The Eastern Colonialists

“When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” Bishop Desmond Tutu

Last week, I had the pleasure of listening to Daniel Silke, a leading South African futurist talking about global trends in the next 40 years. I arrived at my own worrying conclusion by the end of the talk: the African future is trending towards a second wave of colonization. Our colonial masters will not be pale faced, bible wielding strangers riding on an iron snake. They will be of oriental extraction and will have been welcomed by us natives with wide open and loving arms, drunk with romantic illusions of mutually beneficial interactions.

Let me share some of the facts that Silke illustrated to set the context first. From not a single kilometer of highway in 1988, China now has a world-class network of 41,000 kilometres, second only to the United States. The equivalent of Britain’s current electricity output is being added to the capacity of China’s grid every two years. China today exports more in a single day than it exported in the whole of 1978. China’s middle class is expected to be a little of 1.4 billion by the year 2035, which is about 22 years away. The infrastructure driven growth economy in China has led to China consuming 53.2% of total global cement consumption, as well as 47.7% and 46.9% of global iron ore and coal consumption respectively.

But as the infrastructure continues to be built and factories continue to churn out cheap, mass-produced goods, the growing middle class will become a burgeoning consumer class that will need to eat, sleep and be clothed. There is no shortage of housing in China as the infamous “ghost cities” have shown. Tons of cement have been poured into holes in the ground dug out of previously uninhabitable spaces to produce brand new cities, some of which – like Tianducheng – have replicated Paris complete with a replica of the Eiffel Tower and the Champs Elysees. Tianducheng, which is supposed to be a luxury real estate development housing 10,000 people is located in Hangzhou and remains largely uninhabited to date. The Australian journalist Adrian Brown visited one of the biggest ghost cities Ordos, and wrote this in a blog:

“Arriving in the city, I am struck by the similarity with North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang. Wide, empty boulevards. Grandiose architecture with confused themes. And an eerie shortage of people. At times you have to pinch yourself and say, “Yes, it’s real.”

Brown reports that vast new cities of apartments and shops are being built across China at a rate of ten a year, but they remain almost completely uninhabited ghost towns.

It’s all part of the government’s efforts to keep the economy booming. 64 million apartments are said to be empty across the country. But the Chinese government will probably argue that with current birth rates of about 2054 babies an hour (compare that to 450 babies born per hour in the US) the cities will get filled – eventually.

But what should cause Africa to worry? The growing Chinese middle class and newly born population have no housing problem in the short term but will definitely need to be fed. China currently consumes 37.2% of the total world’s eggs, 15.6% of the world’s chickens and 9.6% of cattle – for now. What will their consumption be in the next 20 years? The fact is that a significant number of the world’s population will be living in cities in the next 20 years. The next frontier of war will not be ideology (capitalism vs communism) or religion (fundamentalist Islam vs the rest of the world) but a fight for scarce resources such as water and arable land for food production. Africa is not far behind in that urbanization trend. By 2015 it is expected that 500 million Africans will live in urban centres and by 2025, 45% of Africans will live be urbanized. Africa’s towns will grow and demand for urban space will mean that adjacent traditional food basket areas will be converted into housing as we are already seeing in Kiambu and Thika here in Kenya. 50 million hectares of arable land in Africa – which is twice the size of the United Kingdom land mass – has been acquired in Africa for external food production by a number of countries including China, Qatar, Libya and Kuwait. China has only 9% of the world’s arable land feeding 22% of the world’s population. China also has only 6% of the world’s water resources at a time when projections show that by 2025, 36 countries and 1.4 billion people will face freshwater scarcity.

What is the point of throwing out all these seemingly irrelevant numbers? We natives are getting so excited about discovering coal, oil and natural gas, so much that we are foam at the mouth at the thought of what money we can make along the mineral extraction chain. But that’s the problem with us natives, we get distracted by our infatuation with our turn to eat, and may future generations be damned if we eat them out of existence.

Our worry as Africans should not be the obvious minerals that we stare in the face. It should be what we have of in plenty, but fail to recognize as the true ultimate prize: land and water. The Turkana aquifer discovery that reportedly holds 250 billion cubic meters of water or 70 years supply at current consumption rates received muted press attention a few months ago is but one of many pots of gold at the end of the Chinese rainbow. They will come and take our land and our water and give us roads and bridges in exchange while we close our eyes in supplications of gratitude. But who can eat or drink a road? A newly colonized native like me I guess.
Twitter: @carolmusyoka