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World Economic Forum helps leaders make right choices

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By Onome Amawhe

One of the leading and most dynamic female leaders emerging from Africa, Elsie Kanza is the Director, Head of Africa at the World Economic Forum, the Geneva, Switzerland-based organization whose mission is to engage political, business and social leaders to shape global agenda and effect local change. In this interview, she opens up about her career journey, current role at the WEF, the just ended World Economic Forum on Africa and her thought on Africa’s rising narrative and potential for growth. 

Elsie Kanza

CONGRATULATIONS on a successful  conference this year. You had over 1,000 participants from more than 80 countries. What were the key takeaways from this year’s meeting?

The World Economic Forum strives to bring together leaders from across Africa and around the world to discuss issues that are of regional importance. We believe we are unique in our ability to convene leaders from all walks of life, whether it is politics, business, academia, youth leaders or the spiritual world. This year was the biggest ever Forum meeting in Africa, and was also the best attended by women. These milestones –as well as being achievements in their own right – really helped us deliver outcomes in three core areas.

The first of these is economic growth and competitiveness. There’s a real optimism in Africa at the moment, but also caution: Africa’s leaders know that although they have a unique development opportunity, growth is by no means guaranteed. We dedicated a number of sessions to discussing how Africa can diversify its economic base, create more and better jobs and improve competitiveness through further reform. The Forum will build on the learnings from these sessions throughout 2018 in the competitiveness workshops and other initiatives we are organizing across the continent, with the goal of helping leaders make the right policy choices to build sustainable growth.

We also made good progress towards tackling the continent’s infrastructure deficit, with Heads of States issuing a mandate to roll out the Africa Strategic Infrastructure initiative, which aims to match private sector finance with the most critical transnational infrastructure projects. Lastly, our work in the field of food security through the Grow Africa initiative continues to break the mould. The initiative, in which we collaborate with the African Union Commission and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) Agency, has helped 800,000 smallholder farmers since its establishment in 2012. At our Cape Town meeting, Nigeria and Malawi joined this initiative, which adds to its potential for delivering transformative change in Africa.

The World Economic Forum is committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas. And you are the Director, Head of Africa at the World Economic Forum – what are the urgent challenges on the continent that have to be addressed before next year’s meeting?

Our preparatory research ahead of the meeting identified three issues that are of critical importance to Africa: economic diversification, boosting strategic infrastructure and unlocking talent. In terms of diversification, much more needs to be done to lessen the continent’s reliance on the resource sector; this means creating the conditions to allow manufacturing to flourish, consumer industries to take root and brands to take on the world.

Infrastructure, likewise, is key to development. The current deficit costs the region 2% of GDP every year and is the principal reason why trade among African countries is so negligible. It’s also a barrier to human integration, which is so important for Africa’s security and stability. Lastly, we wanted to find ways of productively utilizing Africa’s real key asset, its people. By 2040, Africa will have the largest workforce in the world and we must create jobs that enable Africans to lead happy, prosperous lives. We must also ensure that Africa’s workforce has the skills and qualifications needed to carry out the increasingly complex jobs that their economy will create. Great strides have been made in education over the years but much more work remains to be done if this is to be achieved.

Africa’s growth story has been much talked about – what is that growth? Is this growth translating into improved living standards for the majority of Africans on the continent?

Sub-Saharan Africa is the second-fastest growing region in the world after Asia. The IMF estimates a growth rate of more than 5% this year compared to a global GDP growth of less than 3%. Africa’s fastest-growing economies of Sierra Leone, Niger, Nigeria, Angola, Rwanda, Ghana, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Zambia and Mozambique show how different sectors are driving growth across the continent.This is having a knock-on effect on living standards. For example, the United Nation’s Human Development Index shows that there has been considerable progress in lifting Africans out of poverty. That said, growth is uneven and some countries are being left behind. What’s more, progress is being slowed by the current high population growth rate, which is stretching finite resources. Africa’s leaders know that to counter these challenges, growth must be sustainable and inclusive.

The question is no longer “if” Africa will grow, but “how” it will grow. Africa is working to identify quality-growth models that can increase competitiveness and employment, while reducing poverty. How will Africa grow to achieve all of this? What are those specific “quality-growth models” that leaders in Africa and industry captains are identifying?

This year we launched the 2013 Africa Competitiveness report, which provides a benchmark on the progress Africa’s economies are making towards international competitiveness. Unfortunately, sub-Saharan Africa still lags behind the rest of the world in this respect, with only five African countries ranking among the top 100 globally [South Africa  (52),  Mauritius (54), Rwanda (63), Seychelles (76) and Botswana (79)]. Africa’s leaders therefore need to invest the revenues from natural resources into infrastructure and education to support industries such as agriculture and services that offer more prospects for large-scale employment.

Africa’s growing population and swelling consumer base is becoming an attractive market for regional and global companies. Is this a good thing? We see in the US, the household debt stands at approximately US$11.2 trillion. How can Africans learn to be educated consumers, particularly in the area of personal finance?

With consumer spending in Africa reaching US$ 1 trillion in 2012, there’s no doubt that non resource intensive sectors such as retail, energy and telecommunications will attract growing interest from regional and international investors. At the same time it is worth noting that consumption across the continent is not even: 10 countries accounted for 81% of private consumption in Africa in 2011.

Consumption does not necessarily need to be driven by debt. Considering that millions of Africans still do not have a bank account, a top priority must be providing access to financial services, particularly for Africa’s rural populations. This is a challenge, but the outstanding take up of mobile phone services – 7 out of 10 Africans have access to mobile phones – has introduced new opportunities for mobile banking. The success of M-Pesa in Kenya has also demonstrated that it is possible to bridge the financing gap that the majority of Africans currently face.

 The African Union just celebrated its 50-year anniversary – what do you think this means for Africa, for its regional integration and its re-emergence as a global power?

During the 23rd World Economic Forum on Africa we talked a lot about regional integration. Only 12% of Africa’s trade is in Africa, compared to 60% with the European Union and 40% with Asia. This gap presents an enormous opportunity for Africa’s economies. A critical bottleneck is inadequate cross-border infrastructure, but the commitment of Africa’s leaders to addressing this is a welcome signal that the continent can re-emerge as a global power. It’s great to see the African Union acting as a driving force in this process.

As an African woman, you have been very successful with your career. What advice do you have for African women professionals and entrepreneurs?

Someone once described luck as preparation meeting opportunity and I have had a succession of lucky breaks in my career. It is also important to note that while I am recognized as an individual; my success has much to do with the teams that I have had the privilege of working with and leading.

Thus my advice is simply to learn continuously, work hard and be prepared to seize opportunities. Every woman that I know works hard, so let me qualify that statement by emphasizing the necessity for hard work to be focused, purposeful and tenacious. Humility goes without saying: there is no “I” in teamwork.

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