EU and Africa partner up to strive for a bright digital future

Issue is ‘not what Europe can do for Africa but ‘what Europe and Africa can do together’

Who needs fixed-line phone networks? Africa has embraced mobile telephony, and with the electronic wallet, the continent that is least integrated in world trade is for once ahead of the game.

There are 49.7 million Kenyans, and Sabine Cessou reports in Le Monde Diplomatique that 26 million of them use mobile banking in a still largely informal economy; their access to financial services also includes loans.

EU and African Union leaders, gathered in Vienna on Tuesday for the "High-Level Forum Africa-Europe", are pinning the continent's flag firmly to the mast of a digital future.

The meeting is a joint initiative between the Austrian EU presidency and the African Union, whose chairman, Rwanda's Paul Kagame, a passionate advocate of the digital economy, argues that prosperity for all Africans, especially the young, can only be achieved by infusing African economies with technology and by collaborating with Africa's private sector.

The meeting is launching an EU-AU digital economy task force in order to develop concrete recommendations on how to help build an integrated African digital market. And a new micro-capital fund is being launched.

But the meeting, involving national leaders, commissioners from both EU and AU, ministers, academics and business executives, is also the important first fruit of the development of what is hoped in Europe will be a new relationship between the EU and Africa, the “Africa-Europe Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs”.

Migration crisis

Speaking at the meeting, president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said the issue was “not what Europe can do for Africa. The question is what Europe and Africa can do together.”

The EU External Investment Plan, the commission says, aims to raise significant sustainable investments in Africa and European neighbourhood countries by 2020. From the €44 billion announced, programmes already in the pipeline will mobilise €37.1 billion of investments.

The migration crisis has been an important catalyst. As has the growing strategic presence across the continent of China.

European leaders have accepted for some time that the key to stopping the flow of refugees across the Mediterranean lies in enabling African economies to become places where their citizens want to stay. It is also not enough simply to urge African states to more effectively manage migration and promise them a few euro for their pains.

That reality has provided those in the EU who have for some time been advocating a more holistic approach to development – one that went beyond aid, based on a partnership and programme ownership and designed by Africans – to make a case that has fallen on fertile ground.

Priority areas

The idea is to work on building that partnership sector by sector, and on Tuesday the recommendations of the first of the specialist EU-AU task forces, on agriculture and the rural economy, were presented to the meeting by Ireland's agriculture commissioner, Phil Hogan, and AU counterpart Josepha Sacko.

The group, a mixture of African and EU experts, under the chairmanship of Tom Arnold, the former head of Concern and adviser on food security to the UN, has set out four key priority areas – a territorial approach involving mixed private and public investment in small and medium-sized towns focusing specifically on empowerment of women, training and exchanges; sustainable management of land and resources and action on climate change; building productivity on land with a special focus on family farming, sustainable mechanisation; support for the food industry and rural jobs, not least through better access to financing.

By 2030, 30 million Africans will be entering the labour force annually – between 2015 and 2050 Africa will account for 70 per cent of the rise in the global workforce. For the rural community still 60 per cent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa, this is the great challenge.

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