Around this time every year, I often get asked the same question; isn’t the World Economic Forum just one big talking shop? It’s a fair one. Once every twelve months, leaders from politics, business and civil society gather in a given city, congesting the roads and raising CO2 levels with all their talk.
This year it is the turn of Abuja. It will be the first time we will have held a meeting in Nigeria and we are proud to be bringing over 1,000 leaders from across Africa and the rest of the world to this dynamic country. Because nowhere else in Africa embodies not just the hopes and aspirations of a continent on the rise, but also the challenges, social, economic and political, that Africans face every day.
And here’s where dialogue comes in. Africa faces challenges bigger than any one government, business or international organization alone can sort out. Only by getting every stakeholder in one room can we have any hope of resolving these issues in ways that will last for the future, and most importantly leave no African behind.
The dialogue can be straightforward – meetings between business leaders keen to invest and politicians keen to create jobs – or it can be complicated. Food security, health service reform, Africa’s yawning infrastructure deficit and skills gap are all issues that will not be solved overnight but need urgent attention.
No other sector of the economy comes close to agriculture when it comes to providing jobs for Africans. And yet smallholder farmers face a perennial struggle to make ends meet. In 2011 the Forum, along with the African Union and NEPAD Agency, launched Grow Africa to make faster progress towards improving their livelihoods.
In just two years, Grow Africa has persuaded the private sector to invest over $7 billion dollars in smallholder farming, Staggeringly, half of this will be invested in Nigeria. Across Africa, this investment has already helped over two and a half million farmers, created 33,000 new jobs and got big businesses buying more from small farmers. And they really have only just begun.
Grow Africa is an example of what can be achieved when everybody is pulling in the same direction: none of its progress would have been possible without government support for businesses and, most importantly, the support of the farmers themselves. But it is by no means an isolated example. It has been estimated that Africa needs to spend $100 billion a year on its transport networks, power generation and water supply but often these massive infrastructure projects require the cooperation of numerous governments and long term financing that is often just not available. Launched in 2012 at our meeting in Addis Ababa, the African Strategic Infrastructure Initiative is working to remove these roadblocks, so that financing can be freed up for those projects that will have the most impact on the lives of Africans.
Greater collaboration is helping Africa grow through businesses acting responsibly and government investing effectively. But it is not all about growth. This year, the theme of our meeting is Forging Inclusive Growth, Creating Jobs because we want to make it clear that no economy can call itself successful just through growth alone. Too often in the past, growth in Africa has been uneven, enjoyed by too few and neglecting too many. Central to our discussion will be exploring ways to address this. How can Africans acquire the skills to be compete in the global economy, or start businesses of their own? How can we improve access to quality healthcare for the many and not the few? How can we build societies that are respectful of minorities and listen to the voice of youth? How can we plan our cities better, travel more freely across borders, or ensure clean water for everyone?
This is what we will be aiming for in Abuja this week. It’s a big task, and one that will not be achieved overnight, but as I’m often reminded, there will be a lot of people that can talk. And act. But this is not a conversation for the thousand people in the meeting; it is a conversation for the whole of Africa. You can join this conversation by watching live sessions on our website, and following the debate on twitter. You can help build an inclusive future for Africa.
Elsie Kanza is Director, Head of Africa, at the World Economic Forum.
Image: Children walk through a maize plantation in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo