Every few minutes, they touched down at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport. The roads buzzed and hotel lobbies filled as the world arrived for the most important meeting in African business.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa, hosted in Abuja, was one of the largest in many years. The biggest names in world business, among 1,000 leaders, were there. They included Aliko Dangote, Pravin Gordhan, Paul Kagame, Uhuru Kenyatta, Li Keqiang and Bineta Diop.
This was a meet to check progress from the last meeting in Cape Town and work out what needs to be done ahead of the next.
Nigeria hosting the gathering reflected its success and trials. In one way it was a celebration after the country was elevated to Africa’s largest economy after the rebasing of its GDP. On Nigeria’s rebased GDP, a wide cross section of investors and prospective entrants confirm that investing in Nigeria has become a priority.
“There is undoubtedly huge potential in this country and the rest of Africa respectively. The real power will, however, only materialize when we get plans into motion and make things work,” says Julian Roberts, the Group Chief Executive of Old Mutual.
On the other side of the coin, the country is still plagued by poor infrastructure and unrest. In Abuja there have been deadly bomb attacks and further north, the Islamist militant group Boko Haram abducted 276 schoolgirls.
It meant public offices and schools closed from May 7 to May 9. Security was beefed up as police squads threw up checkpoints. But, the world made its way to Abuja to tap into Nigeria’s burgeoning market. Investors contributed $21.3 billion in foreign direct investment last year and $2.5 billion in January and February this year alone.
Expectations were high in spite of the difficulties. The forum was set to discuss innovative structural reforms and sustainable investments for creating jobs and prosperity.
“The need to create jobs is a global problem. All countries around the world are concerned about job creation. In Africa, the unemployment problem is compounded by the youthful population and pending demographic transition. Africa’s population is very young… making African leaders face special challenges,” says Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan.
So, what has changed since the previous forum in Cape Town?
In spite of impressive growth, many African economies have yet to see broad-based prosperity. There are also issues of security, infrastructure, skills, education and health.
Africa’s alarming youth unemployment story is often told in parallel with growth. The youth account for 60% of all of Africa’s unemployed, according to the World Bank. Sub-Saharan Africa’s unemployment rate is at 6% in comparison with the world average of 5%, according to the African Development Bank. The problem is that youth unemployment in most African countries occurs at more than twice the adult rate.
A defective educational system, lack of vocational guidance and training could be to blame.
Nigeria, West Africa’s leading economy is even plagued by intermittent strikes in the classroom.
So, what will WEF achieve?
“It is not just about growth, it’s about the right kind of growth and participants’ focus will not be limited to growing Africa’s economy, but will also highlight means of doing so in an inclusive manner,” says WEF’s head of Africa, Elsie Kanza.
“This meeting is creating tremendous opportunity in sub-Saharan Africa and the continent at large. These opportunities will help to break down barriers and open up new frontiers for business. The theme of this year’s forum is very apt as this is what we are working tirelessly on presently. The power of these forums should not be underestimated,” says Jim Ovia, the $900-million banking veteran and FORBES AFRICA cover in June last year.
Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to remain the world’s second fastest growing region – a result of more efficiency in resource utilization, better governance and rising domestic demand. Challenges and opportunities shaping Africa’s growth outlook are often under-estimated. These issues went under the microscope at the forum.
Nigeria’s finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, says infrastructural and logistical challenges will continue to hamper the growth of the continent. West African leaders drew up plans to build highways to boost intra-Africa trade, as has been seen in East Africa.
Kenya has signed a $3.6 billion Mombasa-Nairobi railway deal with China. The railway will connect Kenya with the rest of the region and open up trade within East Africa.
Security in Nigeria was also on the agenda with the schoolgirl abduction in the headlines. Jonathan thanked the international community for their support on the issue but questions still hang over what the government will do.
It was announced by Okonjo-Iweala that a sum of $10 million has been approved by the state for a safe school project. A further $10 million will be provided by Nigerian business. This is seen as a move to improve security in Nigerian schools.
Lack of power in Africa poses a major threat to economic growth. Nigeria’s parlous power sector and power privatization process, the biggest on the continent yet, has spurred global interest.
“We are getting somewhere and it will not be an overnight transformation. We are excited about the transformation this sector will experience and urge Nigerians to have some belief and patience in the process,” says Okonjo-Iweala.
Trade between Africa and China is also expected to continue to grow.
“This is definitely the world’s largest inclusive growth. Africa needs to develop its infrastructure and industries while China boasts a stronger and spare capability of investment and construction in this area. Thus, the economies of China and Africa are highly complementary and both sides’ development is each other’s opportunity. China and Africa shall complement each other in mutually beneficial co-operation to give a stronger impetus to each other’s development,” says Li Keqiang, the premier of China.
Technology can also drive the continent’s economy.
“A vast number of people have been digitally empowered and are more open to economic participation. Getting this critical mass to act accordingly should be a stronger focus. Therein lies an opportunity,” says Hendrik du Toit, the CEO of Investec Asset Management.
WEF also announced so-called Global Growth Companies (GGCs) in Africa. These are 16 high growth companies on the continent with innovative revenue growth and sound corporate governance. The selected companies are: Seplat Petroleum Development Company (Nigeria), Computer Warehouse Group (Nigeria), Interswitch Limited (Nigeria), Nagode Group (Nigeria), UAC of Nigeria (Nigeria), Notore Chemical Industries (Nigeria), Nation Media Group (Kenya), Bidco Oil Refineries (Kenya), GML (Mauritius), Growthpoint Properties (South Africa), KZN Oils (South Africa), Net1 UEPS Technologies (South Africa), Tekkie Town (South Africa), Capitec Bank (South Africa) Webber Wentzel (South Africa) and Simba Group (Uganda).
WEF and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development set a joint task force to redesign financing for Africa and developing economies. According to Development Initiatives, an independent organization working on poverty alleviation, approximately $1.7 trillion flows from the developed to the developing world. The task force will redeploy the finance to key sectors of the economies that will benefit the most.
For now, Africa waits in anticipation to see whether the proof is in the pudding.