By Gillian Tee
Africa has entered its golden era. And the claim is not merely a play on the continent’s mineral-rich lands. This year, as 17 African countries celebrate 50 years of independence, and as all eyes turn to the continent while it hosts the 2010 football world cup, Africa and its disparate states are displaying to the world their aureate qualities and potential for economic growth.
Sharply pronouncing the recent remarkable changes that have revolutionized traditional thinking with respect to African growth and development, Africa Turning Golden – the 7th annual African Economic Forum hosted by Columbia University’s SIPA Pan-African Network, African Business club and African Law Students Association last weekend – impressed upon its audience the continent’s brewing “investment revolution” over the past decade: one that of the continent’s rebirth and reinvention as a business haven.
Focusing on the foreign investment ties now evident in many African countries, the two-day forum highlighted overarching themes of entrepreneurial and business opportunities as it placed a strong emphasis on Africa’s growing knowledge economy. Notably, the forum underlined the important role of technology and science in African infrastructural development.
Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, Vice President for the World Bank in the African Region, opened the event with a keynote speech pronouncing the growth in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector now apparent in many African countries. Sierra Leone, employed by Ezekwesili as an illustration, is using mobile telephony technology to gain access to market information, and as a result has seen increase in the average real income of its citizens.
This was just one out of the many success-stories depicted by speakers throughout the event: stories where a developing state, because of technology, can now take advantage of trade opportunities that would have otherwise passed them by.
African growth in technology markets, Ezekwesili stressed, was a good example of the many opportunities African states possess in other industries. Investors, business executives, and members of the African diaspora were urged to “cash in” on Africa’s transformative growth and jump on the technology bandwagon.
Looking to the future, the forum reiterated the following idea: Africa’s development is predicted to follow a completely different paradigm than historically experienced by other developing nations. The emergence of a knowledge economy driven by innovation, ideas, education and technology, once thought remote for Africa, now appears to be unfolding in contrast to Afro-pessimistic thinking in the past.
Standing out from the myriad of panel discussions as part of the forum’s agenda was the China-Africa Investment summit. China-Africa two-way trade has reached over $100 million dollars in recent years and both its benefits and detriments to China and the rest of the world are the subject of fierce debate. On one end of the spectrum, Sino-African economic ties have been depicted as beneficial components to Africa’s growth. On the other, concerns have been raised regarding the political implications of China’s activities in Africa, encompassing human rights issues, labor divisions, exploitation and environmental questions.
Panelists Abi Adisa, founder and president of Oridun Capital Management, Remi Bello, founder of an African-based consulting company, and Harry Broadman, Senior Vice President of an emerging markets investment advisory firm, all emphasized the broader growth benefits of Sino-African trade agreements brought about by infrastructural development and its corresponding spur of investment competition. “We have to recognize China’s important role in Africa’s future growth prospects,” noted Bello.
The chief economist of the China Export-Import Bank, Dr. Jian-Ye Wang, projected the development of Sino-African ties as part of a broader trend of south-south trade and investment and noted that China does not see itself as a donor but as Africa’s “trading partner.” He encouraged all developing countries, including Africa, to look at China as an opportunity for growth and poverty reduction.
“For Africa, the full effects of growth have not been felt out in macroeconomic outcomes. The main policy reason behind growing trade in Africa is trade liberalization undertaken by African countries themselves,” stressed Wang.
As new ways to build Africa’s frontier sectors were discussed through the forum, business entrepreneurs shared their success stories and their strategies for trade investments within the country despite the global financial crisis.
Last year, the 2009 African Economic forum – Assets to Action – focused on unmasking Africa’s resources in a challenging era. This year, the theme presented itself as a starkly more optimistic sequel.
Having grown into the largest Africa-focused event at Columbia University, the 2010 African Economic Forum addressed the pressing questions facing Africa’s future, where participants actively derived strategies to move the continent forward in economic and social growth. This drive for innovation and socially-driven development made a few things clear: past trends may not be the prologue to Africa’s future, Africa is transforming and making progressive strides towards development and prosperity. In other words, Africa’s golden moment has come.
Gillian Tee is a first year MIA dual-degree student with Columbia Business School. She is also Co-Editor in Chief for Communiqué.