Building stronger economies and communities in Africa

While Africa is rich in resources, it still lags behind much of the world in many socio-economic aspects. Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations and founding chairperson of the Kofi Annan Foundation, was the keynote speaker at the Nestlé Creating Shared Value Forum 2016 held recently in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. He shared his views on what needs to be done to improve Africa’s economies and communities.

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Despite the current challenging global economic environment, Africa has been among the fastest-growing regions in the world over the past 15 years, and some African countries continue to grow, although at a slower pace.

Côte d’Ivoire’s recent economic performance has been particularly impressive; it is expected to be among the fastest-growing economies anywhere in the world in 2016.

Africa’s growth can no longer be attributed to global demand for its commodities. Most now comes from increased domestic demand for goods and services in thriving sectors such as telecoms, financial services, manufacturing, and agriculture.

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Businesses on the continent and elsewhere are benefiting from Africa’s young, entrepreneurial and increasingly well-trained workforce. In addition, inflows of private investment and remittances from the diaspora outstrip international aid to the continent.

Democracy too is extending its roots in Africa, with countries such as Côte d’Ivoire taking steps to foster reconciliation and social cohesion.

Our continent is generally heading in the right direction, yet progress has been far from even. Millions of people still live in abject poverty and hunger, and are threatened by conflict, instability and disease.

Inequality is growing, and the gap between the richest and the poorest is widening. The lack of democratic, transparent and inclusive governance undermines citizens’ rights and investor confidence. In addition, environmental degradation and climate change are driving many areas in Africa to the brink of catastrophe.

Last year, world leaders endorsed the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. These were crucial steps for the planet and its people, but we must remember that only promises which are kept, count. The role of governments is vital in implementing those commitments.

But it is not governments’ responsibility alone. It requires cooperation between every sector of society – and business must be at the heart of this endeavour. But business cannot succeed in a society that fails.

Across the world, an increasing number of businesses are looking beyond short-term economic growth, and creating value and sustainable solutions for society. They are driving innovation, creating jobs, and advancing more inclusive growth.

They are building partnerships and embracing new technologies to deliver wider goals for development, including improving access to food and clean water, sanitation, healthcare and education.

Action needed
There are three critical areas where joint action is urgently needed to build stronger economies and communities in Africa and beyond.

Firstly, I believe that we have to transform African agriculture and food systems. In sub-Saharan Africa, one in four people are still chronically short of food, and millions more lack the correct nutrition for proper health and development.

Without action, climate change and demographic growth means that these numbers will only increase. Despite having unrivalled agricultural potential, which could transform Africa into a surplus exporter, the continent spends about US$35 billion (R543 billion) each year importing food.

One option for unlocking the potential is by treating African agriculture as a business and enabling the private sector to intervene and invest along with governments.

This requires governments to put appropriate policies and regulations in place, strengthen institutions, and invest in infrastructure. Weather information must also be available to all, particularly as we seek to promote weather index-based insurance for large and small farmers.

Bigger corporations have to share market access, improved seed varieties and advanced farming techniques with smallholder farmers and local agribusinesses. The greatest success will be achieved if all stakeholders work in close partnership.

For this reason, my foundation last year launched the African Food Systems Initiative, which brings together leaders from all sectors to turn smallholders into agro-entrepreneurs, and subsistence farms into profitable businesses.

We must also ensure that agriculture and food systems are nutrition-smart because it’s not just about the amount of food we grow – it’s about the type of food we consume. Nutrition is not just a health issue; it is crucial for economic growth, because a better-nourished population is more productive.

Healthy environment
A second critical challenge is environmental protection and good stewardship of scarce resources. A healthy environment is a prerequisite for eradicating poverty and driving equitable growth and social progress.

Governments have to adopt, enforce and strengthen policies that promote responsible natural resource management and prevent the loss of natural habitats, forests and biodiversity.

I urge businesses to source, process and manage resources more sustainably to meet the growing demand, while preserving our environment. This must include responsible water stewardship, striving for zero waste, and using energy resources more sustainably.

We must also seize this moment to change the way we produce energy. Moving to renewable energy sources will not only help to avert climate catastrophe, but create new opportunities for investment, growth and employment.

Thirdly, we have to improve and protect social and economic opportunities for all Africans. According to the African Development Bank, Africa has become the world’s second-most unequal continent.

The imbalance in wealth and income is not just morally repugnant, it is a serious impediment to future growth and sows the seeds of disillusionment and conflict.

Governments must tackle corruption, ensure that tax systems are free of loopholes, and promote transparency and accountability. There is unfortunately no shortage of African countries which have enjoyed periods of significant economic growth and high investment, only to lose it to authoritarian rule that enriches the few and impoverishes the majority.

I encourage business to engage the poor either as customers or business partners. After all, by raising incomes and removing the barriers that trap people in poverty, companies can build the consumer base for their products and services.

Businesses must also comply strictly with international standards of human rights across their operations and supply chain, and adopt zero tolerance towards child labour.

Finally, I would urge political and business leaders alike to invest in Africa’s youth and women, harnessing their talent and creativity. A skilled and knowledgeable workforce is crucial for the long-term success of business and society as a whole.

I recognise that this is an ambitious agenda. There are many challenges to overcome, but building stronger economies and communities in Africa is possible. Sustained and bold leadership from every sector is required. We have the expertise, the technologies and the evidence needed to succeed. Let us all live up to this responsibility.

Healthy and prosperous societies are built on three pillars: peace and security, inclusive development, and the rule of law and respect for human rights. There can be no long-term peace and security without development.

There can be no long-term development without peace and security. And no society can prosper without respect for the rule of law and human rights. So let us turn aspiration into action and build a peaceful and prosperous Africa founded on these pillars of progress.

Contact the Kofi Annan Foundation at +41 22 919 7520 or [email protected]. Visit