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This blog was started in May 2012, one month before the United Nations Rio+20 ‘Earth Summit’ where the green economy was the main theme. The blog so far has had three specific objectives.

In the run-up to the Rio+20 Summit the initial objective was to raise awareness of Africa’s huge green growth potential and role in rebalancing the global economy. Eight posts were published before the Summit and were sent to as many African environment ministries as possible. One post was published in August 2012 appraising the summit and Africa’s position: Africa, Rio+20 and the Green Road Ahead.

The second objective was to examine the case of Ethiopia, following the death of prime minister Meles Zenawi on 21 August 2012. At the time of his death Mr Meles was recognised as 'the voice of Africa' at international summits and conferences and a leader in Africa's green thinking. Four posts on Ethiopia were published between late August and early November 2012 exploring the paradoxical nature of his leadership with a focus on raising awareness of his green legacy and 21st century vision for Ethiopia and Africa.

The third and current objective is to raise awareness of the importance of the green economy in Africa's growth story. 2013 started with unprecedented optimism for Africa’s growth prospects. Summits, conferences, articles, books, blogs, films and other media now proclaim that 'Africa’s Moment' has arrived. But very few even mention the green economy as an essential tool in the process to achieve sustainability and resilience. For this reason the current focus of this blog is a call to action to 'put the green economy into Africa’s growth story'.

Part of this call to action is writing letters to the Financial Times. Not only does the FT have excellent coverage of Africa but it is also seen by many as the 'world's most influential newspaper'.

Thursday, 17 May 2012


In order to divine the future you must study the past.
Confucius, Chinese philosopher, 6th century BC. 

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. 
George Santayana, Spanish philosopher, 1863-1952.

In the 1960s, Africa's first era of hope, ‘the white man’s civilisation was on trial.’ People thought at the time that ‘the fate of us all is bound up in Africa.’ It was a brown economic development model, the trial ended in disaster and Africa lost at least a decade. In the 1990’s ‘second liberation’ new trials began based on African civilisations and sustainability. Twenty years later Africa is the new growth engine. Today globalisation is on trial but the brown economy is still dominant and poses an even greater threat to Africa's 3rd era of hope. Africa and the world are at a cross roads. Africa's green explorers have been at work since 1992 and are uniquely qualified and uniquely positioned to lead the way towards a green economy.

Africa is so vast and often so hostile from first contacts in the 14th century it took the Europeans 500 years to reach the heart of the continent. In the 1960s they were leaving after only 60 settled years. The optimists saw a rapid transformation through rapid industrialisation. They thought Africa could feed the world. Pessimists said it was too much too soon, "like laying down the track in front of an oncoming express train.” The pragmatists preferred to wait and see. The world’s most challenging continent was industrial technology’s greatest test. They said “the white man’s civilisation is on trial in Africa.” Those who understood the global consequences of success of failure said at the time, “the fate of us all in bound up in Africa.”

The pessimists were right. What we see now as the ‘brown’ economy in Africa soon turned hope to disillusion, decline and at least a lost decade. The early 1990s was Africa’s ‘second liberation’. The optimists this time saw adaptation instead of transformation, brought about by new thinking and new technologies and African sustainable development models. The Lem (or Green) Meeting in Addis Ababa in 1992 launched a Green, Green Revolution in Africa that would lead to reconciliation, sustainability and resilience. The pessimists were not convinced. They said Africa would remain a ‘basket case’. Too much had been destroyed, there were still too many old scores to settle and anyway the ‘green’ thing was a just fantasy. The pragmatists were still reserved. They saw both sides. It could go either way. Asia’s sleeping giants were beginning to stir and no one could tell how they would approach the 'forgotten continent.'

