This is part of a series on 5 Reasons Why Africa is Poor (#1 Weak Institutions, #2 Culture, #3 Religion, #4 Geography and #5 Poor Governance) of which this one looks at the fourth reason, that being our geographical location and its real implications on wealth creation and retention.
According to Wikipedia, Geography is a field study of the lands, the features, the inhabitants, and the phenomena of Earth. Thus, modern geography is an all-encompassing discipline that foremost seeks to understand the Earth and all of its human and natural complexities—not merely where objects are, but how they have changed and come to be. Geography has been called “the world discipline” and “the bridge between the human and the physical science”. Geography is divided into two main branches: human geography and physical geography.
Based on the above, we can see that Geography relates to four key areas of which we shall briefly study.
Natural and Human Analysis – This is the concept that allows for detailed study of various phenomena with relation to distribution and statistics. This discipline helps explain many occurrences and studies even assist in understanding better the patterns behind animal migration, disease spread and concentration, patterns and flow.
Places and Regions – This is a discipline that studies people, areas and seeks to understand the factors affecting sociology, cultural diversity, climate and even emigration.
Human and Land Relationship – How human settlement and migration happens and how land and natural resources play that role in bringing about these occurrences. Included in broad strokes are history, politics, sociology and nationality.
Earth Sciences – An all-encompassing discipline that combines physics, planetary science, biology, chemistry, geology and other scientific branches to bring about a greater understanding of how earth came about and is evolving even now.
Having looked at the full definition of what geography is, let us now see how this plays a role in perpetuating poverty.
For those who are avid readers and find the subject very interesting, I would also highly recommend reading the Pulitzer Prize winning book “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Professor Jared Diamond that carries this argument further.
The Challenging Factors
Our greatest challenge that we face and isn’t just common to Africa but other regions in the world (Latin America) has got to be location. The fact that we are located in the tropics isn’t without its great challenges, the results of which we are still battling with fully.
Our first greatest challenge lies in the environment. This is seen most certainly in the inability to keep and rear domesticated animals. A quick study of the temperate countries shows that domestication and mechanized farming was in fact the first step toward wealth creation and sustenance.
With domestication, that meant more could be harnessed for food, which then created value that fed their local communities. The regular precipitation meant that you had long periods of wet and moist ground which translated into more food security, better crops, less disease and abundance of food.
In the tropics this did not happen at the pace it did in these lands. Frankly, life is much harder here. Below are some factors that bring about the hardness of life.
Disease for Livestock
One of the most dreaded vectors that plague livestock is the Tsetse Fly.
Tsetse flies are regarded as a major cause of rural poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa because they prevent mixed farming. The land that is infested with tsetse flies is often cultivated by people using hoes rather than more efficient draught animals because nagana, the disease transmitted by tsetse, weakens and often kills these animals. Those cattle that survive produce little milk, gravid cows often abort their calves, and manure is not available to fertilize the worn-out soils.
The disease nagana or African Animal Trypanosomosis (AAT) causes gradual health decline in infected livestock, reduces milk and meat production, increases abortion rates, and animals eventually succumb to the disease (annual cattle deaths caused by trypanosomosis are estimated at 3 million). This has an enormous impact on the livelihood of farmers who live in tsetse infested areas, as infected animals cannot be used for animal traction to plough the land, and keeping cattle is only feasible when the animals are kept under constant prophylactic treatment with trypanocidal drugs, often with associated problems of drug resistance, counterfeited drugs and suboptimal dosage. The overall annual direct lost potential in livestock and crop production was estimated at USD 4.5 billion.
The tsetse fly infests nearly 10 million square kilometers in sub-Saharan Africa and many parts of this large area is fertile land that is left uncultivated—a so-called green desert not used by humans and cattle. This explains why generally you may see tracts of empty land that has not been fully exploited for farming.
Most of the 37 countries infested with tsetse are poor, debt-ridden, and underdeveloped. Out of the 39 tsetse-infested countries, 32 are Low-Income Food-Deficit Countries, 29 are Least Developed Countriesand 30 are among the 40 most Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPCs). Eradicating the tsetse and trypanosomosis (T&T) problem would allow rural Africans to reclaim areas of their continent and greatly increase food production. Only 45 million cattle, out of 172 million present in sub-Saharan Africa are kept in tsetse infested areas, but are often forced into fragile ecosystems like highlands or the semi-arid Sahel zone, which leads to overgrazing by animals and overuse of land by people for food production.
In addition to this direct impact, the presence of T&T discourages the use of more-productive exotic and cross-bred cattle, depresses the growth and affects the distribution of livestock populations, reduces the potential opportunities for livestock and crop production (mixed farming) through less draught power to cultivate land and less manure to fertilize (in an environment-friendly way) soils for better crop production, and affects human settlements (people tend to avoid areas with tsetse flies).
Tsetse flies transmit a similar disease to humans, called Human African Trypanosomosis (HAT) or sleeping sickness. It is estimated that 70 million people in 20 countries are at different levels of risk and only 3-4 million people are covered by active surveillance. The DALY Index (disability-adjusted life years), an indicator to quantify the burden of disease, includes the impact of both the duration of life lost due to premature death and the duration of life lived with a disability. The annual burden of sleeping sickness is estimated at 2 million DALYs. Since the disease tends to affect economically active adults, the total cost to a family with a patient is about 25% of a year’s income.
