It’s not just about economics

Dr Donald Kaberuka, president of the African Development Bank. (Johann Barnard)

Dr Donald Kaberuka, president of the African Development Bank. (Johann Barnard)

Despite this refrain being regularly used over the past few decades, it remains full of contradictions that have called into question the veracity of the statement.

Donald Kaberuka, president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), suggested the question of “Africa ­rising” was less about the phrase’s accuracy than its scope. “The Africa rising story is not only an economic story, it must be accompanied by leadership,” he told the audience at last week’s African Business Conference titled The Giant Awakes.

The one-day conference was hosted by the Mail & Guardian and supported by a host of sponsors including the African Development Bank (AfDB), Africa 2.0, Channel Africa, Freedom House, Limpitlaw Consulting, the Southern Africa Trust and Syngenta.

This question of leadership was addressed by M&G executive deputy chairman Trevor Ncube in his ­welcome address when he said that, in spite of the palpable excitement about the economic opportunities across the continent, the Africa rising­ story was threatened by ­history. Perhaps it’s important to glance back on Africa’s history and realise that in the early 1960s there was similar optimism, he said.

“Then it was about the arrival of freedom and the birth of the world’s newest nations. It is instructive to look at what became of that wave of optimism because it has important lessons for how the Africa rising narrative may turn out.

“The lessons for us on how quickly hope turns to despair is that it was the behaviour of Africa’s new rulers that dashed the hopes of millions. Similarly, those who are genuinely excited by the opportunities that we see across a number of economic and social fronts must realise that it is how we respond and act on these opportunities that will determine the outcome.”

This was a theme pursued by Kaberuka, who suggested that political and business leaders were central to the realisation of Africa’s promise. Leaders needed to know what to do, which was predicated on having a moral compass. “The idea is not to grow or run faster; we must know the destination and that comes from having a compass,” he said.

“The third aspect of leadership is that it doesn’t matter how smart you are if you have this moral compass — there must be courage to take the tough decisions.” He posed this in the context of the mind-set of successful nations around the globe. Africa’s shortfalls Where African nations fell short of this mind-set was in the poor record of implementation of solid ideas, plans and policies, often for selfish reasons.

Kaberuka pointed to the stalled efforts to create a single African market as one of the most damning and damaging delays caused by the pursuit of nations’ self-interest. In painting a picture of what was required to lift the Africa rising narrative­ from the pages of policy documents, declarations and promises, he said, leaders needed to move forward on three fronts: creating a single market, creating investment opportunities and building infrastructure.

He expressed his frustration at the lack of progress made in pursuing the potential that could be realised through a single African market, but acknowledged this was not a simple task, albeit not an insurmountable one either. He cited the birth pains that the European Union experienced when it first started down this road, adding that the decision rested with the region’s political leaders to acknow­ledge that they would all benefit from the creation of a single market.

“The single market is not a function of resources; it’s a function of leaders deciding to give up a bit of national sovereignty for a collective good,” he said.

“Regional integration is not easy, but it has to happen for the Africa rising story to be sustained.” The lack of will to pursue measures to enable this and make the continent attractive to foreign investors remained a problem. Kaberuka related the example of a study by the AfDB, which showed that a regional commodity exchange in Central Africa (combining the markets in Cameroon and Gabon) would give the countries the critical mass to attract greater investment.

“Guess what? They passed the resolution, but nothing happened. Companies will therefore look for somewhere else to go,” he said. Slow investment In a similar vein, the slow pace of infrastructure development was holding back investment and progress. The AfDB president used the energy sector as an example of a missed opportunity to attract private­ sector participation while adding the required capacity across the continent.

He said business was disinclined to invest in a sector that was “hamstrung by complex and risky funding models” that did not assure a return on investment. He suggested that one of the shortcomings across many nations was the practice of state-owned power utilities providing subsidised energy to consumers, thereby weakening their balance sheet.

“Instead of governments taking the subsidies on their own balance sheets, they remain on the national utility’s [balance sheet], and therefore [the model] is not that attractive financially to independent power producers,” he said.

“The one area where the regulations have worked well and the environment is right is in telecommunications, and you can see the result. In the 1990s there was deregulation and independent regulators, and private capital has been flying in. So we need to do more work in energy and other areas.”

Harnessing skills through ­viable projects

In a bid to fast-track development of such projects, the bank has established the Africa50 development programme, which aims to overcome the funding bottlenecks that stifle the building of infrastructure. Apart from providing project finance, the programme also harnesses the skills needed to accelerate these critical projects.

Its ambitions are to reduce the time from project concept to go-ahead from an average of seven years down to three. Kaberuka said any such programmes or support would come to naught unless political and business leaders embraced the opportunities, keeping long-term benefits in mind.

The seeming inability to grasp these opportunities and implement projects and reforms that have clear benefits may be attributed to a lack of stamina, the courage to take ­decisions or embrace unpopular solutions.

“A winning mind-set means ­central values, a moral compass and a willingness to sacrifice for the next generation,” he said. This, he said, highlighted the role and responsibility of the youth to demand action from their leaders if these persistent problems are to be resolved.

“For the young people of Africa, who are the majority, it means taking­ a leaf from the independence leaders to seize the opportunity. After all, it is your future and you are Africa’s majority. Your voice must be heard: demand action on all the issues affecting you,” Kaberuka said.

The youth issue reverberated throughout most of the discussions and presentations at the Africa Business Conference. The continent’s political and business leaders were forewarned that they could not afford to let the issue boil over into discontent, such as has happened in Egypt and Tunisia, with disastrous consequences.

A new platform to tell Africa’s best stories

Mail & Guardian executive deputy chairman Trevor Ncube used the Africa Business Conference last week to announce a new platform: MGAfrica.com, a pan-African online source of news from Africa, by Africans.

“Unless we are able to celebrate each other, we will never be able to tell the story of the new African ­narrative,” he said. “Many of the continent’s best ­stories are still told by foreigners and I think it is time that Africa became the home of the best stories.”

MGAfrica.com will formally go live on May 1 this year.