PRIVATE intelligence firm Strategic Forecasting, or Stratfor, recently published its highly anticipated Decade Forecast in which projects the next ten years of global political and economic developments.
The analysts see the world in 2025 as a significantly more fractured, dangerous and chaotic place, with Russia projected to collapse, US power in decline, and China’s rapid progress stagnated.
But even as foreign investors, as well as African governments and businesses see a definitive role for Africa in this 21st century, Stratfor did not envision a place for the continent in the world’s game of thrones.
The only references to Africa are tangential ones to North Africa in the context of Middle Eastern politics, and to East Africa potentially inheriting China’s traditional export competitiveness of low wages and a large labour force.
At Mail & Guardian Africa we decided to fill in the gap, with a bit of our own forecasting, highlighting possible trends - big and small - that will shape Africa’s future, and its relationship to the world, over the next fifteen years.
1. A greener desert, and herding animals is cool again
Although climate change is usually associated with extreme climate events - hot places getting hotter, and wet places getting wetter, it’s also resulting in the opposite. Some hot, dry areas are now experiencing wetter weather since the higher temperatures mean the air is able to draw up and hold more water vapour.
It’s particularly pronounced on the fringes of the Sahara desert: northern Sudan, southwestern Egypt, the Western Sahara territory and some parts of the Sahel belt. Satellite data shows that during the last decade, these areas are getting greener, and pastoralists are reporting grass, shrubs and even trees flourishing in areas that were once bare sand.
Although scientific consensus is out on how the trend will play out in the long term, thankfully, it could hint to a scaling down of conflicts over land and pasture, giving respite to areas like Darfur and the Chad Basin that have been wracked by such conflict.
As Africa already has some of the most exhausted soils in the world, it could only be a matter of time before the often-marginalised pastoralist becomes the face of Africa’s agricultural sector. It also augurs well for a country like Somalia, which depends on its livestock for export revenue; the country is now the biggest exporter of goats and sheep in the world.
2. Africa’s youth: badly needed
It’s said over and over again, but the significance of Africa’s demographics today and in the coming decades has probably not yet been fully appreciated, otherwise African governments would be doing more to plan for it.
Ageing populations in Europe, America, China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan will put sub-Sahara Africa in a unique position to fill the demand for labour, and we are likely to see more emigration northward, not only for regular industrial or service level jobs, but also, African young people joining Western militaries in exchange for citizenship.The Mediterranean boats are unlikely to stop plying the high seas any time soon.
3. “Posh” ones, too
A few weeks ago, 36-year old Chuka Umunna was in the running to become leader of Britain’s Labour Party; the son of a Nigerian father and English mother, he’s been called the “British Obama” (a tag he however dislikes). It may seem a coincidental resemblance with the US president, but the two men’s rise to power in a Western country is significant, and hints to the impact of second and third generation African immigrants on their adopted countries.
On the one hand, there’s the growing alienation and rootlessness of young people of African descent in places like France, which erupted a few years ago in riots in Paris’ low-income banlieues.
Then, you have people like Umunna, who are suave, educated, have a likable back-story and even represent a curious phenomenon – that of Africans even being “too posh” to lead institutions in the West.
Last month, Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka had to come out fighting after he was accused of being too “grand” for chair of poetry at Oxford University one of the most celebrated and unique positions in poetry. It’s likely to be a growing trend, as the children of middle-class Africans who were sent to university in the West in the late 1980s and 1990s as African economies were collapsing now come of age.
4. China’s successors
China is already at the fringes of its high growth, cheap labour era, as its comparative export advantage of low wages and a large workforce begins to be whittled away. There are now other countries with cheaper labour than China, and are poised to inherit the China growth model.
Stratfor identifies sixteen countries, which it calls the Post-China 16, which the analysts say are best positioned to take over as global manufacturing hubs, particularly in garment and footwear manufacturing, as well as mobile phone assembly – highly competitive areas that offer low wages but quick growth.
Among these are Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, which together have a population of over 220 million, and those aged under-30 make up two-thirds of the population. Ethiopia’s state-led, export-oriented economy has done just that, aggressively attracting foreign direct investment in garment and leather manufacturing. Over the past decade, the Ethiopian economy has been growing at twice the rate of the Africa region, averaging, 10.6% GDP growth per year between 2004 and 2011 compared to 5.2% in Sub-Saharan Africa.
5. Routine, repetitive jobs out
But the Ethiopia model will not last forever. In the next ten years blue-collar factory jobs, as well as the whole cadre of clerical jobs, will vanish as industrial technology becomes more sophisticated.
