After a year away, the World Economic Forum on Africa is back. Returning to Cape Town for the first time since 2015 after stints in Kigali and Durban, this year’s forum in the shadow of Table Mountain offers business leaders, activists, politicians and technologists a vital chance to take stock of the continent’s progress amid an era of rapid economic and political change.
With so much ground to cover, the task of organising a timely and impactful agenda has fallen to Elsie Kanza, head of the regional agenda for Africa at WEF and a former economic assistant to Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete. Kanza has alighted on four crucial areas that she believes will spark much-needed debate and prompt delegates to consider a raft of productive initiatives and solutions.
“There are four main areas of focus for the meeting, one is stability and core interests related to peace building, risk resilience and institutional governance,” Kanza says.
“The second is cooperation and issues related to regional and global trade, sustainable development and environmental stewardship. The third area is growth and the focus is on digital transformation and competitive industries. The fourth is on innovation where the focus is on preparing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Those key tracks guide the programme and where we’re driving action.”
Together, these pillars comprise the meeting’s central theme: ‘Shaping Inclusive Growth and Shared Futures in the Fourth Industrial Revolution’.
The notion of a Fourth Industrial Revolution has become crucial to the WEF’s conception of the world, driving a belief that Africa and other regions must prepare themselves for the positive and negative upheavals of rapid global technological change. From corporate growth to trade, health and education outcomes, all will be affected by innovation, says Kanza, who has placed the topic right at the centre of the World Economic Forum on Africa.
“There’s an interest in and deepening understanding about what the Fourth Industrial Revolution means and its implications. Equally there are fears in terms of job losses and security. The applications [of Fourth Industrial Revolution technology] are not well known and we need to actively highlight how technology is being applied in Africa. The opportunities are immense if we can share how tech is changing and addressing basic challenges in the African context. There are examples out there, the key is to get a better handle on them.”
This year’s meeting offers an opportunity to build on a raft of WEF initiatives that have been launched in a bid to improve the continent’s awareness of and response to technological change.
“With respect to the digital agenda, over the past year we started consultative public-private dialogues on a sub-regional basis to look at how to accelerate the industrialisation agenda in East Africa, Southern Africa and West Africa, and we’ll continue that. We will have a half-day workshop on inclusive Digital Africa, which is essentially helping to develop a coherent framework to drive forward the Digital Moonshot initiative that’s being driven by the African Union Commission and the World Bank, and which aims to digitally empower all Africans by 2030.”
Nowhere will innovation and technological change be more enthusiastically embraced than in Africa’s nascent start-up ecosystem. In a bid to better prepare the business community for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Cape Town forum will promote WEF’s Africa Growth Platform, a start-up incubator which aims to link emerging businesses with a wider network offering support, advice and finance. The programme will target companies that are less than 10 years old but which have managed to show their promise by raising at least $1m.
“It’s very hard for small businesses to grow. The Africa Growth Platform will highlight key aspects of the current ecosystem that they are operating in which make it hard to grow. It is targeting those who are trying to help improve the ecosystem and support businesses, be they in government, the private sector, public-private interventions or foundations. The platform will highlight key examples of leading practice that are not difficult to implement and have been implemented where we see impact. A third aspect is the strong interest of stakeholders to maintain a sustained programme. They are willing to allocate resources and work together to help transform the innovation ecosystem and help small businesses adopt Fourth Industrial Revolution technology to help them become competitive.”
In April last year, WEF’s Africa Regional Business Council, a community of CEOs of regional companies and African heads of global companies, undertook a commitment to launch an initiative to scale SMEs over the coming five years as part of an intervention to address youth unemployment.
Other initiatives that will get an airing in Cape Town include work with the Partnership Against Corruption Initiative and a commitment-collecting exercise to crowd-in support for a new e-commerce agenda for Africa. Yet one of the most critical topics at WEF Africa 2019 is trade.
The encouraging signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area by many countries in early 2018 and its entry into force in March 2019 has spurred crucial momentum around the idea of tearing down the barriers that prevent African countries from trading with each other. The forum aims to capitalise on these historic commitments.
“With respect to trade, we’re collaborating with the African Union Commission and UNECA to help with the operationalisation of the African Continental Free Trade Area – that’s a key priority at the moment. It’s actually core because the opportunity that the AfCFTA offers is access to bigger markets, and that’s critical.
“The key question is, how well do current markets work? If we take SADC, how easy is it for entrepreneurs to sell, trade and conduct commerce, to make payments, to get goods delivered? Even as we’re excited about the AfCFTA, we have to be realistic about where the pinpoints currently are.”
With so many interesting initiatives planned to combat Africa’s entrenched problems, a sense of both excitement and realism is likely to underpin an important week in Cape Town for both organisers and delegates. As Africa’s challenges mount, the World Economic Forum has chosen a crucial moment to return.