The future belongs to Africa. The World Economic Forum made that statement in 2017, and it has been repeated many times since. But now, five years later, we are not only beginning to see that prediction materialising, we can see that the future belongs, specifically, to West Africa.
A week ago the world marked a milestone; our planet is now home to 8 billion people. Nowhere on earth is the explosion in population more evident than Africa. By the end of this century our continent, which had less than one-tenth of the world’s population in 1950, will be home to 40% of humanity.
A closer examination reveals that a 600 mile stretch of coastal west Africa, from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast to Lagos, Nigeria is the centre of much of this phenomenon. Here, not only is the population growing rapidly as it is in much of Africa, this area is one of the world’s most rapidly urbanising regions. It is a “megalopolis”, a large and densely clustered group of metropolitan centres, in the making. In just over a decade, the major cities in this stretch of west Africa will be home to 40 million people. Abidjan will be almost as large as New York City is today. By 2100, this area is projected to be the largest zone of continuous, dense habitation on earth.
What does this mean for Sierra Leone? Our population is also growing and is expected to double by the end of the century. There will be challenges and opportunities for us in being part of, and surrounded by, this huge growth.
In a country where 2.2 million people are chronically hungry and 1.6 million people are acutely hungry, our first thoughts must turn to how we can feed our citizens, and how we can do so in a way that is environmentally sustainable. As a country we are already suffering from the devastating effects of climate change.
Undoubtedly part of the answer is developing and modernising agriculture practices in Sierra Leone. This is why I’m funding new agric-education centres to enhance innovation and work towards food security here.
This is only part of the picture, however. 56% of Sierra Leoneans currently live below the poverty line, and with an unemployment rate of 5.33% and a youth unemployment rate of a staggering 10.77%, we must find ways to create economic opportunities too.
In a world of global trade, we have a hungry market growing on our relative doorstep. Sierra Leone is blessed in its climate and fertile soil, and by harnessing the latest agricultural technologies we can not only grow enough to feed ourselves, we can export our produce too and use this as a means of economic growth. The global demand for our crops exists today, but this opportunity will only grow with the world’s ballooning population.
While the sprawling urban megalopolis of West Africa, in particular, will need fed – it will not only require agricultural products but with all sorts of goods. Taking advantage of this market will require vision and investment. With its commercial future in mind, Togo has built a port with capacity much larger than its domestic needs, and also produces cement, steel and other industrial and consumer goods for its larger neighbours. We too must be forward-looking and ambitious, fostering sustainable industries where we have a competitive advantage to meet future demand and putting in place domestic infrastructure to support these industries.
To truly realise the commercial opportunities that lie ahead of us will, however, take coordination with our neighbours. Abidjan is just 1077km from Freetown, but would take a whole day and an additional 500km to travel between the two by car, there are currently no direct flights. For comparison, this distance is roughly equivalent to the distance between Paris and Berlin – a journey of approximately 12 hours by road, although this route is of course well serviced by both rail and air. Despite having the world’s largest free trade area in AfCFTA, and despite the efforts of the Economic Community of West African States, there is still a huge amount that we can do to unlock the massive unrealised potential of intra-African trade. As a former diplomat, I have great faith in the power of states working together for the common good, and I believe Sierra Leone can be a leader in facilitating greater interconnectivity and cooperation in our region.
The emergence of the Abidjan-Lagos megalopolis presents us with complex challenges, which will require multi-pronged and multi-national approaches to tackle them, but with will and urgency I believe that we can reap the benefits of the changes in our region.
The future belongs to Africa – and if we are ready to seize it, the future belongs to Sierra Leone.