Calling for a More Open Africa on Africa Day

To mark #AfricaDay on Thursday 25 May 2017, Elsie Kanza, head of Africa at the World Economic Forum, is calling on Africans to reimagine the continent open and border-free, and to encourage their country’s policymakers to help make this a reality.

“Africa has a population of some 1.2 billion people, 70% of under the age of 30. We’re a continent populated by young, dynamic people, but our youth can only help lead an economic revival if their ability to trade and travel is not hindered by geopolitical bureaucracy,” says Kanza. “Africa has helped build other countries and continents, now we need to open up to each other.”

Kanza’s call for an open and border-free Africa is backed by Africa’s Global Shapers — a network of around 1000 young change makers across the continent. The African Global Shapers represent some of the brightest, most talented people on the continent who are working to influence the Africa’s future for the better for all who live, work and trade there.

WEF figures show that the continent achieved GDP growth of some 5.4% between 2000 and 2010. But growth has slowed during the past half decade to some 3.3%. Visa-liberalisation has realised strong GDP boost in trust and trade in countries harmonising regulation with their neighbours. For Africa it could similarly be a jumpstart to the continent’s growth.

Although research shows that trade between neighboring countries and regions is a boon for economic growth and development, trade between countries in Africa is low. Inter-Africa trade in goods accounts for only 17.7 percent of the continent’s total trade.

The Africa Integration Index offers a compelling case for integration. Countries that enjoy trade and travel with neighbours realise flows of capital and information across borders, enjoying financial and cultural benefits.

“There’s a massive opportunity to increase the trade of goods and services, and what young people keep telling the change makers who run our hubs across Africa is that trade and travel on the continent is expensive and difficult,” Kanza says.

“It is simpler for a startup founder from Kenya to hop on an airplane and get funding in London, than in Johannesburg. It is easier for an emerging fashion designer in Nigeria to look for opportunities in New York than it is in Accra,” says Kanza, who adds: “This doesn’t make sense in a world where the internet is obliterating boundaries and borders anyway.”

The WEF Africa Competitiveness Report 2017 states: “Africa is full of brilliant, educated young people. Troublingly full. The number of working-age people in the continent is expected to grow to 450 million over the next couple of decades. But Africa's engines of job creation aren't keeping up. If enough new positions aren't created by 2035, Africa may be sailing towards a crisis of youth unemployment.”

The WEF report warns that African leaders have a choice. “Either put into effect structural reforms that improve people's livelihoods, or allow current, not-quite-adequate constitutional policies to unravel towards inequality and civil unrest.”

Kanza -- and her change-making cohort who are #ShapingAfrica -- believe that opening trade and travel is one way to stave off this threat. “To quote Parag Khanna from his latest book, Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization: ‘Borders are not the antidote to risk and uncertainty; more connections are’,” says Kanza. “The challenge is to connect talent, capital, entrepreneurs and trade — not separate them.” Sharing cultural experiences may be one of the most fundamentally important keys to peace and trust.

Research shows that the movement of people through regions liberalises trade, encourages the flow of capital, increases trust between neighbors, stimulates investment within regions, and lays in new infrastructure. Critically, it also eases transfer of knowledge, reduces cost of research and development of intellectual property.

In the Africa Integration Index, Dr Adrian Saville of the Gordon Institute of Business Science writes about how Africa was historically primed for the extraction of commodities to benefit economies outside the continent, and not to engage in trade that would strengthen and develop Africa.

“This has restricted bilateral trade between African countries and the development of a lucrative consumer market, while rendering the development of value chains or productive economies of scale near impossible,” writes Saville, who adds: “Ultimately, this has undermined the overall competitiveness of the African economies.” Opening up economies, writes Saville, would bring “sustained structural benefit” and economic growth.

“Why is it easier for Americans to travel across Africa, than for Africans to travel across their own continent?” asked Kanza, referencing the Africa Visa Openness Report. “Knowing our over-reliance on commodities and China, and Africa’s slow growth rate, we need to take that next step and liberate potential. We need to make it much easier for young Africans to trade with each other, and to travel across the continent. The benefits are compelling, and this is literally opening the door to future growth.

To join the conversation, follow @AfricaWeShape #OpenAfrica #VisaFreeAfrica