Maasai giraffe, the tallest animal in Kenya at the Nairobi National Park with Nairobi, Kenya in the background. © Wikicommons
Africa, the land of incredible sunsets and magnificent wild landscapes has occupied a unique place in human history, often being considered the ‘cradle of humanity’. Africa is where the oldest evidence of the existence of Homo sapiens was discovered. Africa is also the second largest and second most populous continent in the world. It covers about one-fifth of the Earth’s surface and has a population of nearly 1.4 billion people. In comparison, Africa is 2.97 times larger than Europe. According to the United Nations, there are 54 countries in Africa today. Algeria is the largest African country by area (although about 90 percent of it is desert) and the tenth largest country in the world.
The reality is that Africa is a resource-rich area. Gold, diamonds, oil, gas, copper, uranium – almost every country in Africa has a deposit of natural resources. Since ancient times, all this has attracted various peoples like a magnet. Greeks, Romans and Arabs founded colonies on the African continent, some of which lasted for centuries. Later, ‘modern colonisation’ led by Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Italy shaped the face and fate of Africa. In almost all African countries today, the official language of government is the language imposed by a colonial power, although most people also speak their native African language.
Cape Town in South Africa is officially the oldest modern city founded by Europeans in Africa (founded by the Dutch East India Company in 1652). At first, the major European maritime powers (Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal) quickly claimed large coastal areas of the continent, controlling mainly the Mediterranean coast and the far south, but did not venture deep into the interior. That came later. In 1885, at the Berlin Conference, initiated by Otto von Bismarck, the European powers decided to establish some international guidelines to avoid possible violent conflicts between them regarding Africa. It was this ‘new imperialism’ that enabled them to penetrate the interior of the country.
By 1913, almost all of Africa had been colonised and extensively exploited for European prosperity. The two countries that owned the most land on the African continent were France and Britain. The French, the Portuguese, the Germans and the Belgians ruled the colonies in a very centralised way, while the British controlled their territories by forcing local rulers to administer them for the benefit of the British. Belgian King Leopold II designated the Congo as his private colony (Congo Free State), which he brutally acquired and then barbarically administered, much to the indignation of the other European powers, who eventually forced him to relinquish control of the colony to the Belgian Parliament in 1908. It was estimated that forced labour, torture, harsh punishments and killings led directly or indirectly to the death of 50% of the local population.
During his official visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2022, King Philippe of Belgium apologised for these atrocities: “I wish to reaffirm my deepest regrets for those wounds of the past”. During the colonisation period, Africa was an important source of raw materials for European factories. Europe’s technical superiority enabled rapid conquest and total control. But raw materials and natural resources were not the only focus in Africa. The continent was largely exploited and robbed of its human resources, which proved to be at least as valuable.
In the 16th century, the Portuguese were the first to buy slaves from West Africa and transport them across the Atlantic. Other Europeans soon followed and traded in humans as a simple commodity. As part of the Euro-American slave trade, enslaved Africans were transported mainly to America, where they worked on the large cotton and sugar cane plantations.
The vast majority of people sold as slaves by the Europeans came from Central and West Africa. Current estimates suggest that more than 12 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic for over 400 years, with Portugal, Britain, Spain, France, the Netherlands and Denmark being the ‘masters’ of this trade.
The loss of life and the atrocities inspired a wealth of literature on the subject. Slavery was abolished in the late 1800s, but regardless, the Allies used African labour and soldiers extensively on the battlefields during the two world wars. After World War II, thanks to a growing independence movement, a gradual decolonisation of Africa began, leading to the liberation of most of the continent by 1980. However, in some areas, especially South Africa, many people of European origin still live. The United Kingdom tries to maintain its influence over the former African colonies through the Commonwealth (a political union of 56 member states, most of which are former territories of the British Empire). Today, 19 African countries are part of the Commonwealth, including some with no former colonial or constitutional ties to the UK (such as Rwanda or Mozambique).
Africa has about 40% of the world’s gold reserves and about 90% of its chromium and platinum deposits. It also has the world’s largest reserves of cobalt, diamonds and uranium. 65% of the world’s arable land and 10% of the planet’s internal, renewable freshwater resources are in Africa.
But why is the most resource-rich continent today nevertheless the poorest on earth? Per capita income in African countries is among the lowest in the world. According to estimates, about half of the people in sub-Saharan Africa live below the poverty line, with women and children being the hardest hit. Internal conflicts, terrorism, undemocratic governments, poor education, low economic growth rates and poor access to finance could be some of the causes.
The literacy rate in Africa is lower than on any other continent. Without knowledge, there can be no progress. 90% of people in Africa live in informal shelters, most of which lack basic human needs such as food, sanitation or clean water. The lack of proper hygiene leads to the transmission of diseases and the outbreak of epidemics.
The continent is largely characterised by high levels of poverty and inequality, strong patriarchal societies with low transparency, accountability and security, and high unemployment. Climate change also poses a major threat to Africa, as the continent is particularly vulnerable due to its weak adaptive capacity, heavy dependence on ecosystems for livelihoods and outdated agricultural systems. In fact, Africa is currently warming faster than the rest of the world and large parts of the continent are predicted to become uninhabitable by 2050.
