Blog: "Africa Too Big to Fail" – Inspiration from the Words of Kofi Annan

In this blog, Solidaridad Network Executive Director Nico Roozen highlights the true challenges of mass migration in Africa.

Over the last two years, I have often looked back on the powerful speech of Kofi Annan held in Italy in 2015. Renowned for his work as Secretary-General of the United Nations (1997-2006), Annan offered an insightful analysis of the African realities and challenges of today. He is a source of inspiration for the way forward. The title of his speech “Africa Too Big To Fail” refers to the disruptive banking crisis. When Africa fails, the world will fail… and could even collapse.

Kofi Atta Annan (born 8 April 1938) is a Ghanaian diplomat who served as the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations from January 1997 to December 2006. Annan and the UN were the co-recipients of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize.

We sometimes say the 21st century is the Asian century in recognition of the growing dominance of Asian economic and political power. But perhaps the future of the world could be balanced on the success or failure of Africa. When Africa fails, we all fail. The world was determined to save the banks; is the world also willing to save Africa by making use of the positive energy and potential of Africans themselves?

Kofi Annan began his analysis with a few words about population demographics. According to current trends, Africa’s population will more than double by 2050 and may even triple by the end of the century. The best estimation is a population of 3.6 billion people in Africa as compared to the 900 million people in the year 2000. “Obviously, this population explosion will place huge strains on Africa’s limited capacity to feed, educate and employ its people”, Annan said.

Megacities: an explosive development

In addition to his analysis, about 60-70% of this booming population will most likely live in urban areas all over the continent. This is projected to result in about 40 to 50 megacities of at least 25-30 million inhabitants each. Currently, Africa has only four cities with more than 10 million people, but the largest 50 cities have an average 3.4 million inhabitants each. As one of the biggest locations with a population of 17 million these days, one visit to the chaotic city of Lagos in Nigeria will give you a pessimistic impression what African megacities could be in the future if the negative trends continue.

Rush hour in Lagos (Flickr)

From the 50 Asian megacities, with Guangzhou in China leading with its population of 48 million, we know more about the decisive factors for making a metropolis a livable city. Crucial factors for success include a determined government with a capacity for spatial planning, huge investments in public services and transport, housing, and clean energy and air. To improve food security for the urban population, a cost-effective distribution and retail system is needed that offers primarily food produced in regional markets. The big question is whether Africa can mobilize these forces.

Kofi Annan stated, “The single most important factor that will continue to determine Africa’s trajectory is the quality of leadership and governance. Africa as a whole loses about a quarter of its GPD to corruption”. In his understated way, he added, “I am afraid Nelson Mandela’s example of selfless and principled leadership has not been widely emulated by his peers”.

The quality of governance is certainly a decisive factor for taking urbanization in the right direction and mobilizing the investments needed. The criticism, however, from Kofi Annan that “very little wealth is effectively taxed” is an indication that many states lack the competence to do so.

Migration is mainly urbanization

Adding to his analysis and contrary to what many European policymakers may think, intercontinental migration is not the major concern from the African perspective related to population growth in Africa at the moment. The everyday reality of rapid internal urbanization is the more pressing challenge caused by migration. At least 50 million people are moving from rural areas to urban areas every year, desperately looking for better chances. Around 7 million people are probably internal refugees from regional conflicts whereas intercontinental migration only accounts for a few 100 thousand.

Typical fruit stand in Lagos (Flickr)

Kofi Annan saw a solution and a path forward: “Create jobs, particularly for the young”. Job creation for the next generation is indeed the crucial factor.

Considering Annan’s analysis in light of trends in our global economy today, this could, unfortunately, turn out to be a challenging effort. The Asian route seems to be blocked. Over the last decades, Asian countries benefitted from the availability of an immense workforce. Cheap labour turned out to be a competitive advantage. By becoming the “manufacturing centre” of the world, hundreds of millions could escape from poverty. By producing at scale and using imitation, the Asian economies grew rapidly and moved to the second stage of mature economies driven by innovation and creation.

Jobless growth

The third industrial revolution linked Asia to global markets and they became the world economic powers of this century. Following that exact same path appears to be impossible for Africa. In the fourth industrial revolution of our current times, cheap labour is no longer the most differentiating factor anymore. Low complex industrial production will be the first to be robotized. The new digital economy will require extensive knowledge for driving technology and innovation. In the future, industrial production will take place close to consumer markets which reduces logistics and costs for communication and transport. For Africa, there are simply no tried and true paths to imitate.

Entering an era of “jobless” growth among the lower segments of the labour market, the coming challenge for Africa to create enough jobs quickly for its youth will be immense. But there are hopeful signs as well. An urgent and realistic starting point will be the modernization of the agricultural sector. Kofi Annan talks about tapping the potential of agriculture as a key strategy to follow: “Africa imports 34 billion dollars worth of food, most of which it could produce itself. Yields are around one half or even one-third of the world’s average. Feeding Africa can become very profitable and employ millions of young Africans – not only on farms but also in food processing and distribution”.

Education is key to Africa's success

Moving from farmers by default to farmers by choice

Expanding further on Annan’s analysis, modernization of agriculture has reduced the number of farmers drastically throughout history. Modernization is about producing more with less. In Africa, the undesired effects of modernization could be less drastic because of the high amount of untapped labour potential. Reclaiming degraded areas of production and improving farming in unused or underused areas can create new opportunities for commercial farmers and their workers. This can compensate for the decline of the number of subsistence farmers due to the inevitable increase of farm sizes.

We are moving from farmers by default to farmers by choice. But the highest potential for job growth can be found in building a service industry for the agricultu
ral sector, a processing industry of agricultural products, and a distribution and retail structure for domestic and global markets. This would help transform Africa from a net importer of food into a net exporter of food. Experience shows that by undergoing this process of modernization and creating a robust agricultural infrastructure for services, processing, knowledge, capital and marketing, one farmer can create 14 more decent jobs which adds value to the local economy. More innovations will be needed, of course, but this process could be a good start.

It is interesting to note that Kofi Annan talked about “Africa’s infrastructure deficit, which is a fundamental impediment to development”. He is not just talking about the woefully inadequate road and railway networks, but mainly about energy. “Boosting the use of Africa’s vast renewable energy resources must, therefore, be at the heart of its energy transformation. Scaling up the supply of clean energy in the region offers a triple dividend – reducing poverty and inequality, promoting economic prosperity and safeguarding the sustainability of our planet”, he said. The urgency of dealing with Africa's energy deficit is seen in the recent explosion of unsustainable charcoal production across the continent, which threatens agriculture systems if not dealt with urgently.

In his closing remarks, Kofi Annan ended on a hopeful note, showing his gift for being an optimistic leader: “The challenges are enormous, but I sense a new spirit of optimism in Africa”. I see it as well! Let’s celebrate real progress when women and men can own their own futures and take personal action for change that matters.

Learn more about Solidaridad's sustainability programmes in Southern Africa.

Orginally published as a blog on LinkedIn.