INTERVIEW: Peering into the crystal ball; Africa in the next 85 years, according to a leading economist

"Africa's advantage is going to be its youthfulness, as others discover robots do not contribute to social security."

CARLOS Lopes is the executive secretary of the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). A development economist, author and educator, Lopes is from Guinea Bissau, and holds a PhD in history from the University of Paris Panthéon-Sorbonne and a research master from the Geneva Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. 

Mail & Guardian Africa’s Editor Charles Onyango-Obbo - digitally -  “sat” down with Lopes to send out feelers about Africa’s future – where the continent is likely to go in the next 85 years. How big is Nollywood likely to be by 2030? Will South Africa re-take the top spot as Africa’s biggest economy? And what would Africa look like if it totally eliminated malaria, HIV and tuberculosis? And why is Cape Town University’s Department of Astronomy so fascinating?

MAIL & GUARDIAN AFRICA: Kenya topped the August 2015 Beijing World Championships, the first time for an African country to do so. About which year, based on trend data or your own sense, do think an African country could win either the World Cup, Olympics, or both?

CARLOS LOPES: Africans are already in first place if we count all the medals won by people of African descent. But we are not going to see Africa win the Olympics any time soon if we continue to observe the way sports is translated into the Olympic disciplines. Many African specific sports or African specific rules within the existing ones are not recognised. And will not be in the foreseable future. Africans already excel in athletics because there is more fairness there.

By 2028 an African country is likely to win the World Cup. For that we should count on a football governance clean up, so the corruption of those who control the game now gives way to a more intrinsic beauty of the game.

The contribution of manufacturing to Africa’s GDP has remained at about 10% in the last 40 years, as you yourself have previously noted. How do you think technologies like 3D, robotics, and the kind of increasingly powerful batteries that companies like Tesla are making, could change that?

Africans have what it takes to become one of the factories of the world: immense renewable energy, demographic dynamics, rapid urbanisation and natural endowments.  Although leapfrogging will be essential for Africa to industrialise, this will not start with robotics or 3D. 

It will be through low-end value addition in manufacturing taking advantage of higher labour and other production costs in other regions of the world.  This being said, Africa will lead in frugal technology adaptation and will learn fast to move up the value chains, but it will be slower than other regions.

Africa’s advantage is going to be its youthfulness, as others discover robots do not contribute to social security. You can have as many robots as you want but if contributors to social security shrink and beneficiaries increase, you will pile up debt and the economic dynamics will bring you to the ground.

Nollywood is the world’s second largest film industry by volume (some even claim first), though not by value. You’ve written before about how entertainment can shift fortunes of African economies. Assuming it continues to grow, how big do you think Nollywood can get by 2030?

Creative industries are already huge in Africa and I bet, it could match agriculture in value. However this is due to low agricultural productivity, the lowest in the world, and the fact that creative industries are being propelled by new communication technologies. Africans and their diaspora demonstrate daily the richness and universal appeal of their forms of artistic and cultural expression. If we update national accounts through rebasing, like Nigeria and many others did, we will continue to be surprised about the exponential value growth.

Nollywood will expand to become more African and less Nigerian, overtaking India’s Bollywood in earnings, when demand for entertainment content will explode thanks to internet and tv universal coverage in less than a decade.

When is an African likely to get the Nobel Prize in Economics?

Without taking the glitter from the Nobel Prize, the percentage of African recognition is below small countries in Europe. Slowly but surely the Nobel Prize in Economics has become hostage to the politics of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In any other circumstances it would be considered unrepresentative to have a universal Prize being decided by such a narrow group.

I am in favour of an African philantropist creating an equivalent Prize, not for Africa alone but for the world, but with a jury that would be based in Africa. It would be interesting to see what type of awardees would emerge. An African winner would have a high chance, right?

When is the last African country likely to become a cashless economy, and which one do you project could become the first one?

Kenya is poised to surprise the world on innovation. It will be the lead country in the use digital money and will make bitcoin irrelevant. And the last user of new platforms will be Libya because it will resist non-tangible economic transactions, given its fear of any forms of centralisation and preference for cash.

Paint a picture of what Africa would look like if it totally eliminated malaria, TB, HIV, and child malnutrition over the next 15 years. What would be the value of the gain in dollar terms and lives saved?

If major diseases were dealt with, Africa would save at least one percent of its taxes, or approximately $80 billion. This money could be used for universal coverage and major human capital enhancement, changing people’s fortunes completely. The population life expectancy will be 20 years higher, diminishing the fertility rates and balancing the demographic pressure.

What disease have you heard medical and policy people whispering about as likely to be most adversely impacting Africa by 2050?

It will be diabetes, as we will witness a shift towards processed food that is likely to be, like for urbanisation, the fastest in human history. Africans are sweet, or love sweets?

Is it possible for Nigeria to be overtaken as Africa’s largest economy, say anywhere between 2035-50? Which African country is likely to be the new champion? Or can South Africa turn it around and get back on top?

South Africa will not get back on top. Nigeria will have strong competition and by 2050 may have an economy smaller than DRC and Ethiopia.

READ: The next 35 years: Nigeria and South Africa may not be Africa’s biggest economies. Who will?

Ethiopia and Djibouti have spoken bullishly of extending the Djibouti railway to the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa. What will this continent look if that came to be in the next 20 years?

The idea of key infrastructure with continent-wide impact been put forward in terms of regional integration priorities is not new. 

However, this time Nepad and the continent’s organisations have identified, costed, and are implementing, the 16 key such projects. The railroad from Dakar to Djibouti is one of them.

What is Africa likely to run out of first if climate change continues on the current path? Water, forests, or will the cities at the coast be submerged by rising water levels? What is the doomsday year?

If we do nothing on climate change doomsday is closer, it will be within ten years. We will experience rising sea levels across the coast, 20% loss of biodiversity and chaotic city life.

You are a child of Africa and Guinea-Bissau, where the official language is Portuguese. There are no more than FIVE Lusophone-speaking countries in Africa, and there have been suggestions that in the near future Portuguese will die out in Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique and be replaced by English – or Mandarin. Do you take that seriously, and when would the lights go out on Portuguese?

 Portuguese is the 5th internet language, and Facebook Portuguese users are second only to English. I believe Portuguese will be expanding in Senegal, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe rather than disappearing in the five Lusophone countries.

Which university in Africa is doing stuff that has captured your imagination, and that you think could turn into something revolutionary in the years to come?

Without a doubt the University of Cape Town Department of Astronomy. With their first atomic hydrogen spectral line images of a nearby galaxy, using their KAT 7 telescope, they have joined the extra galactic club.  KAT 7 is a precursor to the much larger MeerKAT telescope being built in the Karoo and the Square Kilometre Array, which will be one of the largest in the world.

What are the three most mind-blowing projections or numbers about Africa’s future that you have ever heard?

The first easily is the fact that Africa will double its population by 2050. Second in my list would be Lagos and Kinshasa joining the megacities in the same period. Third would be Africa representing 30% of the world’s wealth by 2063.

Choose two Africans, one a leader, the other a writer, musician, or academic from the last 100 years whom you would resurrect and confer immortality upon if you could.

The leader would be Amilcar Cabral not because he hails from my country (or I hail from his creation, since he made the country possible). He was the most rounded liberation struggle leader providing tactical and war strategic guidance while being also a mobiliser, a powerful advocate and a philosopher.  His theories and thought are so deep that they remain contemporary.

For the writer, I would choose Chinua Achebe given his contribution to literature while maintaining his sophisticated social and political role of public intellectual. He transcended his space and has become a universal author.

Finally, if you were going on a space journey for 10 years, which three things would you take with you from Earth?

I would most likely take a solar-powered tablet, an art object that will keep my connection with beauty, and a selected photo album of important people and places, in case my tablet ceases to work.

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