When a country's economic growth improves, that would seem to be all good. It certainly has the potential for changing the way a country is viewed by the world. And that can happen when the government changes the way it calculates the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. Marianne McCune of Planet Money and WNYC brings us the story of a few countries in Africa doing just that.

MARIANNE MCCUNE, BYLINE: Best case scenario: This GDP trick will help people like these two guys, Bayo Puddicombe and Zubair Abubakar. To get better phone reception, they're standing on the roof of the office where they invent cool applications for Nigeria's low tech cellphones. This one is a game where players pretend to drive the notoriously wild buses that these two can see from where they're standing, criss-crossing Nigeria's capital.

ZUBAIR ABUBAKAR: Yeah. Because the drivers are aggressive, they drive rough.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

ABUBAKAR: And they can be very unfriendly.

MCCUNE: The goal is to pick up as many passengers as you can while weaving through traffic and evading cops.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: These guys think they can make a lot of money for some savvy foreign investors. But one of the many challenges they face? On paper Nigeria's economy doesn't look as dazzling as it could. For more than two decades, Nigeria has been estimating its Gross Domestic Product - basically the value of everything the country produces — using data collected in 1990.

And a lot has changed since then. Like - just for example - now people have cell phones. So Nigeria plans to update its GDP. It's called rebasing: they'll use data from a more recent and more relevant year. And this could make Nigeria's economy number one in sub-Saharan Africa - surpassing South Africa.


MCCUNE: Across the Atlantic, emerging markets analyst Sebastian Spio-Garbrah says that new number could do a lot for Abubakar and Puddicombe. Picture a Silicon Valley firm looking to invest in a foreign video game start-up.

SPIO-GABRAH: All of a sudden, when they go to their board meeting and they're looking at the top 10 economies in the world, Nigeria will be up there with Brazil, India and China. It puts them in the big leagues.

MCCUNE: The funny thing is - all that potential movement of capital, if it happens, it will all be based on a new number, not a new reality. So I have a sort of silly question. Aren't international investors smarter than that? I mean don't they recognize this is just a number that's changed, not any reality on the ground?

SPIO-GABRAH: No, they are not.


SPIO-GABRAH: No, they are not.

MCCUNE: Investors are busy, he says. And they need numbers to compare one country to another. Sebastian Spio-Garbrah is originally from Ghana, three countries to the west of Nigeria. And when Ghana updated its GDP in 2010, in one single day it moved from low income to middle income in the eyes of the world.

And soon after, Spio-Garbrah says, the government was able to start borrowing a lot more foreign money at low cost by selling bonds. But there's a flip side. With its higher GDP, Ghana can no longer get the international aid reserved for low income countries.

SPIO-GABRAH: People at the bottom of society who actually need health care and education and other things which foreign aid often supports become even more vulnerable.

MCCUNE: Basically a lot depends on what you do with the investment you attract, says economist John Page of the Brookings Institution. If Ghana borrows a bunch of money to build a string of gold-plated palaces, not so helpful. But if, after Nigeria updates its GDP, foreign investors fly to Lagos to meet up with those guys making cell phone games?

JOHN PAGE: That's one of the really good examples of where this can have a positive impact. I certainly would prefer that some of my nearest and dearest didn't spend as much time on video games as they do.

MCCUNE: Well, they also did a whole app that allows you to carry the Nigerian constitution in your phone and access it...

PAGE: There you go. So, you know, this is a terrifically good example of how this can really be of help.

MCCUNE: What you want is for your higher GDP to lead to more jobs and less poverty. The problem is it often doesn't. Some of the fastest growing economies in Africa are creating very few jobs. Marianne McCune, NPR News, New York.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.