Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Still the Dark Continent

In more ancient times, Africa was known as the “Dark Continent,” more for its mystery than for its people. There was little fact and much fiction. Historically, Europe was awash in legends about Africa. For example, the European quest for Prester John, the fabled African Christian king, led to the exploration of Africa and eventually to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. One would think that with all the travel to Africa and enhanced communications today, more would be known about the birthplace of mankind, but that apparently is not the case.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce commissioned a study of American corporate views on Africa, and among the many interesting insights that survey reveals is that many American corporate leaders have been to Africa, but they still don’t know enough about the continent to feel comfortable about investing. According to the survey of senior executives in 30 leading multi-nationals, 41% of them have visited Africa often, 22% feel they have made extensive visits to Africa and 14% have visited Africa at least a few times. One corporate leader said, “Africa is very complex – culturally more diverse than Europeans of Americans think. I feel I know Africa ‘somewhat.’”

So why do these corporate leaders who largely have been to African nations, still feel they have a lack of understanding of the continent? The study found that U.S. corporations are often disinclined to consider doing business in Africa because the news about the African continent is mostly of chaos and unrest. So while the survey indicates that there is more knowledge about Africa than ever before among U.S. corporations, these leaders remain leery of investment even though they have seen for themselves what is on the ground in African nations.

Many Americans, lacking the colonial familiarity of Europeans, continue to feel uncomfortable in the unfamiliar terrain of Africa. Not even seeing is believing if there is no confirmation of what is seen in the American media. The Asian and European media report on commercial accomplishments in Africa as well as its failures; American media only sees war, famine and natural disaster. So corporate leaders evidently go expecting to see the worst rather than expecting the best.

If our media doesn’t change its tune, Americans will miss out on commercial opportunities others run to see. As the old adage goes: there are none so blind as those who will not see.

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