“Prepare to get cold. Very cold. Take your worst experience in the cold and multiply that by 10!” This is how my colleagues at CNBC Africa briefed me on what would be my first visit to the small ski town of Davos in Switzerland to attend the 44th World Economic Forum (WEF).
After that advice, it’s only natural that I prepared for the worst. It resulted in two suitcases being packed with winter thermal goodies. In hindsight, I should have skipped the extra suitcase as it added logistical stress, but my biceps got a lot firmer.
While preparing for the trip, many questions filled my mind—who to speak to, how to address the global agenda, would I ask the right questions if I were to speak to Christine Lagarde, or better yet, Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of WEF. In response to the anxiety, the journalist in me searched the internet for archived pieces on previous forums, in preparation for future interviews.
And then came the moment of bidding farewell to family, friends and the South African summer as I, together with my colleagues, prepared to brave the sub-zero temperatures in Davos for a week.
After a little more than 10 hours in the air, we touched down at Zurich Airport, where we would catch three trains in two-and-a-half hours to reach Davos.
So, after hauling my suitcases on and off the trains, I was hot, flustered, hungry and most of all mesmerized. Mesmerized by the beauty of the Swiss Alps. The mountain tops were reminiscent of soft cocoa peaks that had been drizzled in a thick layer of pure white icing sugar. Trust me to compare such a wonderful sight to food. After more than 12 hours in transit, hunger pangs were tormenting my stomach.
This tiny ski town was about to host around 2,500 delegates comprising business leaders, politicians, academia and media from across the globe.
The theme for this year’s forum was ‘Reshaping the world: consequences for business, politics and society’. It’s a broad theme that leaves you questioning where to begin and where to end?
Africa began by reshaping its image and its level of participation. Most WEF delegates are familiar with the multi-colored scarf, representing the South African flag, being adorned by both South African and international representatives, however, this year, green and white scarfs were the order of the day. The Nigerian delegation made a bold and clear statement by pronouncing their presence at WEF through this accessory that kept the cold at bay. Whatever their objective was, it worked as the world and its African peers sat up and paid attention to the West African state that will play host to the World Economic Forum On Africa in May this year. Following nations like Tanzania, Ethiopia and South Africa, Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja will welcome the 24th annual forum that will seek to find African solutions to African challenges. Coupled with the strong attendance of Nigerian delegates was that of fellow African leaders as a whole. Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete, Ghanaian president John Mahama and Guinean president Alpha Condé were just a few that made their voices heard.
With Africa making up roughly 4% of the world’s economic activity, 15% of the global population and 20% of the world’s land mass, it was evident that it is no longer a continent looking for aid, but rather trade.
“Africa is very much on the agenda, (it’s) on the minds of policy makers and corporate leaders,” said Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund.
After a recent visit to Kenya and Malawi, Lagarde noted that strong economic growth is projected for the continent going forward, especially sub-Saharan Africa.
Key concerns on the African agenda include boosting investment on the continent for the mutual gain of all other African markets; fighting security threats such as the Nigerian terrorist group, Boko Haram; and most of all, stimulating inter-African trade.
Bisi Onasanya, the CEO of First Bank of Nigeria, echoed these sentiments.
“I believe businesses need to pay attention to Nigeria and Africa, if they want to move away from saturated developed markets, the yields in this part of the world are a lot more superior to what you get in other parts of the world and sometimes I think the risks are overhyped to the extent that we scare away some of those investors.”
Onasanya also alluded to the unity that was displayed by both African government and business leaders in Davos, which is not always a common sight.
“Aliko (Dangote) is here, President (Goodluck) Jonathan is here… we are telling the world that we are here and ready to do business.”
Trade with no limits is thought to be the new solution to working towards economic inclusion for all African states and dispelling the stereotypes that we have regarding our peers on the continent. Trade between African nations currently stands at 11% of total trade, compared to Europe’s level of around 70%.
Peter Staude, the CEO of Tongaat Hulett, however, cautioned that we need to highlight what products can be used for trade.
“Inter-African trade is needed, however we need to ensure that there is no duplication of goods,” said Staude.
Condé is also an African optimist. He too called for more co-operation and assistance to take place between African leaders to bolster economic growth. My interview with him was a slightly tense moment as he had an entourage of at least 20 people, all asking French questions. Who were we? Where were we from? What is the interview about and when would they see it? After recognizing that our team was based in South Africa, Conde smiled and said: ‘Ah Mandela… good friend of mine. And Miriam. Miriam Makeba, good friend of Guinea.”
This light moment brought about some relief from the cold, the Guinean crowd and the French conversation.
Slowly but surely, Africa is making progress. Some states are even learning from each other. Ghana has made oil companies provide transparency around their dealings with government, with the likes of Nigeria, Angola and Uganda potentially following suit.
With Africa’s population geared to reach two billion by 2050, government and business is eager to drive for economic inclusion by creating the right business platforms and addressing infrastructural and educational backlogs, which in the long term will address the issue of youth unemployment.
As a first timer at the event, I was amazed at the united front that was exhibited by African business and government leaders. My only question is: How united are we when the conversations die down and the real work begins and we are faced with the realities of our unique every day African struggles?
Despite the challenges, I am forever a believer in the rise of Africa. The African economic outlook is also optimistic with a projected growth of 5.3%.
While on the icy slopes of Davos, I learnt something: the power of association. It’s the reason why WEF attracts so many delegates each year. It’s also the reason why Africa was so prominent on the agenda this year. Only by having relations can we engage. Only by engaging can we work together to finding solutions to the challenges Africa faces.