Challenges of Transformation in Africa. Lessons from the Last Decades

Published on 9th February 2023

Out of the 54 countries that make up Africa, it is hard to find two that are exactly the same! However, in 2011, Martin Meredith made the following observation:

“Although Africa is a continent of great diversity, African states have much in common, not only their origins as colonial territories, but the similar hazards and difficulties they have faced. Indeed, what is so striking about the fifty-year period since independence is the extent to which African states have suffered so many of the same misfortunes.”1

Over time, Africa has been described in various ways, hence on the 13th of May 2000, the cover of the Economist painted Africa as “The Hopeless Continent”; A decade later, the same Economist changed its tune carrying the following headline: “Africa Rising” (3 December 2011).

Then, in 2016 the New York Times carried the following article: ‘Africa Rising? “Africa Reeling” May Be More Fitting Now.’

Through this perceptive chronology, we are reminded of the many complex challenges of transformation in Africa that we have faced; and continue to face, today. Accumulated disabilities in Africa are therefore a function of historical and modern challenges that test the resilience and strength of our institutions and collective conviction.

Allow me to use the concept and experience of governance in Africa as a starting point to examine and assess certain challenges of transformation in recent decades; and the lessons that lie within.

It is for the people that any government exists: and because of the people that value systems of governance should operate. Thus there is a moral imperative for a people-centred style of governance that includes the voices, thoughts, and participation of all people.

Without constraining the concept of good governance to a particular interpretation, it is through the lived experience of the people that the limitations and weaknesses of any government are laid bare. Simultaneously, we must be conscious of certain international value judgements on governance in Africa. These value judgements may be used as political instruments: deployed to impose an agenda of developed countries over under-developed and developing nations.

At the same time, democratic application of governance that places people at the centre of policy and practice, could be the basis for reducing social ills and economic disasters. However, it takes political will and ethical leadership to govern well. Creating meaningful and lasting change, can be considered only possible if the people are allowed to participate in their own political, social and economic development.

Professor Adebayo Olukoshi has described democracies in Africa as choice-less democracies because policy-making has become an externalised function in many African countries, who are impelled to follow the prescripts of institutes such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF); the World Bank; and Ratings Agencies.

The prescripts include (structural adjustments policies) SAPs and the expectation for all these African countries to do the same things and respond in the same ways, all of the time.

It is for this reason that we may assert that African nations need to win the right to define what their problems are and to determine their own strategic goals. Otherwise, the dependence on aid from donor institutes will lead to home-grown progressive policies being punished by investors and Ratings Agencies, simply because they are deemed neither to conform nor to adhere to the prescripts.

The late Professor Adebayo Adedeji, in his paper entitled, “Economic Progress: What Africa Needs”, states that unlike conventional adjustment programmes, which on the whole prescribe a set of policy measures that all African governments are supposed to follow, the African Alternative Framework to Structural Adjustments Programmes (AAF-SAP), is a broad and flexible framework within which governments can design their own individual national adjustment with transformation programmes.

It is pertinent in this regard to remind ourselves that programmes to economic recovery and development can only be successful if governments, drawing on the broad support and democratic participation of their people, actually assume the prime responsibility for determining their country’s programmes and direct responsibility for preparing them.

In our brief examination of social and economic development we notice that the extractive economies of many African countries are based on a network of road and rail logistics designed to extract from “pit to port”.

These deep structural dynamics push countries to become merely the exporter of raw materials and allow transnational firms the power to set prices and determine the share of revenue to be handed over to African states.

If we are to consider the Future Prospective of Africa within a framework that encourages and celebrates access to markets for all, then allow us to take heed of the words of the revered Kwame Nkrumah — the first post-colonial President of the Republic of Ghana — in his 1964 Speech at the Summit of the then Organisation for African Unity (now known as the African Union).

