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Transforming A Continent

Transforming A Continent

The 22nd World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa begins this month (May) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Once again, African Business is fully involved in bringing this hugely important gathering of some of the world’s most influential political and business leaders to our readers. The WEF’s partnership with Africa, which stretches back to the early 1990s  when it brought FW de Klerk, Nelson Mandela and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi together to discuss South Africa’s majority rule, has been vital in placing the African agenda constantly on the international stage. The focus of last year’s Forum in Cape Town was Africa’s sustained economic growth and vast improvements in governance. This year’s
Forum takes the argument further and will examine how shape the transformation that is taking place in Africa virtually day by day into one that will bring the greatest prosperity to the majority of the people.

JUST HOW RAPIDLY AFRICA IS TRANSFORMING CAN BE gauged, among other factors, by the fact that his year’s WEF on Africa is taking place in Addis Ababa rather than in its ‘traditional’ home of Cape Town, South Africa. Before now, the Forum only ventured outside South Africa once when it was held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. South Africa, with its ‘first world’ infrastructure and facilities was the logical site for gatherings of such international magnitude as the WEF. Today, at least half a dozen African countries can play host to such forums with the greatest of ease.

The theme for last year’s WEF was ‘From vision to action’ but it was already clear that a number of African states had been quietly but efficiently translating earlier visions into action and that their citizens had been rapidly closing the development gap they had inherited at the end of the colonial era.
Opening the Forum in 2011, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma stated that it was no longer valid to talk of the “old Africa”. He said “If Africa is one of the fastest-growing regions and has a billion people, then we need to think differently about how we interact with the world. We also need to consider how we interact among ourselves. And we need to develop a common approach to the problems of the continent.”
This year’s theme will follow up on that and ponder how and in what way we can think differently from before and how to interact appropriately with the world and within the continent itself.

Transformation means changing completely from one state of being to the other. It is never easy, as it requires us to look at things differently and derive different conclusions from our observations. Our tendency as human beings is to continue along the path that we have followed, as change implies risk and navigating the unknown. Yet we all want change for the better. In business there is an adage that says: “Madness is to do the same thing and expect a different outcome”.

But there is no doubt that Africa has been changing and indeed, after a lengthy period when it was reluctant to change, it is now perhaps the emerging region that is most enthusiastically adopting change. The outward manifestations of this change can be seen in the continent’s increased productivity, the improving state of its towns and cities, the growing number of its school leavers and graduates, higher incomes both in cities and in the countryside, an astonishing degree of technological innovation by the youth and a much better quality and calibre of leadership. You can see it in the confidence Africans now exude as they realise that they can do anything anyone else can as long as they have the same knowledge base, and you can see it in their hunger for information – whether from books or magazines or the internet.

These outward manifestations of change of course reflect the most important change – that which take place internally, in the mind. Change the mind-set, they say, and you change the person; change the person and you change the society; change the society and you change the nation; change the nation and you change the world.

But the question remains: change from what to what? What should be the outlook? What sort of societies do we want to see in a few years from now? What sort of towns and cities do we want to see ourselves living in? Do we want a society like Denmark where no one is poor, children have the best upbringing possible, where ideas flourish and are acted upon, where merit and innovation are celebrated, where governments have to deliver or vacate their positions, where political leaders are treated no higher or no lower than the ordinary citizen, where everybody is guaranteed education, health care, food, a decent place to live and plenty of opportunities to advance? Or do we want societies where the majority are ground down by poverty and live in slums while a few become tycoons and government leaders rule like kings?

These choices are always before us and this is where forums such as the WEF are so essential. They provide the necessary space and environment where mind-sets can be examined, assessed and new paradigms established. They are the midwives of transformation. In another article in this cover story, we can see how the WEF has helped bring about seismic changes of mind-set in a number of situations when it seemed that conflicting viewpoints had been set in stone.

Mouth-watering programme

So what can we expect from this year’s WEF on Africa? The overriding theme is ‘Shaping Africa’s transformation’ and there is a mouth-watering programme of topics and panel of speakers to tease out the concept.

“Africa’s current growth path (approximately 6% per annum) is expected to continue for another decade,” Elsie Kanza, the new director, head of Africa at the WEF told me. “However, this growth has not translated into development. We need to accelerate this growth and find ways to spread it deeper into society.”

Kanza, a Tanzanian, has a string of degrees from a variety of universities in the US and UK. She worked in the country’s Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank before being appointed the personal assistant to Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete in 2006. This year’s overall theme is broken down into three pillars each of which will discuss the topic in depth. The pillars are: strengthening Africa’s leadership, accelerating investment and scaling innovation.

