With the experience of major African economies showing that the benefits of growth at the top are not trickling down to the poor, it is time for innovative economic alternatives such as impact investing to show the way forward for inclusive growth.
Trickle-down has no effect
There was a time when ‘trickle down’ was the favourite word in the lexicon of economists worldwide. According to this theory, as long as an economy is growing, the benefits will eventually make their way through the system.
For the proponents of trickle-down economics, the belief was that rising incomes at the top end of the spectrum would lead to more jobs, less poverty and higher incomes at the lower end – much like a rising tide lifts all boats. However, over time, it has proven to be a fallacy, just like any other belief in equitable wealth distribution as a natural course of events.
The Global Experience: The Rich get Richer
Indeed, a research study published by the IMF in June 2015 has decisively debunked the theory at a global level. The report titled ‘Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality’ in fact goes on to prove that a rise in incomes at the top can actually adversely impact overall growth, poverty and employment.
Looking at data from 159 countries from 1980 to 2012, researchers found that when the wealthiest 20% see their share of income rise by one per cent, the economy grows 0.1 percentage points slower over the next five years. Conversely, raising the income of the poorest 20% by a single percentage point raises annual growth by 0.4% over the same period.
While it lasted, the misplaced faith in the trickle-down theory appears to have exacerbated inequalities globally. A 2016 report by Oxfam has revealed that the richest 1% have now accumulated more wealth than the rest of the world put together. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum notes in a 2016 article that the wealth owned by the bottom half of humanity has fallen by a trillion dollars in the past five years.
The African Experience: The Poor stay Poor
In Africa, this woeful absence of a trickle-down effect is borne out by the successive experiences of individual economies that have experienced stellar economic growth, such as Nigeria and Kenya.
Even as Nigeria recently became Africa’s largest economy with growth averaging over 6% each year from 2005 to 2014, the reality remains that most Nigerians still live on less than US$ 2 a day, while the country lags behind in key development indicators such as health.
On the eve of the country rebasing its GDP to factor in the contribution of new sectors to the economy, the then Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former World Bank managing director, confirmed to the country’s business leaders that: “It is clear that the top five to 10% is capturing most of whatever growth there is and people at the bottom are being left behind.”
Similarly, Kenya woke up to economic disparities with the government publishing a ‘Socio-Economic Atlas of Kenya’ at the close of 2014. The report exposed significant disparities in poverty levels across the country. Just before the government survey of income inequalities was released in November 2014, in autumn came news from the World Bank that Kenya had seen its economy grow 25% after statistical revision and is now officially a “middle-income country”.
As Nigeria and Kenya, the pin-up economies for Western and Eastern Africa respectively, wake up to trickle down woes, it is clear that the experiences of other African economies that are emulating their wealthier neighbours is likely to be no different.
Development Infrastructure to bridge the divide
Lately, a survey by Afrobarometer of 35 African countries released in January 2016, struggled to find any correlation between the reduction in poverty seen in 22 countries in the survey and the recent rates of economic growth.
Instead, it found that there was a high correlation between creation of development infrastructure and improvement in the lives of the people at large.
“While growing economies are undoubtedly important, what appears to be more important in improving the lives of ordinary people is the extent to which national governments and their donor partners put in place the type of development infrastructure that enables people to build better lives,” the report noted.
Then, rather than pushing ahead with a blinkered focus on high GDP growth that is clearly not translating into employment security, poverty reduction or inclusive growth, the solution lies in concertedly creating a conducive environment for businesses that create jobs and empower persons at the base-of-the-pyramid.
Impact Investing to build the infrastructure
It is here that impact investors, with a focussed agenda to grow businesses that have significant socio-economic impact, can make a real difference to the lives of those at the base-of-the-pyramid, instead of trusting to trickle-down economics that has so far only seen the top 5-10% push their economic agendas through at the expense of the majority.
Impact investors seek to start at the roots and build a strong foundation for those pioneering entrepreneurs that are seeking to provide basic amenities such as shelter, food, water and education in a sustainable and viable manner, rather than simply choosing an investment that boosts their financial returns and is regarded as a conventionally ‘bankable’ business.
As a specialist SME financier in Sub-Saharan Africa and MENA, GroFin is one such impact investor that is making a difference to the lives of entire communities in its locations of operation. With a concerted focus on investing in small and growing businesses in priority sectors such as Education, Health, Food Security, Energy, Manufacturing and Water/ Sanitation, GroFin is helping local entrepreneurs tackle key community issues such as health, nutrition, education, electricity, water and sanitation.
So far, over 16 years of applying its SME finance and business support solution, GroFin has made a difference to 7,000 entrepreneurs, sustained over 62,450 jobs and changed the lives of more than 312,270 family beneficiaries through its investments.
Support impact investors such as GroFin and others in Africa with your efforts as an entrepreneur or funding partner. Remember, the fate of an entire continent could rest in your hands.