Co-chairs of big Africa economic meet in Cape Town set out their visions and wish lists

While WEF could be viewed as a well run and attended talk shop, it's incumbent on business and political leaders to move beyond that to action.

THE theme for Word Economic (WEF) Forum on Africa in Cape Town, “Reimagining
Africa’s Future”, might create the perception of a system that is broken or a system that needs revision.

Depending on one’s viewpoint this perception is either closer to reality than is comfortable, or it’s a timely marker to spur on even greater commitment to making it work.

Speaking at a mid-morning Thursday press conference to share their individual views, the WEF Africa co-chairs illustrated the multiplicity of views and agendas being pursued over the next two days. The co-chairs, bar one, are all representatives of big business that not only stand to benefit from Africa’s success, but also probably have the biggest potential to make a meaningful impact.

Political leaders tend to come and go, and even if the timeframe of their involvement is five or ten years, corporate entities have the advantage of longevity, the ability to commit to long-term plans, and the need to be results-driven.

Going for the money

This attitude was evident in the comments of Antony Jenkins, group CE of Barclays group who said he considered financial inclusion and increased trade as the two primary issues on this year’s agenda. Naturally, the Barclays business would benefit if its clients were investing more, lending more and enjoying increased trade.

“We need to go into this meeting with a sense that there is a lot that can be done, but it won’t just happen. We are all going to have to work together to create the conditions in Africa to experience these benefits.”

Patrice Motsepe, founder and executive chairman of African Rainbow Minerals, viewed the need for Africa to remain globally competitive as a critical requirement to attract investment.

This required that structural and functional issues, including corruption, the pursuit of democracy, governance and - certainly in South Africa’s case - xenophobia be tackled head on.

“I hope that these issues will be discussed and it’s not what the politicians say about investment, it’s about the investors. It’s the only way we can create jobs and inclusive growth. Good work has been done. Stay the course,” he said.

Sir Michael Rake, chairman of telecoms group BT and Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman were equally upbeat about the prospects for continued growth and development, on condition that there was a concerted effort to address Africa’s many challenges.

Climate change risk

“What we find increasingly that the biggest risk to its growth is climate change,” said Polman. “This continent will be more subject to the effects of climate change, and it will pull people back at a faster rate than people realise. Simply because we are at a point in the world that the cost of not acting is becoming higher than the cost of acting.

“One of the most important things we need to do is have a clear discussion about the fact that we can only get healthy growth if you also attack the issue of climate change. There is no compromise any more. We have to to ensure that in Africa we don’t import the bad practices of the Far East.”

Women missing story

On the question of seemingly softer economic issues, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN WOMEN, called for business leaders to take responsibility and cognisance of the role that women should be playing in the corporate environment.

“My interest is to encourage the 700 business leaders who are here to use the power of one to make change happen for women. Women are part of the missing story of Africa. Women are solution makers, and we need to position and recognise them as such,” she said.

From this stems the issue of unequal pay, with Mlambo-Ngcuka calling on business leaders to make a concerted effort to check on the status of pay levels to women in their organisations, and to rectify a situation that is undoubtedly out of kilter with male salaries.

While WEF could be viewed as a talk shop - a well run and well attended talk shop - it is incumbent on business and political leaders to move beyond conversations to action plans if the challenges and opportunities are to be taken on.

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