“The leadership pillar will examine the type of leadership required to guide Africa through the regional and international realities of the times,” said Kanza. “How can Africa sustain growth in the face of global recession? How to ensure political stability and the rule of law in all areas?”

The recent coups in Mali and Guinea-Bissau came as a rude reminder that Africa’s long-running curse, the military grab for power, is still lurking in parts of the continent. From the international perspective, these coups, while limited to a tiny number of countries, nevertheless reinforce the stereotype that politically, Africa is still immature and unstable. The coups have done a huge disservice to the cause and reputation of the rest of the continent which has made huge strides in better governance. The clear and unrestrained condemnation issued by the AU and ECOWAS is very welcome and will hopefully place the events within context rather than allow them to dominate the international media coverage of the continent – which, of late, has been uncharacteristically favourable.

The AU Commission’s head, Jean Ping, said the coups “were outrageous acts which undermine the efforts to stabilise the situation in Guinea-Bissau and tarnish the image of the country and Africa”.

As a counterpoint, perhaps, we have seen the elevation of the second African woman as head of state, when Joyce Banda overcame considerable efforts to bypass the constitution and be sworn in as Malawi’s new President following the death of Bingu wa Mutharika.

South-South axis

Kanza told me that the leadership pillar will also discuss Africa’s position in the South-South axis. One of the co-chairs in Addis is Gao Xiqing, the president and vice-chairman of the China Investment Corporation. “China is heavily involved in infrastructure finance in Africa and is therefore a key player in Africa’s growth,” said Kanza.

“What we have to examine are issues of competitiveness and collaboration with other emerging countries. As labour costs rise in China and India, could Africa become a viable destination of labour-intensive investment? It is possible that over time, some 85m manufacturing jobs could migrate into Africa,” Kanza suggested. “How can Africa become a global player? How can Africa attract the sort of investment from large companies that India has done?”

This led us to the second pillar: accelerating investments. “For the past 10 years, most investment went into mining, oil and gas,” Kanza pointed out. “There is need for more investment to go into infrastructure, retail and agriculture.”

She pointed out that Ethiopia had scored very impressive growth figures based largely on increased agricultural output, and the swelling number of consumers in the continent offers yet more opportunities for profitable investment. “By 2015, 100m households will have incomes greater than $3,000 per annum. This is an excellent market not only for the retail trade but also for all sorts of related services such as banking and other forms of finance.”

But growth, she pointed out, cannot be sustained unless there is enough energy to go around. Currently, she estimates that around 583m people have access to electricity and the hope is that this number will increase to over 700m by 2030. Finance, as always, remains the biggest stumbling block. She thinks that this is where the international development finance institutions can play an important part. “Even if they cannot finance projects, they should try and provide design funding so that projects can be taken forward.”

The other critical issue for Africa is its generally poor agricultural production, especially in food. “I think the reason why the Green Revolution has not yet happened is because the process has not involved all stakeholders,” she said. She believes that the way forward is “not to eliminate the smallholder but to transform him into a serious producer of food and agricultural commodities”. Africa is still a net importer of fertiliser despite the fact that some of the world’s largest deposits of potash, a key ingredient in the manufacture of fertiliser, is in Africa.

“However, these needs also provide opportunities to a wide variety of players to come together to not only solve the problems but also make good profits,” she pointed out. The Forum, by bringing these players from both the continent and internationally together to bend their various skills and specialities to Africa’s specific needs, thus becomes critical.

Pure thought

This year’s Forum also devotes a pillar specifically to innovation. There has been a very encouraging growth of innovation in Africa, not only in IT but in several other sectors as well. Incubation hubs where ‘techies’ are busy producing new software and adapting technologies to African requirements are mushrooming.

There is talk of ‘reverse engineering’ and ‘frugal innovation’ whereby products and processes are made more affordable and useful than originally designed, and could, in time, find lucrative export markets while satisfying domestic demand.

“There is also a renewal of interest in industrialisation,” Kanza added. Given Africa’s vast store of natural resources such as iron, coal, various other minerals and crude oil, the combination of a widening consumer base, innovative young people and access to modern technology could well stimulate an industrial revolution that could outcompete some of the ‘global workshops’ that have reaped such massive rewards over such a small time frame.

The theme for this year’s WEF on Africa could not be more appropriate for the times we live in and Africa’s current state of development. It is a vast theme with many other sub-themes but all leading to key issue on how to shape Africa’s transformation. In addition, there are workshops, debates, interactive sessions, working lunches and breakfasts, and cultural events. It seems a lot to pack into three days – but that is what the WEF does best and the outcome has always been distilled, 100% pure effective thought.

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Written by African Business Magazine

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