Over the past fifteen years, Africa has been among the fastest growing regions in the world. And despite today’s challenging global economic situation, many African countries continue to grow, although at a slower pace. Africa’s growth can no longer be explained just by global demand for its commodities. Most now comes from increased domestic demand for goods and services in thriving sectors such as telecoms, financial services, manufacturing and agriculture. Businesses within and outside the continent are benefitting from Africa’s young, entrepreneurial, and increasingly well-trained workforce. And, today, inflows of private investment and remittances from diaspora outstrip international aid. Democracy, too, is extending its roots on the continent, with countries such as Côte d’Ivoire taking steps to foster reconciliation and social cohesion.
These efforts must continue. Our continent is generally heading in the right direction; yet progress has been far from even. Millions of people still live in abject poverty and hunger, and are threatened by conflict, instability and disease. Inequality is growing and widening the gap between the richest and the poorest. The lack of democratic, transparent and inclusive governance undermines citizens’ rights and investor confidence. And environmental degradation and climate change with its severe weather patterns are driving many areas of Africa to the brink of catastrophe. Ladies and Gentlemen, last year, world leaders endorsed the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change. These were crucial steps for the planet and its people, but we must remember that only promises which are kept count. The role of governments is vital in implementing those commitments. But it is not governments’ responsibility alone. It requires cooperation between every sector of society. And business must be at the heart of this endeavor. We must always remember that business cannot succeed in a society that fails.
Across the world an increasing number of businesses are looking beyond short-term economic growth and creating value and sustainable solutions for society. They are driving innovation, creating jobs and advancing more inclusive growth. They are building partnerships and embracing new technologies to deliver wider goals of development, including improving access to food and clean water, to sanitation, healthcare and education.
I will highlight three critical areas, where joint action is urgently needed to build stronger economies and communities in Africa and beyond. First, I believe that we have to transform African agriculture and food systems. In Sub-Saharan Africa, one in four people are still chronically short of food; and millions more lack the right nutrition for proper health and development. Without action, climate change and demographic growth means that these numbers will only get worse. Despite having unrivalled agricultural potential, which could transform Africa into a surplus exporter, Africa in fact spends around USD 35 billion each year importing food. One option for unlocking the potential is by treating African agriculture as a business and enabling the private sector to intervene and invest along with governments. This requires governments to put in place appropriate policies and regulations, strengthening institutions, and investing in infrastructure. And weather information must be available to all, particularly as we seek to promote weather index-based insurance for large and small farmers. Bigger corporations have to share market access, improved seed varieties and advanced farming techniques with smallholder farmers and local agribusinesses.
The greatest success will come if all stakeholders work in close partnership. It is for this reason that, last year, my Foundation launched the African Food Systems Initiative, which brings together leaders from all sectors in an effort to turn smallholders into agro-entrepreneurs and subsistence farms into profitable businesses. We must also ensure that agriculture and food systems are nutrition-smart, because it’s not just about the amount of food we grow, it’s also about the type of food that we consume. For we are what we eat. Nutrition is not just a health issue; it is crucial for economic growth as better nourished populations are more productive.
A second critical challenge with a huge impact on the health of African societies and economies is environmental protection and good stewardship of scarce resources. A healthy environment is a prerequisite for eradicating poverty and driving equitable growth and social progress. Governments have to adopt, enforce and strengthen policies that promote responsible natural resource management and prevent the loss of natural habitats, forests and biodiversity. And I urge businesses to source, process and manage resources more sustainably to meet the growing demand, while preserving our environment. This must include responsible water stewardship, striving for zero waste and using energy resources more sustainably. We must also seize this moment to change the way we produce energy. Shifting towards renewable energy sources will not only help to avert climate catastrophe, but also create new opportunities for investment, growth and employment.
Third, we have to improve and protect social and economic opportunities for all Africans. According to the African Development Bank, Africa has become the world’s second most unequal continent. The imbalance of wealth and income is not just morally repugnant; it is a serious impediment to future growth and it sows the seeds of disillusion and conflict. Governments must tackle corruption, ensure that tax systems are free of loopholes, and promote transparency and accountability. There is unfortunately no shortage of countries in Africa which have enjoyed periods of significant economic growth and high investment, only to lose it to authoritarian rule that enriches the few and impoverishes the majority. I encourage business to engage the poor either as customers or business partners; after all, by raising incomes and removing the barriers which trap people in poverty, companies can build the consumer base for their products and services. Businesses must also strictly comply with international standards of human rights across their operations and supply chain and adopt a zero tolerance policy towards child labour.
Finally, I would urge political and business leaders alike to invest in Africa’s youth and women, harnessing their talent and creativity. A skilled and knowledgeable workforce is crucial for the long-term success of business and society as a whole. I recognize that this is an ambitious agenda. There are many challenges to overcome, but building stronger economies and communities in Africa is possible. Sustained and bold leadership from every sector is required. We have the expertise, the technologies and the evidence needed to succeed. Let us all – business, the public sector and civil society – live up to this responsibility. I have often said that healthy and prosperous societies are built on three pillars: peace and security, inclusive development, and the rule of law and respect for human rights. There can be no long-term peace and security without development. There can be no long-term development without peace and security. And no society can long prosper without respect for the rule of law and human rights. So let us turn aspiration into action and build a peaceful and prosperous Africa founded on these pillars of progress.
By H.E. Kofi Annan
Former UN General Secretary.