Africa: continent of challenges and possibilities

By Professor Aleksander Surdej, Ambassador, Permanent Representative of Poland to the OECD

Africa’s development depends to a large extent on African people themselves, including on their ability to strengthen public institutions and end destructive conflicts.

It is often recalled with pride that the African continent is the cradle of civilisation and perhaps its future. At the same time, Africa faces numerous challenges analysed by the OECD, which its Development Centre proposes to address through horizontal co-operation. Let’s delineate the most important ones.

Demography

Around 7.7 billion people populate our planet today. Each year this number grows by 80 million, which means that each day 220,000 people are born globally. If we continue at this pace, the world’s population will reach 8 billion in 2022 and 10 billion in 2050. The world’s population growth stems to a large degree from the demographic expansion of Africa, a continent currently inhabited by 1.3 billion people. If this reproduction rate is maintained – the average number of births per woman in Africa is 4.5 while in Niger it is 7 – Africa’s population may reach 4 billion people by 2100.

“The world’s population growth stems to a large degree from the demographic expansion of Africa.” #DevMatters

Education

Children are a source of great potential for societies, but in order to use this potential effectively, years of considerable investment and costs borne by both the parents and states are indispensable. Universal education for children from age 3 to at least 18, competent teachers and well-equipped schools constitute a considerable cost which is far too high for the poorest African countries. Social benefits that come with educated citizens and employers can be materialised only when the latter stay in their homelands, working and patiently hoping for a more prosperous life. Meanwhile, the ongoing exodus of young relatively educated Africans, often with the aim of permanent emigration, impoverishes their countries of origin.   

Agriculture

Population growth is inextricably linked to the need to increase agricultural and food production. Africa cannot be completely self-sufficient in terms of food production, but it must produce higher amounts of food. In order to do so it is indispensable to develop modern agriculture which is not harmful for the environment. Forty years ago, one French farmer was able to nourish 15 of its compatriots – today the number is 40. Africa’s agriculture must become more sustainable. This requires a technological leap, including the use of digital tools to benefit from more exact weather forecast, agronomic guidance or shortening of the distribution chain, so that direct producers are not left with just a fraction of the price paid by the final consumer.

“Universal education for children from age 3 to at 18, competent teachers and well-equipped schools constitute a considerable cost which is far too high for the poorest African countries.” #DevMatters

Electrification

Electrification is still not sufficiently advanced in the vast majority of African countries. Without granting access to electricity, it will not be possible to broaden access to telecommunication services and other achievements of our civilisation. Contemporary energy systems should however be highly reliable. And this is not an easy task. Even the most developed country on the continent – the Republic of South Africa – can experience electricity cuts during which whole districts collapse into darkness while factories and mines cease to function. The reason for this failure seems to be poor management by the sector’s giant – Eskom company – which delivers 90% of electricity to citizens and companies.

Developmental self-reliance

Africa’s development depends to a large extent on African people themselves, including on their ability to strengthen public institutions and end destructive conflicts. External partners can support Africa’s economic development not only through considerable development aid (it is worth noting that development results not just from aid, but from every responsible business activity), but also through private, commercial business engagement. Foreign firms, including Polish ones, should take advantage of these emerging possibilities. Moving forward, African authorities and OECD countries should co-operate horizontally, working together to find solutions to these pressing challenges.