Ignoring Africa would be a mistake. With those words by Navarra Center for International Development (NCID) Director Luis Ravina kicked off the event Africa, a Reality with Future. An event where all panelists agreed on a conclusion: Africa offers many more opportunities than problems, and Spanish companies should deepen their presence in the continent.
The event, organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation together with the NCID joined more than a dozen businessmen and representatives of public institutions to evaluate the different trends of African countries. Stefan Dercon, director of the Center for the Study of the African Economies of the University of Oxford, broke the dogmas of interventionism or liberalism in his inaugural lecture. "A mature state is one that knows what it can and can not do. The policies that really look towards poverty reduction go beyond the perspective of state vs. free market,” said Dercon.
The first of the three round tables focused on good governance and political stability. For Ramón Gil-Casares, Spain's Ambassador to Egypt, the most important thing is to support the immense youth that the continent has: "Violent changes have never worked, we must support young people. The average age in Sub-Saharan Africa is 20 years whilst that of the leaders is 62 years. This can not continue being this way”, emphasized Gil-Casares. Grace Obado, president of think tank Africa 2.0 Spain, went further on the importance of having good leaders which represent a country’s society: "At our institution, we believe that it is impossible for Africa to achieve development if the leadership gap is not closed. The elites, when there is civil pressure, agree to certain concessions but still govern everything between them,” said Grace, who highlighted the importance of who is in charge of the institutions: "In Africa, it is sometimes more important to have a good leader, with desire to improve and capacity to do so, than to have strong institutions". The director of Casa África, José Segura, added that in order to have young leaders, the continent must invest in education and research: "We talk about the generation of leaders. These are generated in educational centers, and Sub-Saharan Africa only generates 1% of the world's research,” he noted.
Laying down these realities to a local public is what the platform esglobal, which Cristina Manzano leads, does. "Our goal is to translate the complexities of the world to non-specialist publics in diplomacy, geopolitics, etc.,” said Manzano. One of such realities is the unification and openness of African countries to trade. Ainhoa Marín, a principal investigator of the Elcano Royal Institute, mentioned the recently agreed African Continental Free Trade Area, which she said is a proof that the continent looks towards the future, contrary to the protectionist policies in the United States or the lack of unity in Europe with Brexit. "When we look at Africa we see different trends, they are now uniting. Africa is not a country, but it could be a single market,” said the researcher.
The new free trade agreement will soon bring about the free movement of people, a policy that aims to generate opportunities amongst a young population that is increasingly skilled and prone to move inside the continent. Blanca Moreno-Dodson, director of the Center for Mediterranean Integration, highlighted the migration amongst African countries and the danger of crowding cities. "The solution is to develop the rural area, not everyone should live in cities. We can not allow them to absorb everyone, because it would also damage the environment,” she said.
However, the movement of the population from rural to urban areas can not be denied and must be addressed by investing in infrastructure, as Carlos Reyes, Head of African funds in the International Finance Corporation, assured. He highlighted the importance of sustainable investment and the positive impact of having a young and booming population. "The fact that more children are growing in Nigeria than in all of Western Europe is important. If I'm a diaper company like Dodot, I'll have to look towards that market,” he added. A presence that companies like ACS or Elecnor already have. José Nebrera and Ángela Pérez, their representatives at the event, called for transparent rules as well as a joint action by all agents, both public and private, to capitalize on business investments in the continent.
The last round table brought together entrepreneurs from different fields who discussed the business opportunities in Africa. A recurring theme that came out was to understand the context of each country and the need to adapt to it. "Talking about African bonds is like talking about European bonds. But Greeks or Germans? Because they are not the same. Talking about Africa as a country gives me panic because it is a culturally richer continent than Europe,” said Vasco-Duarte Silva, CEO of BDK Group. Also, Duarte-Silva stressed that Africa is open to doing business, but there are still difficulties to make investments. In this sense the president of the Club of Exportadores, Antonio Bonet, said that despite the fact that the African working group at his institution is the biggest, the market share and exports towards SubSaharan Africa are lower than the average, which shows "there is growth potential for Spanish companies".
With an average age of 18 in Sub-Saharan Africa, and an educated young population increasingly given to live in cities, the challenges presented by the continent are enormous, but even more so are the opportunities which Spanish companies can look towards. Why not, starting, for example, with diapers.