Tomorrow, Wednesday May 11, 2016 the World Economic Forum (WEF) for Africa meeting opens in Kigali. For the next three days more than 1500 delegates will be discussing ways and drawing strategies of catalysing the continent’s economic transformation. It is a high level, meeting that brings together all the people who matter in these matters – heads of state, CEOs of global and regional Corporations and others from government and business.
Given this high level mix of government and business, expectations that strategies that work will be found are high.WEF meetings are not the traditional type of meeting of speeches, resolutions and communiqués. They are more businesslike, more about the search for solutions than merely stating problems. Meetings of this sort are, therefore, like a business pitch, where countries and companies market themselves by offering attractive packages but also work out what they can do together. Obviously, like every business, decisions are driven by what works and can earn profit.
What works, as we have discovered in Rwanda, may not be the way things have always been done. Often it is the unconventional that produces good results. In today’s circumstances what works may mean skipping certain stages of development and not repeating what others have gone through.
That is why the thrust of the WEF meeting in Kigali is on digital technology, on how Africa can take full advantage of the fourth industrial revolution. There are obvious advantages that suit Africa. Digital technology is knowledge and people driven. It does not require a huge industrial complex to manufacture it. In this sense we are not at a severe disadvantage.
Over the years, it has become clear that individual countries cannot realise their development goals on their own.
This recognition has led to more committed efforts at regional integration and the forging of various forms of partnerships.
This is where the WEF model is useful. Traditionally, the economic agenda has been driven mainly by governments alone. WEF diverts from this and places emphasis on partnerships with business.
The WEF meeting in Kigali comes at a time when economic growth in much of the continent has slowed down.
The need for ways to get it moving again is therefore all that much greater.
The slump in growth also follows a period of high growth and expectations that Africa was on the mend after years of stagnation and even decline. This sense of optimism was expressed in the Africa Rising and African Renaissance narratives. It had a basis. There was more stability and therefore predictability, rising urbanisation and a growing middle class, and increasingly diversified economies.
In many ways the recent economic slump has been a reality check. Optimism alone does not grow economies. Smart policies, technology, innovation, investments and partnerships do.
The new realism shows that rising is a process and can even be painfully slow. The crucial thing is that it is steady.
Both the Africa rising and African renaissance narratives have had their good points. They spelt out very clearly the aspirations of the continent and even started on the agenda to realise them. What is needed now is to concretise the agenda and move it forward. The outcome of the WEF meeting in Kigali is expected to help this along.
Where does Rwanda fit in all this?
Rwanda is one of the African countries that have maintained growth even as there has been a slowdown in others. There should be interest in finding out what it is that Rwanda is doing differently that makes this so.
One factor they are likely to find is that all the country’s policies make doing business attractive. Mention can be made of any number of reasons, but these will be prominent.
Few countries in Africa allow the free movement of people as this country does. Delegates to WEF will have found out that they do not have to go through the hassle of visa application and waiting for approval when coming here. They got them on arrival.
They will have experienced firsthand the safety and security highlighted by international reports. They will have been impressed by the efficiency and organisation of the meeting and of much else in the country.
No one will have been asked for a bribe in exchange for any service because all forms of corruption are not tolerated.
All the delegates will have noticed the central place of ICT in the life of the country, certainly the efforts to make it the centre of development plans. The digital revolution is already here. It only needs to be expanded and deepened.
Observing these things may not be the intention of WEF, but it will likely be its outcome. People, particularly those in business, have an eye for environments that are suitable for doing business. Today’s good political leaders are those who have a business sense. This is what will make Africa grow again and be competitive.
The Kigali WEF meeting will show that the Africa rising narrative is not merely aspirational rhetoric but could be lived reality.