All these factors mean that Africans remain poor. But there are some countries that are doing better than others. Economic growth in Africa varies from country to country and from region to region. It is the result of historical circumstances, cultural differences and access to resources, but also international traditional ties and relationships.
Today, Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa together generate about 60% of Africa’s GDP.
Nigeria is the wealthiest country in Africa and the continent’s largest producer in terms of GDP. In addition to its vast oil reserves, it also has significant reserves of coal, limestone, zinc, lead, natural gas and iron.
Nigeria is a major agricultural producer and a large source of natural rubber and cocoa. Its GDP has grown by 2 to 7% in recent years, partly due to its large population (projected to be nearly 400 million by 2043, making it the third most populous country in the world), which provides a large consumer market and supports the move towards a modern, technologised and digital society.
The country’s rapidly expanding IT sector contributed to Nigeria’s rise as one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies. However, recent political turmoil and some socio-economic problems threaten to affect this steady trajectory. It is also predicted that Nigeria will soon overtake India in terms of the number of extremely poor people.
Egypt, this ancient territory in North Africa, was for many years considered the richest country in Africa. After the Arab uprising in 2011, the country’s economy was hit hard. However, with a GDP of over $390 billion, the Egyptian economy is now showing signs of stability, with lower unemployment and a move away from predominantly export commodities.
Oil and gas are still engines of growth, as is agriculture, which occupies an important place in the economy. Meanwhile, tourism is one of Egypt’s most important sources of income. The thousands of years of history and the rich archaeological finds attract millions of tourists every year.
With a highly developed economy, excellent infrastructure and a GDP of more than USD 320 billion per year, South Africa is now considered one of the fastest developing countries in the world. According to Trading Economics, South Africa is the most developed country in Africa, with the service sector accounting for 73% of GDP.
Compared to most of its neighbours, South Africa does not rely on a single source of revenue. The mining industry (the country is a major exporter of gold, diamonds, platinum, coal and iron), manufacturing, financial services or tourism are all important components of South Africa’s economic success. Despite all this, inequality in the country is at an all-time high. Going forward, it is imperative that the country addresses this issue.
The recent economic growth on the continent is largely due to an increase in the sale of goods and services, but also in manufacturing. Despite its social and political problems, Africa is striving to become a world leader in natural resource production and innovation. Many African countries have rapidly developing economies that have the potential to be among the richest in the world. So it is clear why all eyes are on Africa these days. This is where the money of the future is!
Economic activity in Africa is expected to grow by a moderate 2.7% in 2022 and 2.4% in 2023, following a 5.1% increase in 2021 (source: www.unctad.org). Given the current political and economic realities in the world, food and energy shortages, as well as the Ukraine-Russia conflict, all eyes are on Africa as a possible solution. Everyone wants a seat at the table.
Europe’s approach has long since changed from being a dominant power to a more subtle form of political and economic influence. China is now a major player in Africa, with quick loans and massive infrastructure projects. The USA is also very important in the region. Russia is also trying to assert its influence, although it tends to be a disruptive factor on the continent. Africa needs the support of the whole world in order to move forward.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set a series of international targets that governments have committed to meet by 2030. As might be expected, they face their greatest challenge in Africa. Some of the key targets, such as eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality and improving maternal health, appear to be particularly challenging for most African countries. Without decisive action to accelerate progress, at least 350 million people will live in extreme poverty by 2050 (source: undp.org). “The economic slowdown is leading to further setbacks in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” said UNCTAD Secretary-General Rebeca Grynspan.
Agenda 2063 is Africa’s new 50-year development plan. Underlying Agenda 2063 is the recognition by the African political elite that a reorientation of the African agenda is needed to prioritise inclusive social and economic development, continental integration and regional cooperation through democracy and the rule of law, and to make Africa a dominant player on the global stage, capable of taking charge of its own destiny and defending its own interests.
A longer-term plan is needed because Africa needs to review and adjust its development agenda; it needs deep structural changes, democratic elections (most of Africa is not under democratic leadership today), securing peace on the continent, economic growth and social progress, attention to people and equal opportunities. Africa is a young continent with immense human potential, but these young people need to be properly educated. Africa should also promote technology, including artificial intelligence, to boost its economic growth.
But despite the bold goals and initiatives, the reality in Africa today is different. Nearly 60% of Africa’s low-income countries are heavily indebted, and millions of Africans are falling back into poverty. More than half of African countries remain dependent on external food aid, and food insecurity is likely to worsen in the near future. With higher fertiliser prices and low grain supplies from Ukraine, the situation will become even more difficult, especially in parts of East and West Africa, where drought, as well as ongoing conflicts, are damaging local harvests. As everywhere, prices are rising and this is hitting the most vulnerable and poorest.
The World Bank predicts that annual inflation will exceed 10% in many African countries. Despite unbeatable economic advantages (the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, has 70% of the world’s production of cobalt, a rare metal essential for making smartphone batteries), the gap between Africa’s GDP and that of the rest of the world is widening.
