Geographies in Depth

'This is Africa's century' - what we learned at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town 2019

'The future is great,' said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, but the pitfalls are many. Image: World Economic Forum/ Greg Beadle

Robin Pomeroy
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Anna Bruce-Lockhart
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum on Africa

Leaders who gathered to discuss the future of Africa this year had a rallying point - something they could agree was reason to be hopeful: the ratification of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Years of talks have finally yielded an agreement to bring down trade barriers, boost economies and unite countries which historically have had stronger links with European, American or Asian powers than their own neighbours.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, gave the rosiest assessment of the situation:

“The future is great, it looks very bright for the African continent, and if there was ever a time when Africa can definitely be said to be on the rise, this is the time," he said.

"This is Africa's century, and we want to utilize it to good effect.”

But no one at AF19 was under any illusions about the challenges: AfCFTA may look good on paper, but how will it be implemented? And how can we ensure that Africa’s uniquely young population - the 200 million people aged between 15 and 24 - can fully benefit?

And if AfCFTA is implemented, what can stop poorer African countries being crushed by stronger neighbours? Ngaire Woods, professor of Global Economic Governance at Oxford University, said that was a real risk.

“The consequences of liberalization can really damage some of the poorest in these countries, but that’s not a reason not to do it, that’s a reason to have really great policies of support."

Ngaire Woods Image: World Economic Forum / Jakob Polacsek

All the leaders agreed there were also risks from global trade wars, and Africa still had much to do on corruption and governance. President Emmerson Mnangagwa struck a particularly realist note for his country, Zimbabwe.

"My country is in a different situation - very unique - it has a collapsed economy. None of my friends have a collapsed economy," he said, gesturing to the other presidents. "We have a collapsed currency; none of my colleagues has experienced a collapsed currency.”

The youth bomb

“Having a youthful continent is a huge opportunity, but a huge threat as well,” warned Albert Zeufack, the World Bank’s Chief Economist for Africa. “It’s a threat if we do not get that population to start really working.”

Albert Zeufack, Chief Economist for Africa, World Bank
Albert Zeufack Image: World Economic Forum / Jakob Polacsek

An entire session was devoted to the theme "Delivering the Promise of Africa’s Youth", at which the president of Botswana - whose 18% jobless rate is still far below South Africa's 27% - called youth unemployment "scary".

“Eighteen percent for a country like Botswana is a scary figure. And when you unpack it, even the more … out of that 18% the majority are young people, fairly well educated ... with a lot of expectations for the future. And yet the burden of frustration of not being able to find jobs could easily be offset and cause such people to venture into other things that may not be as desirable,” he said.

“So, yes, it’s a ticking time bomb.”

Unemployment in sub-Saharan African, total (% of total labour force). Image: World Bank

Hear us roar

With protests outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre about the rise of attacks on women, the Forum decided to tackle the issue head on with a livestreamed session "Eradicating Violence against Women" where panelists listed specific steps to be taken and spelled out the social and economic consequences of failing to act.

Demonstrators gather outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre during a protest against gender based violence, at the World Economic Forum on Africa, in Cape Town, South Africa, September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham
Demonstrators outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre. Image: REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

“It would take a click of a finger for a tech company to say we are going to deploy a software that can assist us with an emergency response system for poor women in South Africa free of charge,” said Namhla Mniki-Mangaliso of African Monitor.

Africa had to jettison the "extremely creative practices in the war against women" such as female genital mutilation and inheritance laws that exclude women, said Akudo Anyanwu of Johns Hopkins University.

What happens if Africa catches the 'anti-vax' bug?

Sixteen of the 20 global countries with lowest levels of trust in medical experts are in Africa. It's a problem particularly for countries such as Democratic Republic of Congo which is dealing with an outbreak of Ebola.

"I've been in DRC twice in the last few months. We have a vaccine, we now have a treatment - and yet, still the community are not willing to accept those interventions," said Jeremy Farrar of the Wellcome Trust, the health charity that conducted a global survey on attitudes towards vaccines.

If epidemic-prone African countries slide towards ‘"vaccine hesitancy" to the levels seen in France, the consequences could be catastrophic, said Priya Agrawal of vaccines maker MSD.

“We need to enable scientists to talk about science in a way that makes sense for the public," she said.

A tough gig

Ride-hailing app Uber took a grilling in a session on the "gig economy".

Oxfam Director Winnie Byanyima recounted the tale of Wangi, an Uber driver whose poor wages left him near destitute despite working 20 hours a day.

“The gig economy has taken us right back to Dickensian times,” she said. “That wasn’t because of technology. That was because of our governments and the fat-cats of Silicon Valley.”

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director, Oxfam International, Kenya speaking during the session The Gig Economy  at the World Forum World Economic Forum on Africa 2019. Copyright by World Economic Forum / Jakob Polacsek
Winnie Byanyima of Oxfam Image: World Economic Forum / Jakob Polacsek

“That’s not the Uber we want to build across the continent,” replied Alon Lits, Uber’s Head of Africa Operations, countering with a list of social protections and training opportunities the platform offers to its drivers. In fact, Uber welcomes government regulation, he said. “With more regulation, we’ll be able to do more.”

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Related topics:
Geographies in DepthFourth Industrial RevolutionJobs and the Future of WorkGeo-Economics and PoliticsTrade and Investment
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