Africa’s demographic surge is both unprecedented and consequential. The population of working age Africans will outnumber that of the rest of the world combined. Moreover, 60 per cent of the world’s unutilised arable land is in Africa.
But does the rest of the world, especially the so-called major powers – the west and China – understand how to deal with an emergent Africa?
For nearly two decades, six of the fastest growing economies have been African countries. Some projections suggest that household consumption will reach $2.5 trillion in 2030. But challenges persist. Poverty seems to defy Africa's impressive headline GDP growth. Malnutrition, infant and maternal mortality endure. Africa’s rapid urban growth is attended by squalor, not prosperity.
Thousands of young Africa’s take a perilous sojourn across the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea, fleeing poverty and hopelessness in the hope of finding work and decent livelihoods in Europe. Virulent terror groups, Boko Haram, al Shabaab, find young jobless Africans easy targets for recruitment. Thousands of Africans are trooping into the Middle East in search of work with low wages under dehumanising conditions.
It is estimated that three sectors: Food and beverage ($740 billion); education and transport ($397 billion); housing ($390 billion); and, healthcare ($175 billion) will generate tremendous new value by 2030. Other equally promising sectors include consumer goods, hospitality and recreation and financial services. But despite Africa’s tremendous potential, the continent has not been on the radar screen of major Western politicians and business leaders.
The major powers are flummoxed, literally paralysed like a deer caught in the headlights. For the US, Africa is a critical arena in the fight against terrorist cells. President Trump, like his predecessors, continues on the path of militarisation in Africa. Today there are nearly 7,500 troops in Africa. Some analysts suggest that military advisers outnumber diplomats in US embassies across Africa.
However for China, Africa is no more than a haven for large infrastructure deals, a source of raw commodities and a destination for cheap manufactured products. Since 2000, six Forum on China-Africa Cooperation summits have been held. The next one will be held this year. In 2015, China made a $60 billion funding commitment to support Africa’s social and economic development, covering trade, agriculture, public health, infrastructure and industrialisation.
Africa’s numerous challenges also present numerous opportunities. What is needed is for the rest of the world, especially Western powers, to relate differently with Africa. It is time for China, Europe and North America to re-set and re-engage with Africa differently. The era of plunder, patronage and aid is in the past, gone forever.
Africa’s untapped, vast human and natural capital must not be for rapacious plunder through what is an extraordinarily imbalanced relationship with China and the West.
But Africa must also start to act responsibly, like a major power. African governments must protect basic human rights, uphold the rule of law, end corruption and invest in building human capital through education, health and social protection. This is Africa’s moment.
Alex O. Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University