In this era of shifting trends in international trade and investment, Africa is now receiving the attention it richly deserves but rarely gets. The continent is often an afterthought in the eyes of policymakers. There is a valid reason: the euphoria of several African countries in the 1970s soon disappeared through dysfunction, corruption and ethnic strife. In May 2000, The Economist had called Africa “the hopeless continent” in a feature story.
Last Monday, speaking at the U.K.-Africa Investment Summit in London, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomed 16 leaders from 21 African countries “to a new start in our business partnership.” He told the conference delegates, “More than half the world’s fastest . . . growing economies are in Africa. Two-thirds of African economies are expanding faster than the global average. Africa is the future and the UK has a huge and active role to play in that future.”
In addition to Johnson, several British ministers — the foreign secretary, the international development secretary, the trade secretary, and the investment secretary — as well as Prince Harry, were in attendance. The U.K. Government’s Development Finance Institution committed $2.6 billion worth of investments over the next two years. Britain’s two-way trade with Africa last year was $46 billion.
Japan, Russia, and China have held similar recent events, attended by even larger numbers of African presidents and prime ministers. China’s presence is huge, with its state-owned companies and almost 10,000 private companies operating on the African continent, and the two-way trade stands at $208 billion. The European Union exports the most to Africa, followed by the U.S., China, and India.
Last Monday was also the first day of the 2020 World Economic Forum, an annual meeting of some of the most powerful global leaders in politics and business, at the ski resort of Davos, in the Swiss Alps. A large number of African leaders were present, including a delegation of 50 South Africans. Attention was focused on several critical African issues — institutions, renewable energy, agriculture and innovation, security, growth, and regional cooperation. The economic forum launched the Davos Friends of Africa Growth Platform community, aimed at mobilizing the global community to undertake collective action for a business-led initiative to create 100 million jobs by 2025, which Africa desperately needs.
Although the United States does not have Africa on its front burner, the Corporate Council on Africa, a leading U.S. business association whose mission is to connect businesses between the U.S. and Africa, has hosted U.S.-Africa Business Summits since 1997. And numerous U.S. businesses are seriously considering trade and investment opportunities in Africa.
Contrasted with The Economist’s 2000 depiction of Africa as a hopeless continent, now the mantra is that of “Africa rising.” With a population that will exceed two billion by 2050 and eight of the world’s 15 fastest growing economies, Africa is becoming a more attractive investment destination. Several countries are undertaking reforms, including Ethiopia, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending the long-running conflict with neighboring Eritrea.
Although many countries in Africa suffer from poverty and face enormous challenges, especially climate change, Anthony Carroll, a University of Denver Law graduate and a leading expert on Africa trade, investment, and technology, is hopeful. He notes the fastest-growing middle class in the world, with huge potential to grow the labor force throughout Africa, and African commodities that are heavily in demand.
Will “rising Africa” become a reality? African leaders need to undertake reforms, such as improving schools, increasing employment, curbing corruption, building institutions, and ensuring good governance. Carroll recommends allocating funding properly, pursuing technological advancements, and introducing automation and artificial intelligence in order to make it happen. Obviously, human resources are essential and hence the building of human capacity must be a priority.
Ultimately, much will depend on how African leaders meet the present challenges, as well as those on the horizon.
Ved Nanda is director of the Ved Nanda Center for International Law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. He welcomes comments at [email protected]