THE BLOG
09/06/2014 02:37 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2014

Africa's Present Vs Future

During the 2014 annual meetings of the African Development Bank in Kigali, Rwanda last May, the mood was both optimistic and pessimistic. On the one hand, the mood was upbeat and a sense of imminent economic boom was palpable -- at least for the future. The bank released its Africa Economic Outlook with projections of 4.8 percent GDP growth overall in Africa this year, and 5.8 percent for Sub-Saharan Africa. Excluding South Africa's sluggish economy, the report projects the economy south of Sahara to grow a healthy 6.8 percent this year. Exciting, right?

Not really. On the other hand, the report scolded Africa for not adding value to its resources, with 50 percent of Africa's exports "processed elsewhere or get their extra value abroad." It further tells us that only 3.5 percent of the world's exports are from Africa. As Kunle Elebute of KPMG Nigeria put it in a recent report: "Africa exports about $6 billion worth of coffee, which is processed, packaged and branded elsewhere, to be resold for US$100 billion. The revenue: Africa -- $6 billion, the rest - $94 billion".

Mr. Elebute concludes that the "real money is not in growing coffee beans, but in adding value. The same can be said for any other commodity: Italy makes more from exporting jewellery than South Africa does from exporting gold"

No wonder the mood for the present was definitely not optimistic. Fragile, maybe. The present has so much to complain about; the future plenty to celebrate. Unsurprisingly, political sentiments of the present and the future of Africa seem to be considerably divergent. Africa's present as it is and its future as it is projected seems to move on parallel universes.

Sure, economic growth has picked up and future growth seems even rosier. But as Donald Kaberuka, president of the African Development bank, said: "you cannot eat economic growth". According to last year's Human Development Report, food insecurity affects 30 percent of people in Sub-Saharan Africa, which means an estimated 239 million suffer from chronic hunger and malnutrition. Unemployment is high, not to mention underemployment or those stuck in informal sectors.

Economic opportunities are still so scarce that Mo Ibrahim, Sudan's Telecom billionaire and founder of his namesake foundation, joked that if Obama was in Kenya he would be driving a bus. He made the joke after dismissing the "only continent in the world where presidents start new terms at 90." Pessimism over the current state of affairs in Africa easily blends in with optimism of its potential future.

Part of the blame goes, of course, to the attendees. Africa's leaders are responsible for the slow pace of change in at least a number of political and policy-making areas. A lot of what needs to be done for integration, intra-trade and economic policies to add value to resources requires political will and bold actions by policymakers. The talk was always nice and inspiring but follow-up on words and promises have been scarce in the past.

Despite this rather gloomy present, the meetings were in some strange ways a mirror of the changing political landscape in Africa. Notable was the frankness and openness of Africa's leaders to debate issues and face tough questions from the audience, something that was seldom possible a few decades ago. Mo Ibrahim, taking on the role of the ever-louder civil society and businesses, demanded action on the lack of statistical data: "How can you run a country without information? Then you are running a country blind." That was after Mthuli Ncube, the chief economist and vice-president of the African Development Bank, candidly told his audience that "30 percent of GDP in Africa not being measured properly." People are demanding things to happen and leaders are at least listening.

And how long has Africa been talking about integration? But still, as the Financial Times reported, on average, an African needs Visas to visit two thirds of fellow African countries. And we know African intra-trade holds the key to future prosperity because it facilitates investment, business growth and connectivity. But not enough has been done to reduce major hurdles to trade between countries and within countries.

And so the present is still fragile and the future vulnerable to this fragility. More worryingly, we are best at knowing the solutions and yet little gets done at fixing them. Watch the videos of the meetings and you realize that the knowledge of what needs to be done is expertly, almost perfect. Wait five years from now, we might as well still be talking "what to be done" about intra-trade, integration, value-addition and so on.

To finish on the bright side, again in the future, according Callisto Madavo, one of the editors of a new book called "Africa 2050: Realizing the Continent's Full Potential", commissioned by AfDB and launched during the Annual Meetings in Kigali, we are steps away from realizing our aspirations in 2050: a sixfold increase in per capita income, an additional 1.4 billion Africans joining the middle class, the number of poor down by tenfold, and Africa's share of global GDP tripling. How beautiful!

But the gap between the present and this rosy future is startling. This vision is possible, but not guaranteed. The difference between the present as we feel it versus the future we hope for is too big to ignore. The reality as it is versus the reality as imagined is divergent. Maybe too divergent. There seems to be no bridge to connect the two, at least in the present. Will the future build the bridge? No one knows.

This post was first published in French in Libre Afrique.