THE BLOG

It's Time for the Real Africa to Stand Up

Africa is a region brimming with promise. Economies are expanding faster than anywhere outside Asia, trade is flourishing -- even within its own borders, investment interest is unprecedented. Nowhere is this optimism more indelible than in Nigeria, whose recent elevation to Africa's largest economy seems merely to have confirmed what its people have long felt: that this entrepreneurial, irrepressible country has become the growth engine for the entire continent.

It is impossible not to feel this optimism and it is possible to fear for it. Champions like Nigeria as well as Rwanda and Ghana may be rivalling China when it comes to economic growth: now it is time for this dynamism in the marketplace needs to be backed up by progress in the classroom, the hospital and in the corridors of power. Across Africa, and in spite of the Millennium Development Goals, society is still not benefitting enough from growth. Without a more inclusive approach to development, Africa cannot prosper.

Consider that 60 percent of Africans are still living in low-income countries. It has been estimated that it will take 25 years for these countries to reach recognizable middle income status. Consider that 59 percent of youth are unemployed today -- or that 72 percent of youth survive on less than $2 a day. Take education, where in some countries only one girl in every two hundred even manage to go to primary school.

Sustainable economic growth is the answer to these challenges but it is an elusive, moving target. How can Africa avoid eluding it? First, we need real creativity, ambition and vision in our post-2015 development goals. African nations are not going to be able to afford the same levels of investment as schools and hospitals receive in the West. But nor do they need to. Much as mobile phones have enabled Africans to benefit from the communications revolution without having to invest billions in costly land line infrastructure, the same leapfrogging techniques can have huge social benefits elsewhere.

In education, online courses are bringing down the unit cost of education in real game-changing proportions. Not only can they make education affordable on a massive scale, but these courses can also tailor their content towards the skills and knowledge Africans need to compete in the global economy better than the out-dated curricula used in most schools.

On the health front, Nigeria would need to grow its health budget by a factor of 10 to get to the stage where it has as many doctors as the OECD average. Better, then, to adopt innovative approaches as in Ethiopia where outreach workers are able to cover large communities, reducing the need for physicians and expensive health infrastructure.

Creative solutions for educating and caring for Africans are more than likely to be home grown ideas. Just as South Korea has managed to achieve better healthcare for its people on a quarter of its per capita budget, I have no doubt African innovators are up to this challenge.

Likewise, going back to economics, a lot is made of the potential for Africa's growing middle class consumption to drive the region forward. This growth in spending power should not be discounted, but their combined firepower is nothing compared to the resources available at the base of the pyramid, even if per capita the spending is much less. Here, again, African companies are leading the way, developing innovative products and retail strategies for consumers out of reach to international brands.

The biggest challenge facing Africa is creating the culture and machinery to put these plans into action, and this is where we all need to pitch in. Governments can provide leadership, certainly, by acting with vision and integrity, by adopting technology that will allow transparency to flourish. And there is no shortage of low hanging fruit here; making fines payable via a mobile application, for example, rather than cash would alone go a long way towards wheedling out the culture of graft.

Business has shown it has the appetite to overcome risk perceptions in order to invest in Africa, but it can do more by doing better at innovating products and services that are affordable and deliver value at the base of the pyramid. Civil society must help by acting with tolerance and responsibility and, yes, by paying taxes.

Bringing together the ideas, resolve and action to put these ideas -- and actions -- into reality will be the aim of the 24th World Economic Forum on Africa, which is now taking place in Abuja. We will attempt to cover a lot of ground; whether pushing forward with our Grow Africa food security initiative, which has now helped over 2.5 million smallholder farmers across Africa, kick-starting new projects such as our African Skills Initiative, or working with partners and constituents to advance transformation in areas such as improving Africans' access to financial institutions, our digital and physical infrastructure, and empowering women socially, politically and economically.

These are the issues that must be resolved. Africans have the character and creativity to do this. It is time to meet this challenge.

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