Let’s play a game. Pretend you’re an investor and you’ve got US$20 million to invest in Africa. But you only have one or two choices: Aliko Dangote or Khabane Lame? Who will you pump your money into and why? The answer says a lot about which economy you think will win in Africa. Oil or the attention economy.
You may wonder how we can compare a billionaire industrialist, Dangote, to Lame, a former factory worker who lost his job at the beginning of the pandemic. The answer is written in the words of Scott Galloway in a Medium post:
“We used to refer to an information economy. But economies are defined by scarcity, not abundance (scarcity = value), and in an age of information abundance, what’s scarce?
“Attention. The scale of the world’s largest companies, the wealth of its richest people, and the power of governments are all rooted in the extraction, monetisation and custody of attention.”
In the African context
In our deliberately obtuse example, the continent’s richest man represents the oil economy while Lame, who is Africa’s undisputed King of TikTok, represents what is being called the attention economy.
Dangote, of course, is the mega-wealthy Nigerian who made his money initially in cement, sugar and flour. Hugely respected for his ability to create wealth in the most challenging circumstances, he is now heavily invested in the oil market.
While the world is trying to stem its oil addiction problem, Africa now wants to use oil to make money. The argument is that the West did this, so now’s our turn.
But the daughter of former Nigerian President Zainab Umaru Musa Yar'Adua has just released a book that posits that the strength of Nigeria’s economic growth is based on the non-oil sectors of the economy.
In Economic Diversification in Nigeria: The Politics of Building a Post-Oil Economy, Zainab Umaru writes: “As Africa’s largest oil producer and the world’s ninth-largest oil exporter, Nigeria is the poster child for the curse of natural resources.”
The oil economy
In the 1980s and 1990s, 60% of Nigeria’s GDP came from the oil-extraction business, which crowded out other economic activities. “Nigerian society has long been infamously characterised by chaos around the management and distribution of oil wealth,” the author writes.
The book tells the story of the large-scale theft of oil revenues by government officials in Nigeria and the crony corruption embedded in the system. It sets out the case for the country’s economic diversification, which has largely been stymied by a lack of political will and fuelled by the “unstable distribution of power”.
Today Nigeria sits with “a dire situation of millions of idle youths condemned to the street corner and economically inactive”, This Day opines in a piece begging that country’s government to get “serious about diversifying the economy”.
The attention economy
Born in Senegal, Lame presents the potential for diversification in a burgeoning, greener and more sustainable economy that is capturing the imagination of the youth.
“We’ve moved from an oil economy to an attention economy,” wrote Galloway in his blog post. “For the better part of the past century, the most important commodity has been oil.”
Now, he suggests, attention is where economic activity is increasingly centred. This is evident in the widespread use of social media: More than half the world’s population is active on at least one platform, according to Statista.
“Social media brought two major innovations. The first was to offload content production, and its cost, onto the user,” he writes.
“No matter how efficient Netflix gets at producing shows in multiple languages, or how shamelessly Disney milks its existing IP, their economics are dwarfed by TikTok or YouTube, where consumers build the content drill rigs that the platforms monetise.”
Of them, TikTok is what Galloway calls an “apex attention predator” because it garners more attention than Facebook and Instagram combined. He asks: “Is TikTok the ultimate evolution of the attention-economy titans?”
The answer is anyone’s guess. There could be a new social media platform that arrives tomorrow and captures the world’s attention even more than those already in existence. All that we do know is the attention economy is here, and it is now.