This is a good week for Africa in the UK.
Today, Monday, is the fifth annual FT Africa Summit. Tomorrow, Tuesday, is the Royal African Society’s Annual Lecture, to be given this year by former President of Liberia, Nobel Laureate and winner of the 2017 Mo Ibrahim Award, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. And then on Wednesday and Thursday, the British Government-hosted conference on combating International Wildlife Trafficking will be held in London with a wide representation from the African continent.
These may seem only loosely connected. But there are two themes here worth bringing out.
Firstly, even though Africa still faces tough challenges, which in some cases (such as illicit trafficking and the impact of climate change) are multiplying, so too are potential solutions to these problems. Secondly, women have a growing role in public and economic life in addressing these challenges.
Increasingly, the solutions to African problems are being found in Africa, by Africans, for Africans, through the application of common sense and ingenuity as well as technology and policy. And more and more are coming from the private sector where they are allowed to innovate. Often these solutions need external financial support to enable them to be delivered, and sometimes the injection of external ideas can help stimulate local actors to explore new avenues. But it is on the ground in Africa that effective and economically viable answers are being found.
Just to give three recent examples. At an Agribusiness event last month at the London Business School organised by the RAS with Dalberg, Devex and Uhusiano Capital, the Ivorien entrepreneur Chris Daplet presented his initiative to expand rice production in Cote d’Ivoire through a company called VIFAD. The demand is there, the land and the farmers are there, but the necessary support has been lacking to increase output to meet the demand.
Secondly, Helios Towers - one of the companies presenting at the FT Summit and already identified as one of the London Stock Exchange’s Companies to Inspire Africa 2017 - has rapidly built up a major African business managing mobile phone towers in East, West and Central Africa. It is mobile phone technology and its reliable extension to all areas of a country that will enable African economies to leapfrog to faster economic growth.
Thirdly, using that mobile technology, companies like BIMA (another Company to Inspire Africa) is beginning to provide accessible and affordable insurance and health care to low income African consumers, reducing the risks of life and the uncertainty of health provision in both urban and rural areas, particularly for women.
Both in business and politics, women are beginning to come to the fore in Africa as innovators, entrepreneurs and leaders. But it is a long and hard road, one trodden with fortitude and perseverance by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf over a long and turbulent career.
Her RAS lecture is titled “African women’s leadership: Breaking barriers to political participation”. Reflecting on her own experience, she will draw lessons for those following in her footsteps and explain the motivation that led her to use the Mo Ibrahim prize money to set up a Presidential Centre for Women and Development in Monrovia. Across Africa, women are present in political life, but rarely at the top. The number of women presidents in Africa has fallen from three to zero in the past couple of years, even while the number of female ministers as a whole has risen slightly. The distribution, however, is very uneven. Some countries, particularly in West Africa, have had a long tradition of women as ministers for major portfolios such as finance or foreign affairs. Others such as Kenya and Rwanda have significantly increased the proportion of women ministers; and Botswana recently attracted attention for appointing the youngest woman minister, 30-year old Bogolo Joy Kenewendo as minister for investment, trade and industry.
But it is not just in politics that women’s voices need to be heard. Action is needed to ensure their full inclusion in all aspects of social and economic life. It is clear that progress has been greatest where there is a longer and stronger tradition of educating girls, and where women have played a more prominent role in economic activity as farmers, market traders or business owners.
Without bringing the female half of the population into public and economic life, Africa - as any continent - is wasting the potential resource and the life and economic skills that women bring. We should avoid rose-tinted spectacles on this: amongst the many capable and hard-working women, there are a few lazy, corrupt and incompetent ones just as there are lazy, corrupt and incompetent men in any society. But to face the challenge of a growing population of young people hungry for food, jobs and recognition, mobilising women of all ages is an essential ingredient for success. Nigerian woman entrepreneur Bolanle Austen-Peters, the Founder of Terra Kulture and BAP Productions and a keynote speaker at the FT Africa Summit, epitomises what can be done in combining culture and business to provide opportunities for young people - if the will and the funding are there.
And this is what brings the two things together. The UK’s CDC in particular is focussing its African investment on helping redress the gender balance, as set out in their policy document on Women's Economic Empowerment. It is important that all those investing in Africa - venture capitalists, hedge funds, banks, investment companies and impact investors as well as private companies, IFIs and foreign governments - use their investments to advance this agenda as it is most likely to help them achieve the end of growing the continent’s prosperity.
Africa’s future prosperity will depend heavily on involving more women in its public and economic life - and the first countries and companies to recognise this will have a competitive advantage over their peers. Act now to reap the benefit.
Nicholas Westcott is the director of RAS.