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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


"The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied and immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say ‘Africa.’ In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist” - Ryszard Kapuscinski, Shadow under the Sun, 1998.

When thinking about Africa it is impossible to avoid Kapuscinski’s greatest simplification. Africa is as large as the USA, China, India and Australia combined. Covering 30 million km2, with one billion people speaking 2,000 languages in 54 nation states, Africa is the oldest, most diverse, most challenging and least understood region on earth.  During China’s 2006 ‘Year of Africa’, billboards in Beijing depicted Africa as the ‘Land of Myth, Mystery and Miracles’. Western ignorance surrounding this immensely rich cosmos  was thrown into focus in 2010 when Barack Obama, US president, had to remind fellow Americans, the most advanced people on the planet, that "Africa is a continent, not a country."

From 20-22 June the world will meet in Brazil for the United Nations Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development. The green economy and the institutional frameworks for sustainable development and poverty eradication are key themes of the summit. During the Conference it is hoped that the international community will agree on a set of Sustainable Development Goals, appoint a global ‘high commissioner’ for the environment and elevate the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to Organisation status equal to WTO or WHO. This once-in-a-generation event takes place against a backdrop of mounting global economic, financial, environmental, social and security crises including food, water and energy.

At the heart of the complex web of factors causing the world’s multiple crises is the fundamental imbalance between the dominant, unsustainable, high carbon ‘brown’ economy with its escalating ‘hidden’ costs - environmental, social and economic - and the evolving, low carbon ‘green’ economy that strives to account for every cost and is the only known route to sustainability. UNEP’s 2011 report - Towards a Green Economy - demonstrates how a rapid and sustained expansion of the global green economy is essential if we are to avoid creating the ‘perfect storm’ of converging crises expected to strike by the time of Rio+40.

It will take decades, multi-trillions of dollars and possibly massive social upheavals to phase out the brown economy of the high carbon, resource-intensive industrial world. The emerging economies, led by China, are already well advanced along the brown path to growth and the further they go the more difficult it will become to go green. In Africa, where the brown economy is least developed, the expansion of the green economy can be easier, faster and cheaper.

The historic Rio+20 summit also coincides with the rise of Africa. The last frontier for investment and greatest store of untapped resources on earth – mineral, ecological and human - is open, connected and ready for business. Since the first Earth Summit, Africa’s sustainable development policies and focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues have laid the foundations for a green economy. Economic growth figures and forecasts combined with progress on the ‘green’ MDGs show that Africa is ready to assume a new role. 

The tools, technologies and skills are now sufficiently developed in Africa to turn the aspirations of Agenda 21, the first summit’s defining document, into practical realities. The next stage is for green investors to understand the situation on the ground and to explore Africa’s enormous opportunities. Africa’s 2011 Green Economy Initiative followed by the successful 2012 World Economic Forum in Africa are natural spring boards to the next stage. 

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, calls Africa “a green field for investment because it is the least developed region on earth.” If Africa is to become a sustainable engine of global growth, adding an estimated $3 trillion (or more) to the global economy over the next decade, it is in everybody’s long-term interest that as much of this wealth as possible goes into the green economy rather than the brown. The challenge for Africa is to keep its green fields green.

There is an enthusiasm sweeping across Africa not seen since the 1960s. Some say the future will be African, that Africa’s time has come. However, such hopes have been dashed before and while ‘this time is different’ unfortunately so much in Africa and worldwide is still the same and in many respects worse than before.  African economies remain the world’s most vulnerable to an increasing number of outside and inside shocks. The perfect storm will hit Africa faster and harder than anywhere else. Rapid and sustained growth is therefore essential. African leaders have to run just to stand still. They realise that green growth is the only way forward. Africa’s Green Revolution is more important than ever.

The most immediate threat to Africa’s green growth is not climate change, nor even global economic volatility, both of which can act as catalysts for change, but the current expansion of the brown economy across the continent. From around 2003 the ‘big push’ into Africa by the emerging economies, led by China, coincided with the biggest global boom in history and gave Africa the economic boost it needed. But the emerging markets’ boom has not brought enough emerging ideas on how to develop Africa for the 21st century. In fact, it looks like turning back the clock. Africa’s debts are rising again. Capital flight is higher than capital inflows. The old hidden costs are returning.

The surge in brown investment across Africa – the most potent symbols of which are mega-scale mines, dams, farms and sugar enterprises – runs the risk of undoing Africa’s Green Revolution and 20 years’ green progress. Inequality, one of the most glaring hidden costs of the brown economy, is already causing huge swathes of discontent across the continent and could easily jeopardise ambitions. Multi-billion dollar contracts in fragile economies are ripe for misallocation.  Headlines like Second Scramble for Africa, Sub-Saharan Gold Rush, Boom Time in Africa and the New Great Game are sufficient warning signs. Instead of becoming the first frontier for the green economy, Africa is in danger of becoming the last frontier for the brown.

The planning, technology, economics and finance, the assumptions and even many of the attitudes of the ‘China model’, the ‘India model’, the ‘Saudi model’ etc in Africa are little different to those of the ‘post-colonial model’ that failed so rapidly and dramatically, only this time investments are on mega scales with correspondingly mega hidden costs and risks. The hidden costs of these 20th century, brown development models in Africa’s complex, harsh and unpredictable conditions are higher and felt sooner than anywhere else. These costs are now well known, there are more of them and they are increasing as the planet heats up, eco-systems break down, populations increase and the imbalances of the global brown economy spin out of control.

Security costs and opportunity costs must now be added to the lengthening list of 21st century hidden costs of brown development. Security costs are increasing with the rising discontent across the continent. The so-called land grabs isolate thousands of potentially well-armed people. An African country pursuing brown development strategies also risks the opportunity costs of deterring green investors. Brown development attracts investors because the rules are slack whereas green development attracts them because the rules are strict.   

