“In 50 years’ time, I want to see a developed Africa with justice and freedom,” says AfDB Executive Director Shehu Yahaya

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In this interview, African Development Bank (AfDB) Executive Director Shehu Yahaya used the opportunity of the Board of Directors retreat in Tunis (20-21 february 2014), to dwell on the private sector as a strategic tool for Africa’s development. He says the AfDB needs to invest more there with a view to generating more jobs for youth.  In 2064, Yahaya would like the continent to have world-class rail, water and road infrastructure built and maintained by Africa itself. Read his interview.

Question: It is one year since the Board held its retreat, mainly focusing on its effectiveness as well as Africa’s structural transformation through inclusive growth. As the Dean of the Board, can you take stock of the achievements regarding last year’s Board retreat?

The Board has made successful attempts at being more effective in the last year. Its meetings are now more streamlined, with interventions from EDs straight to the point, and less repetitive. Board Committee meetings now focus more on leveraging the contributions of committee members.

We now spend more time on strategic policies and issues that will impact Africa's future and the Bank's wider role on the continent and less on projects. But we can do more in this direction. So we will spend some time at the current retreat to explore ways of strengthening our strategic engagements.

The AfDB Board is today more green than a year ago. Many more documents are now circulated to Board members in electronic format instead of hard copies. In spite of this, we need to make more effort to refrain from printing them. Moreover, Board and Board committee documents are now available on the iPad application that substantially reduces the need to take hard copies to meetings. We need to use these facilities more effectively.

One of the more important instruments was the development of an electronic tool to monitor the recommendations of Board and Board committees. This can significantly contribute to effectiveness and accountability.

I also believe that the Board now functions in a much more collegial way, reducing divisions between different categories of board members and promoting the cross fertilization of ideas.

Through a working group, the Board is working with senior management to ensure that the return to Abidjan is smooth.

Question: This year’s meeting will deliver on private sector development. To what extent is the theme strategic for the Bank?

The private sector theme for this retreat couldn't have been a better one because Africa's development challenges cannot be handled by governments alone. Consider one example: Africa’s infrastructure deficit, which experts believe robs the continent of one to two percent of GDP growth every year. The 48 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, with their combined population of 800 million, generate roughly the same amount of power as Spain, which has a population of 45 million.

Power consumption in Africa, at 124 kilowatt hours per capita per year and falling, is only a tenth of that found elsewhere in the developing world, barely enough to power one 100-watt light bulb per person for three hours a day. Africa cannot become a nine trillion dollar economy by 2050 with this power deficit. The mobilization of the private sector is therefore essential.

Experts tell us that Africa’s overall infrastructure spending needs are about USD93 billion a year. To finance this, only USD45 billion is being mobilized – 30 billion from domestic sources and 15 billion from external ones. This leaves a financing gap of close to USD50 billion a year. Only the private sector can help fill this financing gap. 

Despite Africa’s robust growth, the phenomenon of youth unemployment is turning out to be a principal challenge. Youth constitutes more than 60 percent of Africa’s total population and accounts for 45 per cent of the total labor force, yet youth unemployment in Sub-Saharan African is estimated to be over 20 per cent. Without the private sector we cannot generate enough jobs in Africa to fill this gap.

In summary, the Bank's vision for infrastructure development, green growth, climate change adaptation, jobs and inclusive growth cannot be achieved without partnering with the private sector. This is why today's retreat is focusing on that and why we are listening to successful private sector experts on the ground in Africa.

Question: In your view, what is missing for Africa’s private sector to influence its economic development?

The private sector in Africa could thrive more with a better enabling environment: peace and political stability; policies and institutions that allow companies to get registered and investors to come in; tax regimes and incentives that will be attractive for businesses; corruption-free zones.  

The private sector, particularly SMEs, suffer from inadequate access to finance. Even when available, the interest rate in most countries is usurious. This bottleneck must be addressed if Africa’s private sector is to thrive. It will thrive with more open borders, visa-free travel, unified tax codes across countries, common standards for goods and services and cross-border banking. We call this regional integration. For the private sector to thrive regional integration must be taken seriously by African governments.  

Question: What Africa would you want to see in 50 years’ time?

I would like to see an Africa at peace with itself in 2064, in harmony from the land of the Limpopo River to the region of the Nile.

In 2064, Africa will have come of age. It will speak with one voice at the UN with a Permanent Seat on the Security Council. Our 54 countries will see themselves less as countries but more as states which constitute an increasingly integrated economic and political entity called Africa. All borders on the continent will be open. Visa travel will be a thing of the past.

Africa will see a 9 trillion dollar economy by 2064, an economy that  is no longer a mere supplier of raw materials and dumping ground of manufacturers, but a knowledge-driven, innovative industrial hub, a leading supplier of R&D, an inspiration for the world. African corporations will not be known as African corporations in 2064. They will be standards of business which everyone will look up to.  

I would like to see an Africa in 2064 with a superhighway and fast railway line linking all 54 African capital cities. An Africa with world-class rail, water and road infrastructure built and maintained by Africa. I would like to see an Africa where the energies and talents of the youth, of women and of communities are unleashed and where development is pursued in harmony with the environment. An Africa of justice and freedom.