Impulses from the cradle of humanity “What we need to learn from Africa”

Felwine Sarr 2019 in Vienna at the Tipping Point Talks, facing a full audience at the Odeon Theatre.
Felwine Sarr 2019 in Vienna at the Tipping Point Talks, facing a full audience at the Odeon Theatre. | Photo (detail): Jacqueline Godany © ERSTE Stiftung / APA-Fotoservice / Godany

Senegalese economist, author and musician Felwine Sarr is one of the most active contemporary African intellectuals. During the Tipping Point Talks in Vienna, which were organised by the ERSTE Foundation in 2019, he explained how a satisfactory level of prosperity can be achieved for the majority of the world’s population.

By Christine Pawlata

In his recent book, Afrotopia, Sarr presents a holistic future scenario for the African continent: Africa must find its own way by reflecting on its cultural, political and economic roots, and breaking free from the colonial structures.

The world is suffering a legitimation crisis

The predominant economic order with the paradigm of constant growth and the organisation of the world into developed and under-developed countries does not, however, cripple the African continent, according to Sarr: “The whole world is in a state of permanent crisis. By that I don’t mean the financial crisis that repeats itself every ten years, but the inability of the global economic order to satisfy the basic needs of the majority of the population. The areas that generate profit are privatised to benefit just a few. The costs are then put upon the majority of the population. It’s a crisis of legitimation, and we need to consider how we can get away from this system in crisis.”

Africa in first place

One of the fundamental problems of the dominant economic order is rooted in the lack of environmental sustainability, believes Sarr. It would be a worthwhile exercise to take a closer look at the principles of African societies with regard to their relationship with Nature. “Although the continent is being hit hard by the consequences of climate change, it contributes the least to global warming, with four per cent of world carbon dioxide emissions. There’s probably something to be learned here. Going by these criteria, Africa’s in first place for once, not last.”
  • One of the first advanced civilizations in the world originated in Egypt. The avenue of ram head sphinxes at the 4,000 year old Karnak temple near Luxor. Manfred Bail © picture alliance / imageBROKER
    One of the first advanced civilizations in the world originated in Egypt. The avenue of ram head sphinxes at the 4,000 year old Karnak temple near Luxor.
  • Thanks to the invention of the hand wedge as man's first tool, 1.5 million years ago Homo ergaster, "the craftsman", was able to leave his native Africa and settle half of Asia. Prismaarchivo © picture alliance
    Thanks to the invention of the hand wedge as man's first tool, 1.5 million years ago Homo ergaster, "the craftsman", was able to leave his native Africa and settle half of Asia.
  • Writing on papyrus: Long before the invention of paper, as early as 2900 B.C., papyrus was produced and inscribed in Africa from the dried pith of the perennial plant of the same name. The village of Qaramos in Egypt is today the main production site for papyrus in the world and is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Ahmed Gomaa © picture alliance/Xinhua
    Writing on papyrus: Long before the invention of paper, as early as 2900 B.C., papyrus was produced and inscribed in Africa from the dried pith of the perennial plant of the same name. The village of Qaramos in Egypt is today the main production site for papyrus in the world and is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
  • Innovation for Africa: An employee of the Silicon Valley company Zipline in Rwanda is preparing a drone that will fly life-saving blood supplies to a remote clinic in East African Rwanda. Kristin Palitza © picture alliance/dpa
    Innovation for Africa: An employee of the Silicon Valley company Zipline in Rwanda is preparing a drone that will fly life-saving blood supplies to a remote clinic in East African Rwanda.
  • Jumia is the first African technology start-up company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The online trading platform was founded in Nigeria in 2012, has offices in 13 African countries and is already known as "Amazon Africa". Jumia co-CEO Sacha Poignonnec, left, applauds as Jumia Nigeria CEO Juliet Anammah, center, rings a ceremonial bell when the company's stock begins trading, April 12, 2019. Richard Drew © picture alliance / AP Photo
    Jumia is the first African technology start-up company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The online trading platform was founded in Nigeria in 2012, has offices in 13 African countries and is already known as "Amazon Africa". Jumia co-CEO Sacha Poignonnec, left, applauds as Jumia Nigeria CEO Juliet Anammah, center, rings a ceremonial bell when the company's stock begins trading, April 12, 2019.
 

An economy that produces relationships

Sarr presents a case for an economy in which the focus is on interpersonal relationships. “If I want to buy something, then I can find out how much it is, pay the price asked and then leave. That’s the end of the relationship. But I can also negotiate, haggle. Trading’s about more than just a financial exchange. We build up a relationship. If for example the discussion that occurs is positive, then the seller will probably drop the price at the end, and then maybe the buyer will become a regular customer,” explains Sarr. “In this economic exchange it’s primarily about the quality of the relationship that has been built up here, and this relationship in turn produces a material thing – but not the other way around.”  Trust is crucial to these economic systems, and Africa has some interesting approaches to offer in this respect as well: “Many people in our countries don’t have a bank account. If they want to take out a loan to set up a business enterprise, they turn to their community. If the social capital – in other words the relationship and trust between the applicant and their community – is strong, then the transaction goes through. We don’t need guarantees, we don’t need to burden our homes with a mortgage,” says Sarr. “This type of economy has the lowest transaction costs. In the dominant economic system most of the transaction costs arise through mistrust. To get around this mistrust, there’s a requirement for guarantees, mortgage lending and a court system. In that sense it’s more efficient to finance small businesses on the basis of long-term social capital.”

Listening to ensure a dialogue on equal footing

If a dialogue between Africa and Europe is to be held on an equal footing, Sarr goes on to say, it’s vital for Europe to adopt a listening stance. “In the past five hundred years, Europe has dominated the world power dynamic. But for challenges that affect the whole of humanity we need all the resources we can access globally, not just the knowledge from Europe. We need the knowledge from Asia, India, Africa, from what we call the developing countries. But Europe also needs to learn to listen, and be willing to learn from the experiences of others.” It won’t be easy, Sarr realises that, a degree of humility is required. “Based on the assumption that the cradle of humanity is in Africa, then it means that Africans have the longest experience of the meaning of life. So how can anyone think that we can’t learn anything from Africa?”