If the economic development strategies of the China model in China has produced an economy which, as China’s premier Wen Jiabao often reminds us, “is unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable” these costs in Africa could be rapidly magnified. Using such an outdated (1980s) development model in Africa, as Einstein might have said, “is like trying to solve a problem by using the same thinking that caused the problem in the first place.” Top-down development without bottom-up participation has already been tried in Africa during the post colonial period and it failed dramatically.

A direct warning of this came from a senior Chinese official at the recent World Economic Forum meeting in Addis Ababa: “Do not necessarily do what we did”, warned the official of the China Investment Forum. Policies of “sheer economic growth” should be avoided, he said. “We now suffer pollution and an unequal distribution of wealth and opportunities… You have a clean sheet of paper here. Try to write something beautiful.”

The "something beautiful" could be African strategies to expand the green economy.

The Rio+20 Summit is a unique opportunity for Africa to forge its green identity, to demonstrate its collective progress towards sustainability since 1992 and to present its green growth potential to the world. More than any other continent, Africa is speaking with one voice. If Africa is to fulfil its ambitions and play a meaningful and stabilising role in the 21st century this voice in negotiations at Rio is critical.

Africa’s October 2011 Consensus Statement (CS) is the continent’s key negotiating document for Rio+20. While the CS makes a sound case for investing in Africa’s green economies it could be strengthened by putting greater emphasis on the continent’s tremendous green growth opportunities and by proposing concrete green investment plans. Africa’s negotiators could make a more positive case by saying more about Africa’s role in rebalancing the global economy and how the continent’s vast green fields can act as a buffer against the encroaching brown economy.

Item 24 of the CS calls on the international community “to put an international investment strategy into place to facilitate the transition towards a green economy.” This call is from the Old Africa, asking outsiders who do not understand their lands to devise green growth strategies for them. Instead, the New Africa is perfectly placed to propose African strategies based on the experience of the  past 20 years. Instead of waiting for the international community, preoccupied as it is with multiple crises, to deliver a meaningful green investment strategy on time, Africa is in a strong position to propose its own. Rio+20 is a historic forum for Africa to put forward plans that would appeal to other’s enlightened self-interest.

With its vast resources, 20 years’ sustainable development experience, demographic advantages, the lightest footprint on the planet and the promising growth forecasts, Africa is well qualified to take the lead in developing green growth strategies that could generate huge demand for green technologies, goods and services, create green jobs and inspire the browner economies to take a greener path.

A green growth strategy could begin with: (a) a green investment plan to release Africa’s green growth potential and (b) the institutional framework to design and build green economies including structures to roll back and redirect the unsustainable brown economy which is expanding fast across the continent. These two themes are consistent with the sustainability agenda of Rio+20 and could help in the development of Sustainable Development Goals. Africa’s advantage in developing green growth strategies and the institutional frameworks is in the achievements of the past 20 years.

In March 2009, with the threat of failed states looming over Africa, Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s prime minister and the continent’s leading spokesperson, said that Africa would have to “rethink” its “development strategies” and “learn to do well in a less permissive age.” Three years later, with the threat of austerity increasing worldwide, the less permissive age looks like it could be prolonged. The need for a rethink, of not only Africa’s but everybody’s development strategies, is more urgent than ever. Rio+20 is a unique opportunity for Africa to show that their rethink has begun.

With the global brown economy lurching from one crisis to the next and the distance between crises getting shorter there is no time to lose. The window of opportunity is narrowing and Africa may never again be in such an advantageous position. Rio+20 is a historic forum for Africa to show that it can lead in the green economy and why investors should take a closer look.

Working Towards a Green Economy in Africa is a blog that hopes to develop a conversation about Africa’s green potential. It is a green exploration of Africa. The blog hopes to generate enough interest and information on a wide range of green growth opportunities in Africa to form a simple, informal, draft green investment plan that would give investors and donors a sample of far greater opportunities in the last frontier.

A simple framework for understanding the green potential of Africa’s huge resources could begin with assessments on several levels: continental, trade bloc, country, river basin and eco-system level. Using 21st century measurements, simple compilations of statistics on Africa’s ecological, human and mineral resources - for the whole continent, for 54 countries and 54 chosen river basins - would quickly demonstrate green growth potential. River basins are natural designations for green growth assessments.

Integrated river basin management, systems thinking and biosphere reserves embody the holistic approach to sustainable development and are key tools for unlocking Africa’s green economy. Instead of investing in mega-brown development strategies Africa has the resources and qualifications to lead the world in mega-green. Africa’s great advantage in expanding the green economy is that their ‘under-developed’ river basins are already mostly green. 

All it takes is for 54 ‘green explorers’ in Africa, one for each country, to study a chosen river basin for a green growth assessment. An exploration of a chosen river basin would soon reveal a wide range of investment opportunities across a wide range of categories, or ‘shades’ of green.

Curiosity, collaboration, coordination, a sense of responsibility and web-based research tools are the only inputs needed to assemble a draft green investment plan. With the vast amount of information on Africa literally at our fingertips it should now be possible for green explorers to put together a draft plan for Africa in time for Rio+20. Out of such a ground-level plan ideas would emerge ideas for the institutional frameworks required take the plans forward, including structures for redirecting the energy and finance of the brown economy into more sustainable development strategies. Another of Africa’s great advantages is that the green explorers have been exploring their river basins since 1992.

54 blogs for 54 river basins in 54 African countries could be a step on the journey towards a green economy in Africa that can lead to sustainability, resilience and economic independence. The result could be a fair deal with Africa that could be a fair deal for all. Now is the time for ‘joined-up thinking’, something perhaps that Africa never lost.

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