WHEN assessing the potential of Africa, Barack Obama used his familiar mantra of ‘yes you can’ to insist that the people of this vastly diverse continent have the power to create something special.
The American president said Africans could harness their energy and education to create new wealth and build new connections to the world.
“You can conquer disease, end conflicts and make change from the bottom up. You can do that. Yes, you can. Because in this moment, history is on the move,” he said.
And in spite of the political unrest that has swept through North Africa – resulting in new governments and terrible conflict in the case of Libya – the abject poverty of many of the people, endemic corruption in some countries’ institutions and the spectres of conflict and terrorism in others, there are many reasons to feel hopeful about Africa’s future.
As this guide to its sectors shows, the continent has a wealth of talent in an ever-
improving education market, vast natural resources (both tapped and untapped), massive energy producing capabilities using both fossils fuels and renewables, multiple tourism possibilities and opportunities to improve infrastructures and embark on ambitious construction projects.
It’s not for nothing that China, a nation not known for throwing its money around without good reason and which continues to grow and outperform any other country in the world, has invested so heavily in Africa.
It’s no coincidence that South Africa has now become the fifth member of the BRIC (now known as BRICS) countries, along with China itself, India, Brazil and Russia.
But Britain still has strong links to the continent, both historically and through the language, and thanks to the UKTI and the Chambers of Commerce, it continues to forge new partnerships and to create new wealth.
Of course so much depends on the fickle finger of fate, not to mention the global economy and its main players, in determining Africa’s future in the coming decades.
Prior to giving a speech at the Holocaust Memorial Day in January, former South African president FW De Klerk said that the West had lacked a coherent policy towards Africa since the world economy nosedived.
“The countries worst hit by the economic crunch are more inward looking than I have ever seen. Even George W Bush and Tony Blair were far more engaged in Africa than the present leaders,” he said.
That, he said, differed sharply from China, who had developed a focused policy on Africa – largely built on the export of energy and minerals.
“If I look at the EU policy towards sub-Saharan Africa I do not see a coherent policy, nor from the US. They are treading water,” he said.
He added that Africa was not looking for handouts, grants or gifts but looking for help in building capacity and infrastructure, and that the continent had been less badly affected by the global crisis than the west.
As a result, he said, some of the most able and educated African professionals, who had left for better lives abroad, were returning home for work. He was especially upbeat about South Africa.
“The reason for my optimism is that democracy is working. We have a vibrant civil society. We will overcome these obstacles that stand in the way of South Africa fulfilling its full potential.”
South Africa, of course, demonstrated what Africa can do, when it staged the highly successful World Cup finals last year. In terms of organisation and image-building it far outplayed the lauded talents of the England football team.
Due to its size and economic clout, South Africa is inevitably the flag-bearer of the new Africa, but other countries, too, are upping their game. Morocco has embarked on impressive energy and building projects and Ghana is attracting plenty of inward investment, and only the political turmoil in Egypt has taken attention away from its many achievements.
Such countries, political divisions apart, have shown what can be done. But more should be done, according to the UN, which claims that Africa’s growth is still insufficient to reduce poverty.
Per-capita income will probably expand 2.7 percent in 2011 and 2.8 percent in 2012, lower than the 3 percent “minimum rate of growth to make a substantial dent in poverty,” it said.
Rising commodity prices, better harvests and investments in rail and energy projects will help lift growth to 5 percent in 2011 and 5.1 percent in 2012, from 4.7 percent last year, it added. But with a growing population, that may not be enough to meet the UN’s target of halving the percentage of people living in poverty by 2015.
“Persistent high levels of underemployment and vulnerable employment, as well as continued widespread malnourishment, will remain concerns in the near outlook,” the UN said. So Africa, then, with its social and economic mix, has a lot to offer, a lot to prove and a lot of barriers to overcome first, but if Barack Obama’s words are to be believed, then yes, the African people, can make it work.
Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama when they visited a hospital in Ghana: The US president is full of optimism about what Africa can achieve 8