“We must unite for economic viability, first of all… so that our vast resources and capacity for development will bring prosperity for us and additional benefits for the rest of the world…”

Although the unity and economic integration of Africa was a dream for our forebears such as: Kwame Nkrumah; Julius Nyerere; Kenneth Kaunda; Abdel Nasser; Modibo Keïta; and Sékou Touré, to name but a few, their Future Prospective of Africa has continued to inspire us all and live on in the African Union’s establishment of an African Continental Free Trade Area.

This agreement boosts intra-Africa trade through: trade policy; trade facilitation; productive capacity; trade related infrastructure; trade finance; trade information; and market integration.

A major opportunity to help enable and fully realise the promise of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, is closing Africa’s infrastructure gap.

We know that the appetite of international investors for Africa’s infrastructure projects remains encouraging, but for the continent to ease movement across its borders; achieve its trade goals; and truly commit to ending poverty, infrastructure investment must more than double and continue to grow into the next decade.

By investing in infrastructure that enables free movement of business persons, production, and market access, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement holds the potential to contribute significantly towards eliminating poverty, creating jobs, and improving food security.

This kind of economic empowerment has the turn-around capability to eliminate Africa’s trade vulnerabilities and acutely limited participation in the global market. That way, the suffocating traditional forms of trade that the continent is more commonly known for, will be drastically reduced.

However, a paper released in December 2022, by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace by Kenyan economist, Dr David Ndii, argues that the conventional wisdom of infrastructure development which has topped Africa’s economic policy agenda for the last few decades, should indeed be questioned. The research highlights how sub-Saharan Africa’s public debt burden, rose rapidly within a decade and that this rising debt burden of infrastructure development has somewhat wiped out much of the gains achieved.

Debt distress is once again stalking the region.

The Carnegie Endowment paper goes on to state that at the time of the call for building infrastructure, Africa was experiencing a roughly two-decade-long economic expansion (1994–2014), heralded as “Africa Rising.”

Per capita income increased nearly 40 percent after falling throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. But, growth has fallen off since 2014, barely keeping pace with population growth.

The research and evidence leaves us with important questions we should be asking of ourselves and our institutions: Is the infrastructure investment drive responsible for Africa’s debt crisis? Why has the massive push to invest in infrastructure failed to reinforce continued growth?

Dr Ndii suggests that instead of fixating on infrastructure, African countries should look to the experience of Latin American countries with similar resource endowments: a greater relative abundance of land rather than low-cost labour. As this experience shows, countries can make far more durable, sustainable economic gains by focusing on improving agricultural productivity with relatively low-cost improvements targeted at smallholder farmers for whom a boost in productivity could have the largest impact.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) describes how Africa remains a net importer of food, although it is home to 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land. The continent’s population has doubled overall, and tripled in urban areas, in the past 30 years yet agricultural production and food security have struggled to keep pace, and; Africa is the only continent where the absolute number of undernourished people has increased over the past 3 decades.

According to the latest forecasts, Africa’s total population would reach nearly 2.5 billion by 2050 and the facilitation of sustainable agriculture and access to markets will be central to the survival and feeding of all these communities.

Agricultural transformation has the ability to build social cohesion; create beneficial continental trade; provide a platform for global export; and contribute to the creation of millions of jobs. All of this whilst pulling subsistence farmers out of poverty and further nurturing the ecology of our environment.

For inclusive progress to happen, the transformation of the agricultural value chain must take into account the need for micro-financing in order to boost the capacity of small to medium enterprises within their burgeoning businesses.

Smallholder farmers contribute up to 80% of sub-Saharan Africa’s food supply, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and Africa has an estimated 33 million and upward smallholder farms.

In order to increase their capabilities; make it easier for businesses to invest; and contribute to sustainability, we must make concerted efforts to reduce barriers to trade, and this means democratising access to technology and information.

For only when we reinforce our multilateral responses to the lack of access to the benefits of the Digital World, will we pave a durable pathway that encourages innovation for all African people.

Closing the technology gap has the power to propel trade agreements and make use of the dynamic energy of a new, younger generation of traders.