A recent groundbreaking study by scholars from Oxford University on the future of employment indicates that routine intensive occupations will be eliminated from the workplace; particularly tasks following well-defined procedures that can easily be performed by sophisticated algorithms, such as machine operators, construction workers, telemarketers, cashiers, credit analysts, loan officers and other clerical jobs.
This puts into question the strategy that many African governments are putting in place to attain middle class status, such as trying to attract Business Processing Outsourcing (BPO) – Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda all identify BPO as a key strategy in job creation. But the truth is, BPO-type jobs like telemarketing, data entry and even simple accountancy jobs are all on their deathbed.
6. Thinking and nurturing jobs stay
But the jobs least at risk of elimination are on the opposite ends of the skills divide. On one hand are service jobs that require persuasion, negotiation and care are nearly impossible to automate, including nursery school teachers, social workers, coaches and speech therapists.
On the other hand are high-skill, creative and inventive jobs like engineers, software developers, architects, musicians, writers and film directors. Even jobs like event planners and public relations managers are unlikely to be computerised.
It means that African governments will have to reorient their education systems for the future, emphasising skills like collaboration, emotional intelligence and creativity. The current focus on memorisation, recall and following orders was valuable when routine, repetitive tasks were the backbone of the economy. But that time will soon be gone forever.
7. Egypt bestrides the seas
Egypt’s sheer military strength of nearly half a million active frontline personnel and 800,000 trained reserve troops gives it an edge in simply out-manning the rest of Africa. It also has nearly 14,000 armoured fighting vehicles, 4,624 tanks, 1,107 aircraft and 245 naval vessels, the largest fleets in Africa, according to GFP data.
Two trends will likely shift Egypt’s focus to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and entrench it as Africa’s military superpower. Last year, Egypt announced plans to expand the Suez canal, the first major expansion of the crucial waterway in its 145-year history. Around 3.8 million barrels of oil pass through the canal each day, which comes to 5.5% of global oil output, along with 8% of global sea-borne trade.
Meanwhile, the Indian Ocean is likely to become the new stage of global geopolitics – already, India and China are jostling for supremacy of the seas. With the Suez expansion expected to boost sea trade along Africa’s eastern seaboard, along with the planned oil and gas exports from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Mozambique in the next few years, sea power will become increasingly important for African countries.
With this, Egypt could entrench itself the military power of the eastern African seaboard, and have an increasingly visible role in the Indian Ocean.
8. The solar makeover
These are exciting times for renewable energy – US tech firm Tesla recently announced a powerful lithium-ion battery that will store solar and wind power for much longer than was possible so far.
Tesla’s Powerwall is a wall-mounted energy storage unit that can hold 10 Kilowatt hours (KWh) of electric energy, enough to power a home for up to five hours, assuming moderate to heavy use of appliances like the refrigerator, microwave and television.
There’s also photovoltaic glass now in the market, a fully transparent solar cell that could make every window, or sheet of glass (like a smartphone’s screen) into a solar panel. With a way to now store the energy, the continent finally unlock its solar potential, and leapfrog millions of consumers from having no power at all straight to renewables.
9. White space technology
Internet companies are now experimenting with TV “white spaces”, that is unused spectrum in the analogue frequency that can be harnessed to provide wireless broadband access over a wide radius, unlike typical Wi-Fi that covers a small area such as an office of mall.
The Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative, a TV white spaces pilot project in Kenya, is transmitting broadband up to 13km from one solar-powered base station and delivering broadband access for under $5 per month on average, per user. Similar projects have been rolled out in Ghana, South Africa and Tanzania.
Together, solar and wireless broadband can potentially revolutionise how cities in Africa are designed. National grids could become obsolete as buildings and homes themselves become self sufficient in power. And we could see tech hub springing up guerrilla-style anywhere in urban or rural Africa.
10. Nigeria - “back to the village”
Nigeria knocked off South Africa as Africa’s biggest economy last year, with the rebasing of its economy to $521 billion. But the reality is that Nigeria’s rosy headline economic figures and huge population mask deep structural flaws in the economy that will make it choke on growth soon. The country’s Achilles Heel is in its lack of power.
Nigeria produces just 1.5% of the electricity it needs for its 173 million people. Exasperated Nigerians dubbed the Power Holding Company of Nigeria the “Please Hold Candle Nearby” company; over 70% of running costs go to running fuel generators alone, and industries retain manual processes because they don’t have the power to run machines.
Without radical reform – and if oil revenues have hit a permanent slump – Nigeria will not be able to function as a modern economy, and will just become a de facto village, though still hulking in size. The impact on the continent of having such a giant grinding to a halt could be far-reaching.