*This post has been updated.
Deserts are notoriously shape shifting. Viewed one way, they are hostile and intimidating environments—impassable as a snake pit. Yet compared with mountains, forests, or the high seas, they’re invitingly easy to traverse. In Africa, the Sahara Desert is as puzzling—at once the continent’s superhighway and its Great Wall.
For centuries, Arab traders crisscrossed the Sahara, east to west, spreading Islam from Lamu to Timbuktu. Arabic vocabulary married Bantu languages to form Kiswahili. France’s colonial sweep of west and North Africa left another common language to unite tens of millions of African people, even where Islam had not. Egypt has shared the Nile River with Sudan and Ethiopia since the beginning of time. Today, migrants from Senegal and Ivory Coast have built diaspora communities in north Africa, and vice versa. Recent events in Mali show that terror groups better known for violence in the Middle East migrate just as easily.
But look at any multinational corporate website and you’ll find North Africa—Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt—fenced off from the rest of the continent. In the eyes of global business, the MENA region (Middle East North Africa) is irreconcilably different from the Sub-Sahara. The World Bank has long made this distinction in all of its data gathering and reporting—making it laborious, if not impossible to construct an accurate picture of social, political and economic activity across Africa as a whole.
I spent three years traveling 17 African countries to write a book about modern Africa—and I, too, dismissed north Africa as part of the continent’s story. “I focus on the forty-five land-linked countries excluding North Africa because of their shared colonial past and comparatively underdeveloped present,” I wrote. I made this pronouncement without having set foot in north Africa.
Until I traveled to Morocco this year as a member of the African Leadership Network, a pan-African group whose membership lives and works in 39 countries. The theme of the gathering—defying boundaries—was apt: Two-thirds of the group had also never been to Morocco.
At the conference, the topic of boundaries dominated. Chatting to me over cocktails, a prominent regional businessman declared, “When I was growing up, we said that Africa begins at the Limpopo [River, near the northern border of South Africa] and ends at the Sahara.”
It’s hard to get a billion people to agree on anything, yet this consensus is politely unchallenged. Amira Elmissiry, special assistant to the president of the African Development Bank, personally defies this consensus—her father is Egyptian and her mother is Zulu. Professionally, she is also a bridge—she has helped manage the temporary relocation of the bank from Abidjan to Tunis. “It becomes a habit,” she says of the region’s self-segregation. “Structures are set, they’re then cultivated—usually by major economic powers—and those structures become processes other countries adopt without thinking.”
These habits change outcomes. Even as culture, music, and religion have circulated north to south, trade dollars on both sides of the Sahara have sought foreign markets first. Intra African trade, at 11.3% of total trade, is famously low—bested only by intra-Maghreb trade, at 2%. It’s cold comfort that neither sub-region of Africa has been economically engaged on the continent. “There is a lot of work that still needs to be done to integrate Africa—south with north, east with west, central with the rest,” says Francis Gatare, chief executive of the Rwanda Development Board.
The complex logic of “passing”—opting in or out of African identity—seems to drive much of the standoffishness between Arab and black Africa. In South Africa, I’ve heard businesspeople, with a straight face, refer to “Africa” as though they were not themselves resident. A similar sentiment prevails in parts of north African society. “Arabs, we feel different and not related to sub-Saharan Africans,” says Ayman Khaman, a Moroccan university student who attended the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg. “People in Morocco feel that they should be allied with the French and Spanish.”
However, modern geopolitics is changing incentives. Elmissiry attributes the shift to “political forces, religious forces, and having to deal with new economic powers.” The last five years of instability in the Middle East has upended business opportunities—the IMF estimates that the Arab Spring cost the region upwards of $55 billion in lost trade and tourism. Meanwhile, brand Africa is on the rise. “We have people doing amazing work across the continent. What we miss is the connection between them,” says Acha Leke, ALN co-founder and Director for McKinsey in Africa.
Regional integration has been a dream in Africa since the days of Kwame Nkrumah and more recently Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Now, says Abdou Diop, a Senegalese national who has lived in Morocco for decades, “Business will perhaps facilitate the political issue.”
It may also accelerate the development agenda. The Moroccan executives I met were keen to emphasize the country’s enormous reserves of phosphate rock and phosphoric acid—bedrock components of modern fertilizer. This natural resource offers a potentially symbiotic relationship between Morocco’s most lucrative export and a needed agricultural revolution south of the Sahara. OCP, the largest fertilizer supplier, is opening a plant “dedicated to serving Africa,” according to Tarik Choho, managing director.
To be sure there are a number of existing ventures with a foot on either side of the Sahara. Telecoms firms like Etisalat and Telecom Maroc straddle Arab majority and west African markets. Bank of Africa, operating across 17 countries on the continent, has been majority owned by BMCE, a Moroccan bank, since 2010. Cherif Radi, COO of TA Telecom, operating from Egypt with a presence in five other countries on the continent, discussed the challenges of pan-African operations. “I’m not talking about boundaries on paper—it’s cultural,” he says. “When you start a company, you find it’s all different—language, regulation, kind of communication.”
To confront these challenges head on, Diop has organized charter planes full of north African businessman to visit east African economies like Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. I imagined a gaggle of men with briefcases on a kind of awkward business safari. “Morocco has a real African strategy,” Diop assured me. “We have many initiatives to really develop south-south relations.”
I’m still not sure whether to treat pan-African ambitions as truth, or a mirage. There are plenty of competitors in the race to build business links south of the Sahara. “South South” commercial strategies are in motion from actors in Turkey, Brazil, the UAE and the ubiquitous China. But as ever in Africa, being local matters.
*The African Development Bank temporarily relocated from Abidjan to Tunis, not Casablanca as previously stated.