Africa can take a quantum leap forward via the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but a stable supply of energy, as envisaged by the New Deal on Energy for Africa, was absolutely critical.
This was the clear consensus at Thursday’s high-level session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, with panelists referring frequently to the African Development Bank’s New Deal on Energy for Africa, details of which were released on Wednesday evening at the WEF.
According to information from the African Development Bank, the New Deal on Energy for Africa is a partnership-driven effort that aims to achieve universal access to energy in Africa by 2025. The bank is working with governments and the private sector to unify all current efforts around achieving universal access in Africa and coordinate action across all existing programmes.
Thursday’s session, titled Africa’s Next Challenge, interrogated how the the Fourth Industrial Revolution – which promises one groundbreaking advance after another, from intelligent robots and self-driving cars to neuro-technological brain enhancements and genetic editing – would impact Africa.
The session got off to a slightly bumpy start with Rwandan President Paul Kagame replacing his South African counterpart, Jacob Zuma, on the panel and Nigerian Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo joining the session late after being held up when his plane was delayed.
Forum organisers said Zuma was not available because he had a prior engagement. South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan had been suggested as a substitute but forum protocol did not allow for a president to be replaced by any other government official, so Kagame was brought in as a replacement.
The session, which was held in partnership with CNBC Africa, considered the fact that although Africa was home to nine of the world’s 15 fastest growing economies and had seen mass technological progress, productivity had fallen over the past 10 years.
Kagame joined Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina and Ericsson Sweden Chief Executive Hans Vestberg on the panel.
Kagame told the panel that everyone knew that energy was essential and that in Africa there was huge potential in many sources of energy. He said it was sometimes hard to understand why Africa hadn’t solved the problem of energy since all the ingredients were available.
He said government and business both had their roles to play, but political will was the starting point.
Desalegn agreed that power, in both its forms, was key. He said strong leadership was required to solve the main challenge around lack of power infrastructure.
Desalegn added that a good quality, reliable energy source was necessary as this made industrialisation possible, adding that energy needs in his country were growing much faster than the economy was growing.
Against the backdrop of the commodities price meltdown, Desalegn said Ethiopia was focusing on becoming a manufacturing hub, for which, of course, power was key.
Akinwumi Adesina of the African Development Bank said all parties could agree on three things: that Africa needed to diversify its export mix to include processed goods, that the continent should focus more on inter-Africa trade and that the potential of its arable land needed to be unlocked through commodity-based industrialisation.
He said Africans were tired of the continent being called “dark”.
Moderator Bronwyn Nielson added that Africans may also be tired of talking about the potential of beneficiation, which lead Adesina to point to the foolish idea of beneficiation in the dark.
Ericsson’s Vestberg agreed that Africa needed reliable energy but noted that technology would not wait for that to be in place. He said the technology was already arriving and urged Africans to continue to embrace technology and the opportunities it brought.
Vestberg said almost all Africans would have a smartphone five years from now. Just think, he said, what could be achieved then.