Africa’s Blue Economy: An opportunity not to be missed

By Dr. Carlos Lopes, UN Under Secretary General & Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa

Blue-economyThe world’s oceans, seas and rivers are a major source of wealth, creating trillions of dollars’ worth in goods and services as well as employing billions of people. Three out of four jobs that make up the entire global workforce are water-dependent. It is forecasted that the annual economic value of maritime-related activities will reach 2.5 trillion euros per year by 2020, while the International Energy Agency estimates that renewable energy from the ocean has a power potential sufficient to provide up to 400% of current global energy demand. Yet Africa’s blue potential remains untapped.

Africa’s “blue world” is made of oceans and seas, underground water, rivers, and vast lakes, of which the African Great Lakes constitute 27% of surface freshwater, the largest proportion in the world. Of Africa’s 54 states, 38 are coastal, and more than 90% of Africa’s imports and exports are conducted by sea. In addition to harbouring some of the most strategic gateways for international trade in Africa, maritime zones under the continent’s jurisdiction total about 13 million km², an area lying under the sea that is equivalent to two-thirds of Africa’s landmass. If fully exploited and well managed, this hidden treasure constitutes a major source of wealth that could catapult the continent’s fortunes. Heralded by the African Union as the “new frontier of African Renaissance,” Africa’s Blue Economy must be harnessed.

The largest sectors of the current African aquatic and ocean-based economy are fisheries, aquaculture, tourism, transport, ports, coastal mining and energy. However, its biotic resources would allow the continent to expand its fishing, aquaculture and mariculture sectors and pursue vibrant pharmaceutical, chemical and cosmetics industries. Africa is placed no doubt to pursue resource-based industrialisation and to be at the centre of global trade in value-added products rather than just the supplier of unprocessed raw materials.

The Blue Economy’s approach advocates for a complete departure from enclave development models. Rather, it favours economic interconnectedness among different sectors as well as regional clusters and value chains that benefit both coastal, island states and landlocked countries in a same continuum. Also prioritised are resource efficiency and low-carbon footprint growth models coupled with modernising Africa’s maritime transport and logistics services as well as its port and railway infrastructure.

Several African countries already are formulating strategies to mainstream the Blue Economy in their national development plans. For instance, the Seychelles have established a full-fledged ministry dedicated to promoting the Blue Economy. In South Africa, Operation Phakisa is expected to create 1 million new jobs by 2030 and add ZAR 177 billion to the country’s GDP. More countries must follow suit to reap from the available socio-economic opportunities.

A number of hurdles must be overcome however. For example, contrary to other countries in the world, African states have yet to request and obtain licenses from the International Seabed Authority for deep sea mining in the high-seas bordering the continent. Furthermore, a number of maritime and transnational aquatic boundaries are not delimited formally, potentially leading to tensions between neighbouring countries with ensuing negative impacts on peace, security and investment. The increasingly intense use of aquatic and marine resources, combined with the impacts of rapid population growth, coastal urbanisation and climate change, also add to the pressure for supporting ecosystems and habitats. Managing these complex dynamics emphasises the need for a holistic and integrated approach. It is an approach in which economic growth and development success is combined with environmental and material stewardship, social responsibility and the highest governance and transparency standards.

In response, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa’s publication “Africa’s Blue Economy: A Policy Handbook” offers a powerful step-by-step guide to help countries and regional bodies realise the sector’s potential. From providing guidance on existing legal frameworks at international and regional levels, to sharing comparative experiences for policy formulation, it is a timely contribution. Pivotal to the blue agenda are equity and social inclusion, broad-based development, and job creation. These are what Africa needs to contribute to its structural transformation.

What lies deep beneath the surface is clearly an opportunity not to be missed.


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