Poised to Shape the World
A storm of international activity has been brewing around business and investment opportunities in Africa. For three days in May, Addis Ababa became its global epicenter.
Over the past decade or so, international opinions about Africa’s economic future have gradually thawed from chilly doom-and-gloom prognostications to a warming optimism. This positive outlook has been fueled by high commodity prices and a projected 6-percent pan-African GDP growth rate for 2012.
By the time a group of the world’s economic leaders gathered May 9–11 for the World Economic Forum on Africa, it appeared that the global mood had reached a red-hot fever pitch.
The World Economic Forum on Africa is an offshoot of the World Economic Forum, an organization that regularly summons interdisciplinary groups of influential people for discussions aimed at “improving the state of the world.” The organization is most famous for its massive annual summit in Davos, Switzerland, which draws arguably the highest concentration of influential people of any gathering in the world.
The World Economic Forum on Africa is a much smaller affair than its Swiss cousin, but it was an incredibly high-powered event nonetheless. Among the 700 attendees were heads of state of Ethiopia, Nigeria, Gabon, Tanzania and Namibia, as well as senior executives of numerous multinational corporations, international NGOs and academic institutions. Significant space was also given to the voices of young emerging leaders from across the continent — a refreshing facet for an event of this scale.
The forum’s first appearance in Addis Ababa brought a considerable amount of buzz to Ethiopia’s capital city. Co-chairs included high-profile Africans such as Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the United Nations; and Ethiopian national Bekele Geleta, secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Among the significant non-Africans present were British Prime Minister Gordon Brown; Doug McMillon, CEO of Wal-Mart International; and Gao Xiqing, president and vice chairman of the China Investment Corporation.
These individuals shared the stage with numerous other speakers in a dizzying array of panel discussions, debates, press conferences and closed-door sessions. From green energy and mobile telecommunications to water infrastructure and responsible mining practices, the topics veered toward identifying practical, albeit sometimes quite technical, solutions to the challenges facing Africa’s economies.
Some of the most interesting conversations, however, took place at informal gatherings in corridors and restaurants and at numerous unofficial satellite events hosted around Addis. The forum is a place where high-level networking takes place, and for many participants this element is a larger draw than the actual content of the official sessions.
A number of global businesses took the opportunity to make big media pronouncements at the forum. Consumer products conglomerate Unilever announced that it anticipates doubling its income from African operations over the next five years. Aliko Dangote, the Nigerian tycoon labeled “Africa’s richest man” by Forbes Africa magazine, mentioned that his conglomerate intends to invest $7.5 billion dollars to expand its footprint across the continent. As a striking sign of the growth of African enterprises, Dangote’s massive cement business and Kenya’s Equity Bank both declared their intentions to float shares on a non-African stock exchange.
The forum’s media center was a buzz of nonstop activity as reporters jostled for interviews and filed reports, between uploading videos to the web and posting a flurry of social network updates. For those three days in May, the world’s business press seemed to be locked in orbit around the subject of Africa.
However, several sobering voices made clear that African countries still have much work to do in order to truly transform their economies. On the second day of the forum, the African Progress Panel — chaired by Kofi Annan — released a broad-based report on the state of Africa. While the report echoed some of the hopefulness being voiced that week, it also issued a warning: Without critical issues such as education, health care and unemployment being addressed, the economic growth of recent years will not lead to the hoped-for transformation.
Gao Xiqing, president of China’s $400 billion sovereign wealth fund and a co-chair of the forum, advised the audience in the opening plenary session to not simply copy China’s economic model. He noted that China’s approach had led to several challenges, including environmental degradation and rising inequality. Thus, he encouraged African nations to find their own paths to economic success.
During one session, a senior leader sounded a cautionary note when asked about her greatest fears for the continent. “If we cannot create jobs for our young people,” she stated somberly, “then all bets are off.”
While these concerns were given serious consideration, they did not dampen the gathering’s near-boisterous level of positive energy. This was particularly true among younger participants, who buzzed about the hallways of the Sheraton Addis, promoting new ideas related to renewable energy, information technology, entrepreneurship and agribusiness.
Ory Okolloh, a Kenyan who serves as Google’s policy manager for Sub-Saharan Africa, was emblematic of this optimism. She spoke excitedly of her company’s efforts to create “an Internet ecosystem in Africa that is vibrant, sustainable and self-sufficient.”
As the forum drew to a close and participants returned to the 70 countries from which they came, it was clear that the story of Africa’s economic transformation was only beginning to be written.