound,
without jobs, and children will walk to school.�
This scenario could
become a reality, because we no longer have an abundant oil supply. We know oil
exists in limited quantities and that most oil wells dry up after 40 years. It
is as certain as death and taxes. Rather than debate the exact year when we
will run out of oil, I prefer to imagine that we have already run out. It may
come sooner than any of us expect. Our heirs will thank or curse us for how
much oil we left for them. Instead of asking, �When will Africa run out of
natural resources?� we should ask, �When will Africa be unable to export raw
materials, either for lack of our own oil or because foreign markets have
themselves dried up?�
A $100 bar of raw
iron is worth $200 when forged into drinking cups in Africa, $65,000 when
forged into needles in Asia, $5 million when forged into watch springs in
Europe. How can this be? European intellectual capital -- the collective
knowledge of its people -- allows a $100 raw iron bar to command a 50,000-fold
increase! It could be said, therefore, that a lack of intellectual capital is
the root cause of poverty.
intellectual capital, iron excavated in Africa will continue to be manufactured
in Europe and exported back to Africa at enormous cost. To alleviate poverty,
Africa needs to cultivate creative and intellectual abilities that will allow
it to increase the value of its raw materials and to break the continent�s
vicious cycle of poverty. Poverty is not an absence of money, rather it results
from an absence of knowledge.
African nations, multinationals such as Shell (selling rigs for a 40 percent
royalty on exported oil) are getting rich, while the oil rig workers remain
poor. Instead of addressing the underlying causes of poverty -- minimal
productivity resulting from a lack of intellectual capital -- Third World
leaders have focused on giving false hope to their people.
We need less talk
about poverty and more action to eliminate it. So how do we do this? Education
has done more to reduce poverty than all the oil companies in the world. So it
is disheartening to realize that few leaders believe that their people�s
potential is far more valuable than what lies beneath the soil.
capital, not higher wages, will eliminate poverty in Africa. If we all
demand higher wages, we will end up paying the higher wages to ourselves. Intellectual capital will result in the
creation of new products derived from new technologies. The end result will be
not just a redistribution of wealth, but the creation and control of new wealth.
And Africa�s power
to reduce poverty will open the floodgates of prosperity for millions of
people. One catalyst for such prosperity could be telecommuting. If 300 million
Africans could work for companies located in the West (just as millions of
Indians do), then both regions would benefit. The strategy would be to
recognize the labor needs of the global marketplace, and enable Africa to
fulfill those needs.
For example, tax
preparation experts living in Africa, where labor is cheaper, could fulfill the
needs of US-based accountants. Furthermore, the time difference could allow for
a fast turnaround in service. It is clear that knowledge and technology is
crucial to alleviate Africa�s poverty.
Africa will perish
if it continues to consume what it does not produce, and produce what it does
not consume. The result will be a depressing cycle of increasing consumption,
decreasing production, and increasing poverty. We are missing a golden
opportunity by not using the trillion dollars earned by exporting natural
resources to break Africa�s cycle of poverty.
We are at a
crossroads where one signpost reads �Produce� and another reads �Perish.� We
risk becoming like the driver who stops at an intersection and asks a
pedestrian, �Where does this road lead?�
And the pedestrian
replies, �Where do you want to go?�
�I don�t know,� the
�Then it obviously
doesn�t matter which road you take!� replies the pedestrian.
If we adopt the same
attitude as the driver, Africa will have lost its chance to �choose� its
For decades, power
in post-colonial Africa rested in the hands of those with guns, not those with
brains. We were not always at war with our neighbors, but we were always at war
with poverty. And we spent more on guns than on books and bread.
Africa�s choice is
clear: produce or perish. However, it is important that we do not blindly
choose the lesser of two evils -- producing what we cannot consume or consuming
what we cannot produce. We can avoid this. My wish is that by the end of the
21st century high-end products in New York City will sport the label: �Made in
We cannot look
forward to our future until we learn from our past. Five thousand years of
recorded history reveal that technology was ancient Africa�s gift to the modern
world. Forty and a half centuries ago, geometers in Africa�s Nile Valley region
designed the Great Pyramid of Giza, the last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient
World. That manmade mountain remains the largest stone building on Earth. It is
an icon of engineering, and testifies that Africa was once the world�s most
technologically advanced region.
It is absolutely
imperative that Africa regain its technological prominence, which will enable
it to produce what the world can consume. When we do that, Africa will finally
be eating the fruits of its own labor. When Africa has regained its
technological prominence, the world�s leaders will seek it out. And, like a
rainforest renewed, Africa will flourish again.
a speech delivered by Philip Emeagwali
to the African community in Valencia, Spain on May 11, 2008. The entire
transcript and video are posted at emeagwali.com.
Philip Emeagwali has been called �a father
of the Internet� by CNN
and extolled as �one of the great minds of the Information Age� by former U.S.
Clinton. He won the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize, the Nobel prize of