Disease for People
Two of the greatest killers of many in the tropics are Malaria and HIV/AIDS related opportunistic infections and diseases.
We all know how much these two diseases have ravaged the Sub Saharan African continent and robbed it of some of its finest sons and daughters. Statistically speaking, the numbers are numbing.
Malaria is widespread in the tropical and subtropical regions that exist in a broad band around the equator. This includes much of Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Malaria is commonly associated with poverty and has a major negative effect on economic development. In Africa, it is estimated to result in losses of US$12 billion a year due to increased health care costs, lost ability to work, and negative effects on tourism. The World Health Organization reports there were 198 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2013 alone. This resulted in an estimated 584,000 to 855,000 deaths, the majority (90%) of which occurred in Africa.
The net effect on productivity and output cannot be overemphasized here.
HIV/AIDS is a global pandemic. As of 2012, approximately 35.3 million people are living with HIV globally. Of these, approximately 17.2 million are men, 16.8 million are women and 3.4 million are less than 15 years old. There were about 1.8 million deaths from AIDS in 2010, down from 2.2 million in 2005.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the region most affected. In 2010, an estimated 68% (22.9 million) of all HIV cases and 66% of all deaths (1.2 million) occurred in this region. This means that about 5% of the adult population in this area is infected. Here, in contrast to other regions, women compose nearly 60% of cases. South Africa has the largest population of people with HIV of any country in the world, at 5.9 million at 2012 statistics.
When a nation loses so many people to such diseases, the overall effect is decreased production, loss of human resource and ideas. As I have mentioned in a previous article, the wealth of a nation is harnessed from two distinct sources, the first is natural resources which include minerals, soil and agriculture. The second is human resource which mainly lies in the ideas, skills and abilities of a given society.
When large numbers of the populace die through pandemics like HIV/AIDS and Malaria, there is no shadow of doubt the loss that occurs not just to members of the immediate families affected, but their workplaces and society at large.
This loss can be quantified in terms of income, entrepreneurial exploits, ideas that can better society, leadership, team members, synergy and productivity in various sectors. When this number is compounded over a decade, the losses are staggering.
When the above agricultural factors are added (the human factor) with environmental factors (drought and heat) the overall effect is that we see it get harder for peasants to farm. Subsistence farming is made harder because they have to use hoes instead of ox-drawn ploughs (oxen are often decimated by Trypanosomosis or drought) and thus greatly reduces yield and efficiency.
Furthermore, the semi-arid soils which are over grazed end up becoming poor for production and thus worsen an already bad situation. This means the planting of staples and vegetables becomes very challenging. Most farms will produce between 25% - 50% below expected yields, thus making the effort more than the result. For the peasants this means more dismal living. When this is coupled with an inefficient crop buying process, inaccessibility due to bad transport infrastructure and lack of access to financial services such as banking, the conditions that perpetuate scarcity are fueled.
This leads to dire straits which force many of the rural population to end up migrating into the urban areas seeking better life.
Since the cities are usually already lagging behind in provision of basic services and welfare, the result is shanty compounds (illegal township shacks), strained resources (clean water, sanitation, health care, education, policing etc.) leading to the poverty we speak about here.
There is talk about highly mechanized and scientific farming, yes that would be easy if the general conditions and factors were corrected first (strong institutions, effective revenue collection, professional civil service), but the cost of doing this is gargantuan, and since most governments in these African countries have very inefficient and porous ways of collecting revenue, they are left without the means to correct the situation – and therefore the poorest continue to suffer constant lack.
For these countries the situation is made worse by their location as they have to literally import everything. If they do not have high productivity in place and ensure they counter importation with a large export base, they then suffer then net effect of having more expenditure than income.
Transportation, costs for trade and exchange are always inherently harder for these countries. If the regulatory frameworks that govern various stakeholders are not strengthened through stronger institutions, the overall effect is the one we see. (More later)
You may have never realized it but this is perhaps one of the greatest factors that may either work to increase or decrease the equitable distribution of wealth in a nation.
I have shown that there are two types of resources, natural and human. We have shown how human resource has been affected by the geographical factors. There is no argument that they play a significant role in aggravating conditions that manifest poverty.
Natural resources also play a huge role. They are what are known as “intensifiers”. This then means that if the country has strong institutions, then the resources work to bring about great prosperity and wealth for its citizens. A great example of such is the Republic of South Africa.
They had very strong institutions and systems from earlier on that ensured that the environment guaranteed equitable returns for entrepreneurial exploits. This meant guaranteed growth and development for all and the results were then channeled into all the various social sectors.
You don’t need to be an economist to see the massive development that is in South Africa and their general services compared to other Sub-Saharan countries especially the poor ones.
If on the other hand the country has weak institutions, then this can turn that resource from a blessing to a curse. We can cite examples from the ten poorest countries and see this straight away. The two examples are Liberia and Congo DR.
