On May 19th and 20th, I went to this years’ Africa Conference at the University of Oxford with the goal in mind to learn more about a wider range of current developments on the African continent that go beyond the omnipresent bleak and stale stories of permanent crises in the news. I wanted to hear about positive changes, developments and opportunities that rarely make headlines in Germany. This years’ conference title “Breaking the Frame[works] – Redefining Africa’s geopolitical, economic and cultural influence today” seemed to offer exactly that to me.
Under this broad title, the organizers and all students at the University of Oxford, arranged for a wide variety of topics, ranging from education and healthcare to green energy, digitalization, arts and culture, business, and geopolitics. ‘Leapfrogging’ turned out to be one term that seemed to connect these diverse topics quite well, in the sense that African countries have, and should utilize, the opportunity to leapfrog over older technologies and directly adopt the most recent technological developments and training skills to overcome the main challenges of this century, such as, for instance, climate change adaptation, urbanization, further globalization, pandemics, industry 4.0, increasing population pressure, or the issue of African identity.
On the evening before the conference was officially opened, speakers and delegates gathered for a gala dinner at the historic Oxford town hall. In a pleasant atmosphere, over a glass of wine, delicious food, some good tunes and a diverse evening program, conferees could already get to know each other and mentally prepare for the conference and its themes.
On the next day, the conference was officially opened by Donald Kaberuka, an economist who served as president of the African Development Bank from 2005-2015. In his keynote speech, he stressed that the AU reform efforts as well as regional integration must continue in the spirit of Pan-Africanism. According to him this includes making colonial borders increasingly irrelevant through free movement of people and goods, the peaceful resolution of conflicts, and leadership promotion, especially targeting the youth.
The innovation fair built on his last point, when ten young social entrepreneurs were given the opportunity to present their innovations in a short pitch to the audience. The conferees then had to decide who would be awarded some seed money for their project. Personally, I was most convinced by two projects: The first, Post-Harvest Project (Zimbabwe), developed spacious e-coolers, which use renewable energy for food preservation. The great thing about these coolers is that they are relatively cheap with $80 and autonomous from the grid, which makes them a viable option for farmers and households in remote areas. The later winner of the seed money, Afya Tea (Cameroon), convinced me mainly with its product, an organic tea for diabetic treatment. Also, Afya Tea offers regularly boot camp sessions to train farmers how to grow the moringa plant. It was amazing to see firsthand with what great ideas these ten young social entrepreneurs have come up.
I spent the rest of the day attending different panel discussions on topics such as “Africa as a green superpower: beyond the energy deficit”, “Digital entrepreneurship: breaking global barriers, filling local gaps”, or “Investment beyond the metropolis: ending urban hegemony in Africa”. To me the panel discussion “A Disunited Africa on the International Stage? Towards a Pan-African Global Policy” was most interesting and informative because the discussion focused mainly on the role of supranational continental and regional institutions in Africa, such as the African Union, the African Development Bank, NEPAD, or ECOWAS, and how expansion of these in terms of geographical space and increasing multitude of tasks can contribute toward greater African unity. It was argued that it is crucial to increasingly involve ordinary people to achieve greater interconnection between African countries, strengthen unity and weaken xenophobia. African governments and institutions are needed as facilitators to provide the means to achieve increasing unity. Think of physical infrastructure, such as airports and roads, and the idea of a Pan-African passport, which both would increase interconnectedness through more trade and travel.
Building on this, the final two speakers further elaborated on the idea of African unity and the opportunities, which the new century presents to African countries. In her key note, Graca Machel, an established women’s and children’s rights advocate and former freedom fighter from Mozambique, gave a vivid speech about Africa in the 21st century. She said that young Africans must reclaim their identity based on the collective and not the individual to overcome the failure of development. In this sense, reclaiming their identity means for her that young African leaders must recognize that “you climb with others, you don’t climb alone” and that humanity and humility are key to becoming a good leader.
Dr. Ibrahim Mayaki, CEO of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) Planning and Coordinating Agency and former Prime Minister of Niger, stressed in his key note that the youth will increasingly shape African policies given their growing numbers relative to the total population in African countries. He also pointed to Tunisia and Mali, which imploded because the youth felt excluded from the policy-making process as they were not given a voice. However, according to Dr. Mayaki, this will change within the next decade, when old elites will be replaced by young leaders who can transform the continent into “the Africa you want”. He also made the point that the solutions to Africa’s most pressing challenges lie in the further expansion of transnational and regional development corridors, such as the Algiers-Lagos Trans-African Highway corridor, which currently sees the construction of a highway, optic fibre cable and gas pipeline project connecting the two metropolises. In his opinion, regional development corridors are needed to increase economic density, which, in turn, should promote competition through the creation of regional markets and accelerate development. On a final note, he stressed that the success of these projects depends strongly on the leadership of the youth as only strong and inclusive leadership in political institutions will ensure the sustainability of regional integration (e.g. ECOWAS passport, Southern African Development Community, or the planned Continental Free Trade Area by the AU) across the African continent.
All in all, I can offer a positive summary of my experience at the Oxford Africa Conference 2017. I had the opportunity of learning more about what drives young people on the continent, what challenges African countries are likely to face in the future, and, most crucially to me, what opportunities exist. It was an enriching and insightful day, full of thought-provoking discussions and inspiring keynote speeches, which made this visit to the beautiful city of Oxford very worthwhile and rewarding.