Many people see Africa either as a lost continent or as the next frontier. Why is the perception often so extreme?
African development has had mixed results in the last 60 to 70 years. We have seen periods in which countries have had serious crises, particularly the 1970s and 1980s. That has left the impression that Africa is about death, disease and disaster. However, at the same time we have seen some of the fastest growing economies in Africa during the past five or six years. So if people’s minds are stuck in former decades they see Africa as a problem area. But others see Africa as the next frontier.
What is your personal view?
I see Africa as the next frontier. I am fully convinced that our region can capture the 21st century if we invest in human capacity building and skills development and if governments create enabling environments that attract both domestic and foreign investment.
'Incredible human resources'
Don’t we see the opposite right now, a general negative trend? In other words: is your optimism not based on the situation five years back?
I see some crises indeed. But at the same time I see countries that are really making efforts to emerge. Ghana just had a successful election, and a dictator in The Gambia left. Countries like Mauritania are using their oil wealth to transform their economy, to name a few.
Where do you see particular opportunities for Africa?
We have mineral wealth and incredible human resources. I also see agriculture and agribusiness as a big opportunity, especially because we need to increase the global food production by 70 per cent until 2050. Africa has a lot of available land. We could feed most of the world. Another huge potential is energy, both conventional and renewable, and last but not least the digital revolution.
'Ready to leapfrog'
Could you give me some examples on the latter?
Kenya has established a digital hub. It’s called Silicon Savannah. They are developing software and going global with it. Nigeria is also in the process of establishing its own IT hub. Africans are very keen to advance technically as the spread of mobile phones has demonstrated.
They are ready to leapfrog. In ten years we will see a total different Africa due to digitalisation.
What in your view needs to be done to irreversibly unlock that African potential?
The African countries should learn not only to depend on natural resources. They must diversify their economies, especially in labour-intensive manufacturing. That attracts investments and creates value addition.
'Push for more e-governance'
Any other priority areas you see?
Well, four points for my country and most other African countries: First, fight corruption because it is probably the biggest obstacle for development. Second, push health and education. Ebola has shown us how fragile our health sector is. Education is crucial to get the economy going. Third, we need better infrastructure, particularly energy. And fourth, we have to tackle youth unemployment with special programmes like vocational trainings. Otherwise the youth will rebel – or leave for Europe and make the refugee problem there bigger than it is today.
How do you want to fight corruption?
We have to be very persistent. But digitalisation can help us here as well. We have to push for more e-governance. That way we can make governments more transparent, check for corruption and enlighten the people.
What could Europe do to support African countries in this period of transition?
Look at Africa as an investment opportunity. See it as a potential market and not as a problem.
Interview: Friederike Bauer
published in akzente 2/17