Picture: 123RF/everythingpossible
Picture: 123RF/everythingpossible

For the world’s poorest continent, faster and higher growth is a necessity. Countries such as Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and Rwanda are among the top 10 fastest-growing economies globally, yet most economies are still dominated by informal small businesses.

As African countries look beyond development aid to drive their growth, Africa’s private sector needs to grow too. With a decade to go to meet the UN’s 2030 sustainable development goals, Africa’s leaders must transform the continent’s vast entrepreneurial talent into a thriving and sustainable force for inclusive growth in the era of the fourth industrial revolution.

Here are five ways in which Africa’s leaders can make our region cohesive and responsible in 2020:

  • Make the single market a reality. In 2019, African governments met the major threshold of reaching agreement on the Africa continental free-trade area (AfCFTA). Envisioned to become the world’s largest single market, considerable effort will need to go towards making it easier to trade within Africa. Intra-African trade still lags behind other regional blocs such as the EU and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). There is a big opportunity in the efforts under way to digitally connect the geographically enormous continent. The African Digital Moonshot initiative seeks to digitally empower all Africans by 2030, and the AU’s digital transformation strategy is expected to be adopted in February 2020. Building on the successful uptake of mobile telephony, this could be a real game-changer by unleashing the potential of e-commerce.
  • Prepare for the fourth industrial revolution . It is estimated that by 2050 Africans will account for more than half of the world’s labour force. In the era of the fourth industrial revolution, this is a huge opportunity and a challenge. As the continent still struggles to meet the current skills needs, it is also confronted with the new requirement to reskill the current workforce. African leaders are seriously considering how best to ensure they are not left behind. For instance, in 2019 the SA government signed a partnership with the World Economic Forum (WEF) to establish an affiliate centre for the fourth industrial revolution. Harnessing emerging technologies such as virtual and augmented reality can help address the twin challenges of skilling and employability.
  • Scale up small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and start-ups. According to the forum’s 2019 Regional Risks Report, unemployment and underemployment is ranked as the top risk in Africa. Equally true globally and in the region, jobs are largely created by small businesses. Given that Africa ranks as the least competitive region, according to the Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2019, it is evident that improving the environment for doing business is a prerequisite to address the jobs crisis. In addition, at the WEF on Africa held in Cape Town in September, the WEF’s Africa Regional Business Council launched a multistakeholder initiative to deliberately and systematically scale up SMEs and start-ups in their industry value and supply chains.
  • Foster sustainability and resilience. In 2019, the continent experienced extreme natural disasters arising from excessive droughts and excessive rains. With the rest of the world, Africa’s leaders are grappling with the new realities of climate change while also figuring out how best to leverage the continent’s tremendous natural resource wealth. Big data is playing a key role in helping Africa’s leaders mitigate and respond to this new reality. For example, the forum’s Digital Earth Africa initiative is using satellite technology to support informed decisions related to Africa’s land and seas.
  • Silence the guns. For the entire continent to be able to achieve the sustainable development goals, it is important to build peace. While significant progress has been made in reducing the spate of conflicts in general, as 2019 closed the continent experienced terrorist and extremist attacks in northern Nigeria, Somalia and Burkina Faso. Since January 2018 the WEF’s Africa Peacebuilding Platform has facilitated global and regional dialogues about the role that non-state actors — particularly the private sector — can play in preconflict mediation, as well as in restoring socioeconomic resilience after conflict. Initially focusing on the Horn of Africa, the Sahel and the Great Lakes Region, in 2020 we look forward to sharing business best practice and community-based solutions at the inaugural Africa Peace Forum.

Success for African countries in 2020 calls for enlightened ethical and responsible leadership that accounts for global and regional contexts while dealing with local realities. Above all, the world’s youngest continent also needs to bring on board more young leaders and equip them with the means to take charge of their own destiny while nurturing the planet for their children’s children.

• Kanza is head of the regional agenda: Africa, and a member of the WEF executive committee. This article coincides with the WEF annual meeting in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, from January 21 to 24.

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