Twenty years later this is Africa’s third era of hope and it is now globalisation which is on trial. The optimists are talking again of transformation and of Africa feeding the world. They say “this time is different”, Africa's time has come. The pessimists admit that this time is different, but they say there is still too much  the same in Africa and worldwide. The old brown economy is once more expanding fast across the continent and the result, the pessimists say, will be the same as before, only worse. The pragmatists are no longer reserved. Africa's hopes are justified. Everything is ready. The transition from despair to hope is over. Africa’s green revolution can now take central stage. The old story of the brown economy is down to the final chapters. The new green story is being written. 

In March 2009 when the threat of failed states loomed across Africa, Meles Zenawi, Ethiopian prime minister and Africa's main spokesperson in international negotiations, said that Africans would have to "rethink" all their "development strategies" and "learn to do well in a less permissive age." With cries of austerity coming from the west three years later the less permissive age is likely to be prolonged and a "rethink" of Africa and everywhere else is needed more than ever.

With the right type of "rethink" the aspirations of Agenda 21 can now be practical reality in Africa. The knowledge and information are there. The technologies have been developed. The multi-disciplines are already at work. Business wants it to happen. Policy makers are trying to find ways forward. Global corporations are sitting on trillions of dollars. Investors are throwing trillions more into the volatile roulette wheel. Anyone with money is saying "where can I invest?" As the global brown economy faces a great contraction Africa is well-positioned and well-qualified to provide a great expansion of the green.

Over countless generations the frontiersmen and women of mankind have opened up the last great wilderness on earth. Africa’s resources are now accessible to the rest of the world and the world’s goods and services are available to Africa. How Africans manage their resources and consume the world’s products is critical. Will Africans try to catch up with Asia trying to catch up with the west's unsustainable life styles? Will Africans take over the debt-fuelled consumer boom? Will shopping become Africa’s new religion just to give the redundant brown economy its last gasp? Or will Africa’s youthful populations lead the rest of us on new paths to smarter production and consumption – a green economy?

Looking closely at Africa today, at the diverse opportunities in diverse river basins across the continent, it is possible to see how Africans can lead us on a greener path. As the late Wangari Maathi, one of Africa’s first green explorers and a great pragmatist, liked to say: “We know what to do so why don’t we do it?”


1970-1990. After a technical training in mechanical engineering in Britain I first visited Africa in 1973, travelling overland across the continent from Tunisia to Rwanda where in 1974 I began my first work in development, on a tea project financed by the (then) EEC. This coincided with the beginning of the end of Africa's first era of hope. Ethiopia's revolution in 1974 was perhaps the last surge of optimism on the continent before disillusion set in. For most of the following 16 years I continued to work on agro-industrial development projects – from construction, operation and maintenance to project design and management - in various countries: Burundi, Sudan, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Yemen, Zambia, Tanzania and Republic of Congo. Various crops were tea, coffee, palm oil and sisal. 

From my first project in Rwanda I began to question the value of the European industrial development model in Africa. Cutting down rainforest to plant a ‘cash crop’ for export, feeding hardwood logs into boilers to drive an alien process, trucking everything in, debts going up, tea prices going up and down, even then it seemed a reckless way to ‘develop’. Packing farmers and pastoralists into labour lines, top-down planning, hostage economics, resource-intensive, downstream and upstream impacts, externalities or ‘hidden’ costs - today we call this the ‘brown’ economy. At the time there was no other way and no other economy. Between jobs I also travelled extensively in Africa, often on foot, and always wondered how the challenging places I visited could ever be ‘developed’.  

By the end of the 1980s my work as consultant and project manager was mainly trying to ‘rescue’ brown development projects that had been studied for feasibility but not sustainability.  The hidden costs had not been factored in. Local knowledge was ignored. Risk management was unknown. By then Africa was covered with billions of dollars’ worth of failed or failing development projects, millions of starving and destitute people and billions of dollars of debt. Disillusioned, I left ‘development’ work in 1991.