Liberia has diamonds and we all know the famous film “Blood Diamonds” that showed how these were pivotal in perpetuating a civil war that was mainly about control of this resource. Congo DR has a collection of the most valuable minerals under one nation and yet – they are the poorest nation on the planet.
Below is a further discourse on the second nation.
The CONGO DR situation
Historically, this nation was exploited by King Leopold for rubber. The king turned this entire nation into one large farming estate. He used fear and extortion which included systematic chopping off of limbs as a means of instilling fear and thus had all able bodied men and women work his farms as slaves. The economic exploits of King Leopold can be seen in Belgium. Most of the wealth of that European nation was syphoned out of Congo without any care for the welfare of its citizens. The death toll from his exploits is numbered at about 20 million Congolese. Think of this number. These lives were lost over a fifty year period.
Independence and Military Rule
When Congo became independent in 1960 June 30th, Patrice Lumumba became its first elected Prime Minister and Joseph Kasavubu its president. Unfortunately this only lasted for one month before there was a military coup and he was placed under house arrest. He was captured trying to escape to Stanleyville (now Kisangani) and was tortured badly and finally shot by the leaders of Katanga province (his sworn enemies).
A combination of white mercenaries (Belgian, Rhodesian and South African) helped dispose of his body by dissolving it in acid.
This exacerbated the Congo Crises which lasted until 1965 when Mobutu Sese Seko finally took over and became the absolute ruler. This saw Congo degenerate into the worst run state in the world with its wealth being systematically plundered to zero.
Congo is estimated to have $24 trillion (equivalent to the combined Gross Domestic Product of Europe and the United States) worth of untapped deposits of minerals including the world’s largest reserves of Coltan (over 70%) and significant quantities of the world’s Cobalt. The primary resources extracted in the DRC include cobalt, diamonds, gold, copper, and oil.
Coltan is the key mineral used in nano-technology. If you own a smartphone, tablet, laptop, video games consoles or most electronic gadgets, then your gadget is made efficient by this mineral. This makes it the new “gold” as it is critical in ICT. It is however the latest addition to conflict minerals like Diamonds in Liberia.
As one can imagine, if Congo had strong institutions and regulatory frameworks backed by a legitimate government and good governance, there is no doubt it would be the richest nation not just in Africa, but even in the world.
Humanitarian and Economic Crises
In September 2010, the government banned mining in the east of the country, attempting to crack down on illegal organizations and corruption. During periods of violence, resources have been looted from the original collectors by both Congolese and foreign soldiers, and civilians or they are extracted by soldiers, locals organized by military commanders (much of the time Rwandan and Ugandan commanders) and by foreign nationals.
The actual miners who mine this mineral are paid very paltry wages of 20 cents a day (K2) for the work they do. Not only this, they have to leave their homes to work in these open pits. There is very little regulation and so anyone can go work there. The areas are controlled by gun totting rebels who work with local warlords who have the money to buy from the miners. They then supply the middle men who then export to Europe.
The humanitarian toll is appalling to say the least. Between 1994 and 2010, this region has seen over 6 million Congolese nationals killed. Six million! Think a minute about that number.
This is the number of Jews that were exterminated by The Nazi government and the whole world stood still and even made memorials to honor the dead and ensure it never happens again.
Yet, we have 6 million Africans die this way and do you hear this in the mainstream media? No! Even now we see more people being killed each day in these areas but you never hear anything at all. Check the news – nothing!
What are the results of all this?
As can be witnessed, the humanitarian crisis is beyond comprehension. The suffering of the Congolese brings tears to this writer’s eyes because this is all human caused. If greed were eliminated, if people genuinely wanted the betterment of humanity and their nationals, this would not happen.
What is even more appalling is that this situation serves the rich nations very well. As it was in the days of slavery when great wealth was built off the blood, sweat and tears of poor African slaves displaced from their continent, so is it with this situation that allows for unbridled exploitation of the chaotic mess that exists in Congo.
For greedy corporations that are looking for unregulated operations, Congo is their heaven. For you can remove as much as you want, mess up the environment as much as you want, and then bribe anyone who tries to ask questions. Where these three can’t work, you then sponsor a civil war so that when the humanitarian crisis ensues, you remain with carte blanche, free to do as you please with no repercussions for it.
This is what is going on in the Congo. This is what is happening to many countries where their natural resources have found weak institutions and bad governance.
When next you hear about the poverty of Africa, before you take on a high and mighty stance and wonder why we can’t get our act right, take another look at Congo, see their predicament and then perhaps you may understand and have empathy.
Indeed Geography does play a pivotal role in bringing about the manifestation of poverty, for you can have a nation with potential GDP greater than the most developed nations on the planet, but yet be called the poorest country on earth :’(
In the final article, we will be looking at Poor Governance, the final major piece of the puzzle that catalyzes the conditions that manifest perpetual poverty due to lack of an enabling environment.
Rev Walter Mwambazi
Author of "The 7 Principles for Financial Prosperity", Life Coach, Facilitator, Peak Performance Coach, Digital Marketing Professional, Network Marketer, Health & Wellness Consultant, Pastor, Copy Writer, Motivation Speaker & Writer.