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A new look at Africa's economy

Manuela Kasper-Claridge/hfMay 12, 2016

At the Africa meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), currently being held in Rwanda's capital Kigali, participants expressed their optimism about the continent's economic future, writes DW's Manuela Kasper-Claridge.

World Economic Forum in Ruanda
Image: World Economic Forum /Benedikt von Loebell

Why is it that there are 10 times as many negative news stories coming out of Africa as there are positive ones? Participants in a background talk on Thursday were at a loss, expressing views of a skewed global perception of Africa to biased or unfair media coverage of the continent.

The discussion about Africa's image in the world quickly turned emotional because the World Economic Forum participants were rejecting talking only about Africa's weaknesses. Rather, they wanted to focus on the continent's strengths, too.

The president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), Akinwumi Adesina, already sees the continent on a path toward the fourth industrial revolution. The bank has raised about $1billion to support training for Africa's young generation to ensure that there will be enough programmers and computer specialists in future.

Akinwumi Adesina
At the WEF meeting, African Development Bank president Akinwumi Adesina made a passionate plea for African leaders to open up their countries for more investment, trade and the free movement of people.Image: World Economic Forum/Benedikt von Loebell

The head of consulting firm McKinsey, Dominic Barton, noted that already today more than 700 African companies were generating annual revenues of more than $500 million each. Barton said he was convinced that in only a few years Africa would be "among the fastest growing regions in the world after Asia."

A continent of opportunities

Host country representatives, too, said they were optimistic about the continent's economic future.

"Africa is a continent of opportunities and partnerships," said Paul Kagame, Rwanda's president, at the opening of the World Economic Forum, adding that African countries could, however, develop its economic potential only together.

Paul Kagame
Rwandan president Paul Kagame is blazing the trail in cross-border cooperation, easing visa restrictions and expanding trade with neighboring countries like Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya.Image: World Economic Forum/Benedikt von Loebell

But as Rwanda certainly stands out with its efforts, officials at the WEF conference said many other countries were not yet making good use of the opportunities opening up through cross-border cooperation.

Describing Africa as the "least integrated continent in the world," AfDB president Adesina called on political leaders to allow for the free movement of people across borders. He also stressed the need for more scientists, better education systems and upgrading national infrastructures.

Internet for all

So where is the good news everyone's been talking about at the WEF meeting? Certainly, much of it can be found in the energy and power of young Africans, they agreed, as well as in applying state-of-the-art technology.

The WEF hopes to achieve this with an initiative called "Internet for all." In collaboration with private companies, the project aims to connect Africa to the web, notably its vast rural regions.

"Internet and broadband should be considered as a basic need, just like water and electricity. That is why we believe it's not a privilege, not a luxury - but that everybody should take part in the opportunities this new revolution presents," Rwanda's Minister of Youth and Technology, Jean Philbert Nsengimana, told DW.

4G internet in the countryside

And indeed, wherever you go in Rwanda's capital Kigali, these days can enjoy a decent internet connection. Soon, the speed of internet connection will be boosted the global 4G standard.

In the countryside though, the situation is still completely different and will require enormous investments to improve. Nevertheless, the government plans to raise the money needed through public-private partnerships with companies. At the same time, they want Internet access to remain affordable to the people, for which it plans to set up internet cafes and to subsidize private access at home.

The advantages of using mobile technologies are already visible seemingly everywhere in Africa, said Hans Kuipers, an analysts with Boston Consulting Group. "Africa leads the way when it comes to paying with the phone. Just look at Kenya. It is a prime example," he told DW. In Kenya, one out of two people was already using a mobile phone to make payments, and shopping on e-commerce platforms is expanding rapidly, he added.

young people
Young resourceful people are the wealth of Africa, but they need to be educated to make use of their potentials.Image: World Economic Forum/Benedikt von Loebell

Digital change

Not least because of that, the WEF meeting's motto "Connecting Africa's resources with digital transformation" is an apt one. And especially among the young conference participants you can often watch a glow in their eyes when they discuss the digital transformation and its opportunities.

Quite a few of them have already founded startup companies or are in the process of doing so. Some deal with digital health consulting, others are mere online shops.

At the premises of the WEF meeting, organizers have set up a traditional African village. Inside of the wooden huts, however, visitors can immerse themselves in different worlds of virtual reality - once more a graphic reminder that Africa's future will be digital.