Elsie Kanza, Head of Africa, World Economic Forum

By Nicholas Norbrook
Posted on Thursday, 8 February 2018 12:08

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) upcoming Africa conference in Durban will focus on the economic predicament in which global leaders find themselves. “There has been a failure of growth models to deliver on citizen’s expectations,” says Elsie Kanza – who runs the WEF’s Africa programme – “and we are short on alternatives.”

She argues that the ways African leaders cater for the growing youth population will dictate the trajectory of the continent. This reappraisal of the challenges to come – when Africa moves from about 1 billion people today to 2 billion people by 2050 – is taking place as oil and mineral exporters are struggling. Countries like Nigeria, Angola and Zambia had been growing at a clip when times were good.

“Along with the changes in the global context,” says Kanza – pointing to the millions of Americans and British people who voted for Brexit and Donald Trump – “leaders in Africa are reassessing the continent and themselves. What are the lessons on inclusivity?” To help, the WEF is working on new indicators to go beyond simple measures of gross domestic product and to help track progress in people’s lives.

The May WEF Africa conference will look at the ecosystem African leaders work in – examining to what extent are they trusted and how responsive they are. It will also build on the summit in Kigali in 2016, with particular attention to the building blocks of the new economy and the risks and opportunities of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. And finally, it will look to develop new models of inclusion, be they through urbanisation, integrating small and medium-sized companies into the value chains of large domestic and international companies or using digital solutions to bring Africans into the formal banking sector.

Winners and losers

The fourth industrial revolution paints a picture of ever-greater involvement of technology in the means of productions, from big data to embedded sensors, to workflow software and beyond. And, like all revolutions, it creates winners and losers.

For companies such as clothing manufacturers, which depend on low labour costs, things are unlikely to change quickly. Despite the myriad African leaders trying to learn from Asia and angling for a slice of the Chinese manufacturing jobs set to relocate abroad to seek cheaper labour, “Ethiopia remains the poster child [for this dynamic], and those kinds of jobs will stay for the short and medium term,” says Kanza.

But for other sectors, like mining, for example, are likely to face greater dislocations due to technology. Robots are able to work far deeper than humans in mines, and this could hit employment hard. “The challenge they have in South Africa, for example, is what to do with the miners,” says Kanza. “There are some tough conversations going on there.”

More decentralised modes of manufacturing may also preserve more jobs in that sector. At Gearbox in Kenya, the ‘maker’s movement’ is learning from Indian examples of how to use technology in manufacturing in the informal sector, likely to be how much of the population of Africa engages with it.

Some of that will require better focus on skills and training. “Do we need to put someone in an institution for four years when they can learn the right skills on the job in four hours?” asks Kanza. “We need to be open to complete disruption. How can we help leaders of today rise about today’s challenges and think about what is coming next for our societies?”

Certainly, some may well have cause for concern. “Lots of leaders are worried at the top,” says Kanza, referring to the demographic wave set to break over the continent. “But when we speak to entrepreneurs, they are excited. By 2050, we will need 700m new housing units. That’s not including the backlog. All these people will need to eat, need to sleep. All these are opportunities. So panic, perhaps, but there is also a lot of excitement.”

This interview first appeared in the Money supplement of the May 2017 print edition of The Africa Report magazine

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