I recently came across a reference to grey rhino risks in an article about business in China and assumed the author had conflated the white and black rhino into a single grey version.
The article it turned out was not about conserving Africa’s endangered wildlife, but referred to an increasingly popular analogy. A “grey rhino” refers to highly probable, high-impact threats that people should see coming but don’t.
Almost immediately I started to recognise the phenomenon around me. For example, it was evident in how African governments planned and managed their economies in recent years as though commodity price surges were a permanent feature of life, only to be caught flat-footed when those windfalls dried up.
Globally, years of rising inequality and growing social tensions gave rise to a populist revolt against globalisation that has brought us Brexit, Trump and a growing number of other closed-minded autocrats. Despite these lessons Africa’s government and business leaders are still not fully accounting for two of the biggest and most menacing grey rhinos on the horizon – youth unemployment and climate change.
Less than a quarter of Africa’s youth are engaged in economic activity that generates a reliable income, and between 30 and 40% of Africans aged 15–30 lack access to a clear source of livelihood. Meanwhile, changes in climate are wreaking havoc on Africa’s agricultural sector and steadily expanding the reach of tropical diseases such as malaria.
These two phenomena are arguably already at the root of the wave of conflict across East, Central and West Africa, and are a major force behind the rising tide of economic migration from the Sahel into Europe. The scale and impact of these challenges will only grow in years to come. However, you will be hard pressed to find much evidence that the political and business leadership of the continent is approaching them as truly existential threats.
On average, only 4.2m new stable jobs have been added each year in the past half-decade, even though Africa is expected to have the world’s largest working-age population of 1.1bn by 2034. Similarly, we point to investments in infrastructure such as power for industrialisation, neglecting that even if every single energy investment currently planned in Africa happens on time, the absolute number of Africans without access to modern energy will still grow.
The sad reality is that while we are aware of these encroaching rhinos, actions being undertaken by businesses and governments fundamentally lack both the scale and urgency to make a meaningful difference. To have any hope of countering these two threats we need to learn from the experience of China.
In the first half of 2017, China created 7m new urban jobs. China’s success in creating so many jobs for new workers in a single generation has been the greatest economic miracle of our time, creating a new global growth engine in a few decades. In doing so, they also became the largest single contributor to global emissions.
But today China is again demonstrating the ability to mobilise rapidly and at scale, becoming a world leader in deploying renewable energy and clean technology. Our challenge is to create hundreds of millions of jobs while limiting our contribution to climate change.
This will only happen when these issues become top agenda items in parliaments and boardrooms, backed by genuine commitment in addition to rapid and sustained action. The alternative is an entirely predictable trampling of all that we claim to value.