The liberation of young Africa’s energy and drive, together with the continent’s immense natural wealth and abundant environmental and cultural resources, could launch a power and passion as potent and transformational as the time when the first humans left Africa about 1.5 million years ago to spread across and prevail over the world, believes Amadou Diallo, CEO, DHL Global Forwarding Middle East and Africa.
A couple of years ago, McKinsey published a survey about growth in Africa. I can’t say I was surprised to discover that two-thirds of all respondents thought that the continent’s combined GDP will be among the fastest-growing in the world over the next 20 years, because I think so too.
When a country has immense wealth – in terms of both natural resources and passionate, bright and talented people – it should do well. In the case of Africa, this holds true for the entire continent. And yet, to date, only some of Africa’s countries do well, while the great majority of them lag behind the rest of the world. Much potential is wasted, as poverty and deprivation resulting from corruption and post-colonial exploitation are still the order of the day in many places.
Nevertheless, things are changing, and post-Covid-19 Africa is on track to emerge as the one of the world’s fastest-growing continents. Anyone can see that Africa is ripe with potential and fizzing with energy. It was, however, gratifying to know that other people agreed with me. What I find truly fascinating is where all this potential and energy springs from – and, more importantly, how it can be harnessed and where it’s going.
Africa is lucky to be both resource-rich and resourceful. First, this is a continent that has youth on its side. It’s blessed with a young population – the youngest on the planet, in fact – that is hungry for knowledge, democracy, growth and quality of life. The people are impressively dynamic, unceasingly creative and keen to make their mark on their respective countries and the world. It’s reassuring to know that the future is in their hands.
Then there’s Africa’s geological good fortune. One study found that the continent has around 600 million hectares of uncultivated arable land, roughly 60 percent of the unexploited global total. This opens up the tantalising possibility of Africa feeding the world, although it is an opportunity that has yet to be unleashed. And while it’s true that Africa still needs to build its own food self-sufficiency, change is in the air. Take Senegal, which used to be one of the biggest importers of food, particularly rice from Vietnam, Thailand and India. Now the country is increasing rice production within its own borders, thus allowing investment that would have been spent on food imports to be made in other areas.
Africa also has approximately 30 percent of the planet’s mineral reserves, many of which are used in battery development, making it a huge draw for companies in the technology sector that create connected innovations to power the world. Indeed, there were, at the last count, more than 600 tech hubs distributed across the continent, in countries as diverse as South Africa, Nigeria, Morocco, Ethiopia and Rwanda. In fact, Rwanda – where Mara smartphones are manufactured – recently partnered with China’s Alibaba to establish Africa’s first electronic world trade platform.
Lastly, but no less importantly, Africa is replete with “traditional” energy resources. Mozambique, for example, holds 100 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of proved natural gas reserves – which, incredibly, is more than Qatar. Nations such as Nigeria, Angola, South Africa, Senegal, Morocco, Egypt, Libya and Gabon are oil-rich; but Africa is also a popular location for renewable energy companies that are keen to harness its limitless solar and hydro power potential.
A growing manufacturing center
Mix all of this together, and the result is affordable energy on a vast scale – which, combined with the young population, makes the continent an extremely attractive location for manufacturing firms. An added bonus is the geographical advantage of being close to huge consumer markets in Europe, the Americas and Asia. In fact, I believe Africa is reaching a turning point because it currently displays the same dynamics that were seen in Asian manufacturing centers such as China, Vietnam and Pakistan before their exponential growth.
For instance, industrial zones are growing in locations such as Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda, and Morocco. Currently, Morocco’s industrial zones annually produce 600,000 cars – which would otherwise have to be imported. That is a promising development, because when most of the vehicles driven in Africa are made in Africa, it will be a catalyst for more jobs and more investment. Then there is Ethiopia, which has grown as a center for apparel manufacturing and was recently called “Africa’s new growth engine” by the World Economic Forum.
Of course, more – much more – needs to happen in order for Africa’s manufacturing potential to be unharnessed. Major steps forward will be African autonomy; efficient, low-cost energy; and intra-African free trade.
Benefits of Africa’s common market
The borders in Africa have been stifling its development for decades. The irony is that these are not natural borders. They were set during the Berlin Conference of 1884, when Europeans and the U.S. carved up the continent into chunks, designing regional maps in a completely arbitrary way with little or no thought for local cultures, ethnicities and languages. That’s why it is today as complicated for an Algerian to visit Morocco, or for a Kenyan to visit Senegal, as it would be for a European or a U.S. citizen. That can’t be right. The administrative burden at these inherited borders has long needed to be simplified so that Africans can easily access each other’s markets, allowing people, capital and goods to move around freely.
That’s why the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is such a game-changing moment. Created by 54 of the 55 nations recognized by the African Union, AfCFTA’s launch has been delayed due to Covid-19. But when it finally comes into force – hopefully in 2021 – it will make it easier for local and international companies to set up manufacturing platforms, while simultaneously opening up a huge domestic market (an expected 1.4 billion people by 2025). It will also – according to an estimate from the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa – boost intra-African trade by 52% by 2022. Dismantling red tape and dispensing with tariffs will create opportunities for entrepreneurs, bring huge economic power and influence, and help rid Africa of its damaging colonial and post-colonial thinking.
In this last regard, Africa’s liberated young people are already one step ahead. They’re simply not interested in looking back to how things used to be or politely maintaining the damaging colonial status quo. Instead, their aspiration is to run their own lives, make change happen and generate new business opportunities inside their own markets. It’s why so many small companies are currently rising up across Africa.
Jettisoning old ways of thinking
It’s crucial that African leaders and politicians adopt the same modern mindset. For example, Abiy Ahmed Ali, the Ethiopian prime minister, and Édouard Ngirente, the Rwandan prime minister, are in their mid-40s and possess youthful outlooks that have rejuvenated their respective countries. This is how it should be, because Africa’s young people now expect and demand a revitalized and efficient leadership and a high level of transparency that consigns corruption to the dustbin of history. They want governments that are accountable for their actions and leaders who will invest in tangible projects that make a real difference to the lives of their citizens. And they want high-caliber education systems that guarantee free and equal access to learning for boys and girls so that they can go on to become the innovation drivers and wealth creators of tomorrow.
While there is still a lot more to do – like anywhere else – the excitement, energy, passion and determination across the continent is palpable because there’s a feeling that, by shaping its own destiny, Africa is on the threshold of an enormous change – one that could entirely transform its standing in the world. Now we need to step up a gear, capitalize on that incredible potential, and make it happen.
We are now shaping our destiny by ourselves and should reap the benefits for our own people – and thereby, for the world. That’s why I shout out loud and clear: Africa, your time is NOW!
Amadou Diallo has been CEO of DHL Global Forwarding Middle East & Africa since June 2017. He is the founder of Saloodo!. He was previously CEO of DHL Freight, CEO Africa and South Asia Pacific, DHL Global Forwarding, prior to which he was chief financial officer of Deutsche Post DHL Logistics Divisions and managing director for the integration of Exel and DHL.