1990-2000. During the 1990s I continued travelling as an independent traveller and as a tour guide and lecturer in the Mediterranean, Ethiopia and Eritrea. In Africa, a ‘second liberation’ was taking place, where Africans were taking a different approach to development; the word was sustainability. Learning from the lessons of the post-colonial model this was the beginning of a green revolution in Africa that would be truly green. Some called it Africa’s Renaissance. During this time I also lectured on Ethiopian and Eritrean history, culture, ornithology, architecture and development in various venues in the UK, USA, Italy and Australia. I also taught bird-watching techniques to local guides on Ethiopia’s first eco-tourism project at Bishingari on Lake Langano.

Despite Africa’s many tragedies, set-backs and disappointments during the 1990s, I saw how Africans for the first time since the arrival of industrial technologies, were moving forward in their own way, at their own pace, beginning to form a pan-African consensus. With environmental, social and governance issues (ESG) at the core of development strategies this was the beginning of a green-green revolution in Africa and the beginnings of what we now call the green economy. By 2000 and the signing of the Millennium Development Goals Africa was turning a corner.

2001 - present. In 2001 I made my base in Sicily (one foot in Africa) and since then have been developing, with my partner, two small biosphere reserves in two small river basins in the south-east of the island. The evolution of the global green economy over the past ten years, the thinking and the technologies behind it, has inspired our work in Sicily.

As I continued to travel in Africa I discovered something else happening. Around 2003, the ‘big push’ into the continent by the emerging markets, led by China, coincided with what turned out to be the biggest global economic boom in history. By this time Africa’s sustainability, or green, foundations were stable enough for Africa to enjoy the boom.  Growth figures since 2003 are well known.

But the ‘big push’ in Africa by the emerging markets looked like turning back the clock. As the boom gathered pace we heard about the Second Scramble for Africa, Land Grabbing and the Final Plunder. The planning, technology, economics and finance, the assumptions and even many of the attitudes of Africa’s new investment partners seem little different to those of our ‘model’ in the 1970s and 1980s, only this time it was on mega- scales with mega-hidden costs. The lessons learned were being forgotten. The brown economy was expanding again in Africa.

In 2004 and 2005 I travelled down the Awash River in Ethiopia. The Awash rises in the highlands near Addis Ababa, flows off the escarpment and along the Rift Valley floor, north into the Afar or Desert, the hottest desert on the planet. The main river flows for 1,100 km before finally dispersing over a broad flat plain forming a lush inland delta on the border with Djibouti, 80 km from the sea. The disappearence of this legendary river in the notorious ‘Danakil’ desert was Africa’s last major geographical mystery until the 1930s, when British traveller Wilfred Thesiger became the first European to follow the river to its end in the ‘fabled Aussa oasis’.

During two month-long camel safari’s in the oasis and surrounding mountains I discovered the forested, fertile and highly productive oasis described by Thesiger had become an environmental wasteland, severely degraded by large-scale cotton production of the 1970s. Large-scale, water-intensive cotton in the fragile oasis was an extremely high risk, brown development strategy that failed dramatically in the searing desert heat; it all turned rapidly to salt. Looking at other sections of the main Awash Valley I discovered similar stories of project failure, environmental degradation, flooding, invasive species, resource scarcity  with other ‘hidden costs’ all around, including the rapid expansion of the brown economy.

My enquiry into the vulnerable Awash Basin led to a broader look at Ethiopia’s green development process since 1992 and into Africa’s green development in general. For the past five years I have been exploring the evolving ideas surrounding the green economy in Africa.

This is Africa’s third era of hope, and while ‘this time is different’ unfortunately so much in Africa and worldwide is still the same, and in many respects is getting worse. The world and Africa are once more at a crossroads. Africa is the last frontier for investment and the new engine of global growth. The big question now is whether Africa will be the last frontier for the brown economy or the first frontier for the green? Will the new growth engine last?
While continuing our biosphere reserve work in Sicily, my current focus is Working Towards a Green Economy in Africa, a blog which hopes to raise awareness of the green economy in Africa and perhaps contribute in some way to its long-term growth. After observing Africa for forty years, thanks to the green economy, I can begin to see how Africa can ‘develop.’

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