I was recently invited to a panel discussion on the future of Africa, organised by the ECDPM (European Centre for Development Policy Management) in Brussels. The discussion was moderated by the author of the book ‘The Future of Africa’, Jakkie Cilliers, a well-known Africa analyst, founder and former director of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
He introduced his latest project: a website entitled futures.issafrica.org, that models possible progress towards the African Union’s Agenda 2063, based on the individual and combined impact of different scenarios on Africa’s future. Basically, it presents different scenarios of possible development on the African continent, analysing each of the 54 African states based on different factors and external conditions. Depending on these factors, the forecast turns out to be more optimistic or less optimistic.
The main idea of the discussion was that the future is not fixed and can change radically depending on the international context, and how the great powers of today will act. Unfortunately, in each of the scenarios presented, Africa’s GDP will still be significantly lower than the rest of the world.
Scenarios are not predictions. However, if done well, they can reveal structural trends and effects of various policies. Future relations between the US and the EU are crucial for Africa. The same is true for relations between China and the Western world. China is expected to be the leading economic power by the middle of the 21st century, even though the Western economies together will still be stronger. Analysts assume that in the future there will no longer be any great powers, but more regional powers and that the gap between rich and poor will only widen. The possible democratisation of China and Russia will also most likely lead to major disruptions in global stability at some point.
Despite its large population, Africa remains a small global player. Its status has temporarily increased due to various situations such as the East-West competition, the war on terrorism, the increased international demand for oil and gas, or now the war in Ukraine, which has once again shifted the European agenda towards Africa. The continent should take advantage of this dynamic.
Africa’s development depends in part on a more favourable international environment. Globally, economic power is shifting towards Asia. In recent years, Africa has been an area of competition between the West, China, Russia and also Turkey. “It is more about business than partnership and aid,” says Jakkie Cilliers.
Among the various scenarios presented, the ‘World at War’ scenario is the worst, because everyone would have to lose. The ‘Growth World’ scenario would bring better economic results, but with negative effects on the climate. The ‘Sustainable World’ scenario maximises Africa’s economic potential but is the most difficult to achieve and the most unrealistic.
Major political disasters, such as the implosion of a major power like China, the US, or the EU, or enlargement (in this case of the EU) would accelerate the changes in the different scenarios. Either way, the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement should lead to stronger and more stable cooperation among African economies. Meanwhile, it would also cause the largest increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Although per capita emissions in Africa are relatively low today, this will change as the continent’s population grows rapidly and electricity consumption increases.
By 2063, Africa will produce more carbon than the European Union. Only real and effective global cooperation can counter the negative effects of climate change and possible natural disasters. There is now an opportunity for a global reboot and action for Africa’s future.
Europe in particular needs to rebuild trust in light of historical events and the way it has treated the African continent in the past. The 79th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 2024 is seen as ‘the moment to agree on concrete solutions to the challenges’. It is hoped that the document will be a ‘pact for the future’ that will restore trust between states and enable a global push towards the ‘sustainable world’ scenario.
But for now, the trend is still towards a more divided world, which limits Africa’s development opportunities. Determined efforts are needed to rebuild relations between the West and China on the basis of mutual respect and recognition of differences.
Europe should act as a mediator between the US and China. Traditionally, Africa votes with the West (e.g. at the UN), but there are no guarantees for the future. “Europe can learn a lot from how China implements its own agenda in Africa”, says Cilliers. He adds that “Europe should not move away from what has made it a pioneer in soft power”. Europe should adapt its approach in Africa, making it more flexible and project-oriented. Moreover, investments on the continent should always be based on local needs. Basic infrastructure should be a priority. The Mediterranean is compared to a ‘great highway’ between advanced Europe and Africa.
One idea that supports Africa’s development is that the continent should consider a two-speed approach, with some countries committing to high standards earlier than the rest. Agriculture should be the focus for at least the next 10 years, as it is the closest source of GDP growth. Africa needs an agricultural revolution. It can also largely benefit from the African Free Trade Area, which would also help the smaller countries on the continent. The EU could set a good example here. Stronger, more efficient continental institutions that support and uphold Africa’s aspirations and values, as well as coordinated positions among African leaders on key issues, would only benefit everyone. Strengthening Africa’s own investment and financing models, with external support where necessary, would enhance the continent’s development.
Labour, capital and technology are the three key factors for growth. Africa has labour in abundance, but it needs to be better trained. The continent also desperately needs investment, which should be targeted at projects because of the high risk of corruption. In addition to US efforts under the ‘Build Back Better World’ programme, the EU’s ‘Global Gateway’ and the G7’s ‘Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment’, analysts say more substantial financial support is needed, similar to the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe from the ruins after WW II.
Africa needs strong institutions, more and better education and must also address climate change, which is one of the main causes of migration and the huge exodus of people. Migration will then be an even more important item on the international agenda, especially as Africa will have a population increase of 1.5 billion people.
Prosperity in the region will not come anytime soon, no matter how optimistic we may be. Yet geopolitical stability is key to Africa’s prosperous future. The continent’s future depends on the inclusion of all factors. Africa’s future is being written today.