African countries need to share their infrastructure, strategic advantages and resources in order to attract investment and drive growth more effectively, Business Unity SA President Sipho Pityana told the audience at a World Economic Forum panel discussion in Davos, Switzerland on Wednesday.
Pityana – who has been named co-chair of the WEF's new Africa Regional Stewardship Board – said Africa had great potential, not only to become a global growth frontier, but to attract investment that would lead to meaningful development and growth.
Africa has a large population of young people and some of the fastest-growing economies of the world, but it faces headwinds including inequality and a lack of infrastructure.
Pityana argued that Africa could learn a number of lessons from Asia, noting the growth of China's middle class. He argued that a continent that moved as one when drawing investment and developing infrastructure would fare better than one that was fragmented.
"We need to think continentally, whether we think trade and investment or infrastructure. The major challenge for the continent is the seriousness with which it takes its borders. They are too hard and need to be softened," he said.
In this respect, Pityana said initiatives such as the Africa Free Trade Agreement were positive steps.
"The developmental deficit in the continent is an opportunity to attract investment, so long as you can ensure a stable policy and regulatory environment. We need to unleash the potential to drive growth and attract that investment.
"Someone once said mosquitoes know no borders. We need to think about that when we invest in infrastructure in the African continent," Pityana said.
'Mosquitoes know no borders'
He said education, policy certainty and a conducive regulatory environment were non-negotiable when it came to seeking out investment. He warned African states that the African "youth dividend" ran the real risk of being "overrated".
"We need to take cognisance of the fact that we are starting from a low base. If we share that infrastructure, we can allow empowerment of the youth ourselves as well as drive and encourage innovation among the African youth ourselves," he said.
Nigerian businessman Ambrosie Bryant Chukwueloka Orjiako agreed with Pityana, saying the current migratory environment gave the developed world easier means to travel in and around the African continent than Africans themselves.
"Ease of movement in the continent must be addressed on the continent. The fact that I still need a visa to come to South Africa and Sipho needs a visa to come to Nigeria, but Europeans can travel to either country without a visa hinders us," said Orjiako.
Ugandan aeronautical engineer Winnie Byanyima said fluid borders between African nations were necessary, but were no substitute for decisive policy of growth and development from African leaders.
"We can ease the borders, but you also need to direct investment into those areas that will lead to job creation. And we haven’t done that. We are entering a very difficult period where governments are cutting budgets where the most vulnerable are," said Byanyima.
Zambian activist Natasha Mwansa said in order for Africa to develop to its full potential, it was essential that "social accountability" be entrenched across the board.
"Corruption is a big issue. It's more about the leadership in Africa and the power struggles that we get with it. We need to influence leadership to be aware of the needs that Africans have, particularly the youth," said Mwansa.