Indeed, this is a bright and fresh generation as Africa is home to the largest youth population in the world, boasting the privilege of a largely untapped resource: that is, the electric energy that young people infuse into the evolution of their future.

Listening to the voices of young people; harnessing their innovations and inventions; empowering them with education; and offering financial assistance to start-up entrepreneurs, is key to reimagining an era of prosperity for the continent.

In 2001, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) (now the African Union (AU)) endorsed the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) for economic regeneration of Africa, with the goal of eradicating poverty, promoting sustainable growth and development, integrating Africa into the global economy, and accelerating the empowerment of women. NEPAD, which is a merger of the Millennium Partnership for the African Recovery Programme (MAP) and the OMEGA Plan for Africa, was hailed as Africa’s own initiative, Africa’s plan, African crafted and therefore, African-owned.

In a recent interview in the New African Magazine, Nardos Bekele-Thomas, CEO of the African Union Development Agency New Partnership for Africa’s Development (AUDA-NEPAD), spoke forcefully about the imperative to place youth at the centre of development, and offers thoughts on how this can be achieved.

Bekele-Thomas was quoted in stating that:

“It doesn’t make sense that having invested in the education and training of so many young men and women, countries would exclude them from the development effort. The youth themselves are becoming aware of their own power and demanding better from their leaders.”

A path that Bekele-Thomas and NEPAD are championing is innovation.

“African youth are creating apps and bringing in innovative solutions to the challenges they face, while just sitting under a tree with their smartphones. If they can do this under such a constricted environment, can you imagine what they can do if we facilitate and give them the space and the platform to exercise their creativity and their innovativeness?”

Programme Director,

As we consider the impact of the decisions of leaders on the future of youth tomorrow, we should factor in the implications of a world where: climate change is a lived reality; where natural resources are depleted; where human encroachment on wildlife habitats strike a deeper imbalance in the ecosystem; and where the lack of equilibrium manifests in the transmission of more pandemics.

Investing in a future with a climate-conscious mind set is a major step toward lowering carbon dependence and securing the sustainability of development programmes.

Innovative and integrated strategies that improve peace, health, education, food security, justice, economic growth, and climate change, are the key elements in strengthening the insulation needed for young people to fight future pandemics and thrive for successive generations.

For instance, the floral kingdom of the FYNBOS, in the Western Cape of South Africa, is itself, under serious threat from increasing urban expansion, and plays host to the KING PROTEA (Protea cynaroides), the National Flower of South Africa.

This extraordinary species uses its robust resilience as an opportunity to clear out the old and create space for fresh growth in the ecosystem. Resisting the harshest of conditions, the Protea can survive blazing fires: rebounding back to life after being totally burnt by releasing new seeds of life and reproduction, to continue its survival amidst most challenging conditions.

We see these qualities of agility and vigour also in the characteristics of Palm trees, which are able to survive in the most arid of deserts and at the same time withstand the onslaught of violent gale force winds, floods, and storms.

In order to achieve the ideals we dream of for Africa we must, like the Protea and Palm, focus on the continent’s strengths and optimism in the face of any crisis. We must ensure that our sustainable survival is based on robust and resilient policy choices that place future generations in the centre of growth and investment.

How we better manage the world’s resources for the good of all humanity in the years to come, is the next step in overcoming Africa’s and the world’s development challenges. And, taking ownership in the manner in which Africa’s Future Prospective is shaped, is how we enable the seedlings of the proverbial Proteas and Palms of Africa to nourish an ecosystem of inclusive and equitable growth.

In conclusion I leave you with the following sentiments.

By understanding the connections between economic growth and the reduction of poverty we are given a set of tools to respond to difficult challenges. Real transformation happens at the intersections where society; business; and the environment converge and progress in harmony — leaving no person, plant or place behind.

Let us explore and discover the interconnected nature of Africa and reflect on the many lessons that our shared history has to offer.

By Kgalema Motlanthe

 Former President of the Republic of South Africa.

1. M.M. “The State of Africa: A history of the Continent since Independence.” London: Simon & Schuster, 2011 p.14


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