By NBF News

As the 19th World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa opened yesterday in Cape Town, South Africa, Managing Director of the World Bank, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, said the global economic meltdown had further thrown a staggering 53 million people into poverty around the world. Sixty per cent of that figure is in Africa, she said.

But despite the painful effects of the economic slowdown, the crisis, according to her, still presented a remarkable opportunity for African countries to fast track growth in their economies.  Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria's former finance minister, who is a co-chair of the Forum, observed that African countries were growing at an average of five per cent even before the crisis.

'So I think the issue has been how African countries can sustain that momentum in this time of crisis. Africa cannot afford to be seen as a victim in this crisis,' she said.

She stressed the imperative of investing in agriculture and for Africa to inspire its own growth stimulus to survive the crisis. 'The crisis should not be seen as a challenge, but as an opportunity,' she added.

Okonjo-Iweala, who spoke at the opening press conference along with the Forum's other co-chairs, Jiang Jianqing, board chairman of China's Industrial and Commercial Bank and Soud Ba'alawy, Executive Chairman of Dubai Group, said agriculture held a huge potential for Africa's economic breakthrough.

'Agriculture helps to bring people out of poverty faster,' she said, adding that such optimism is fuelled both by the fact that foreign investors had lately been showing much interest in investing in commercial agriculture in Africa and also because studies reveal a substantial part of the continent's agricultural resources remain untapped.

According to her, 'For instance, in Nigeria, only a mere 14 per cent of arable land is being used at present.'

The World Bank, she said, had 'more than doubled' its investment in Africa in recent time especially in agriculture. But there was cautious optimism expressed by the media about the World Bank's commitment to truly develop African economies especially in relation to linking aids and grants to what is considered stifling conditions.

In reaction to that, she said: 'We have gone beyond imposition of conditions or what you call 'strings attached'. What we tend to do now is simply work within the context of programmes or reforms as drawn up by individual countries.'

On what she thinks African countries need to do to increase its competitive edge at the global marketplace, she said: 'Africa needs to improve its infrastructure to make it more competitive. There is also the need to improve on governance institutions.'

Yesterday's opening session also featured the launch of the African Competitiveness Report 2009. The report reflects the research efforts of three institutions – the WEF, the African Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank.

The report which ranked Nigeria 10th highlighted the problems posed by limited access to financial services for African businesses. This represents an improvement on last year's report where Nigeria was not listed among the first 10.

Tunisia, which was ranked highest by the 2008 report, still retained the first position in the 2009 report.

African businesses, according to the report, could increase its competitive edge, but their governments and their international partners would need to improve access to finance, resist pressure to erect trade barriers, upgrade infrastructure, improve healthcare and educational systems and strengthen institutions.

Limited access to financial services remains a major obstacle for African enterprises, but underdeveloped infrastructure, limited healthcare and educational services, and poor institutional frameworks also make African countries less competitive in the global marketplace.

The report also points to a number of success stories in the region that highlight steps countries could take to improve the business environment.

The WEF closes tomorrow.
Meanwhile, former United Nations' Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former Mozambican First Lady Graca Machel have said Africa will continue to need aid.

But they also said the continent had the potential to become a net food and energy exporter and to boost inter-continental trade.

Speaking under the aegis of the Africa Progress Panel (APP) chaired by Annan, the leaders called on African heads of state to turn the current global economic meltdown into an opportunity for the continent on the basis of shared responsibility with their international partners.

They maintained that the financial crisis had underscored Africa's vulnerability, notwithstanding a decade of solid progress, APP said at the launch of its annual report yesterday.

The key conclusion of the report is that Africa needs to drive its own development agenda as the basis for partnership and shared responsibility for progress.

'The global economic crisis can serve as a wake-up call for both African leaders and their international partners,' the panel said.

“Africa has transformed in my lifetime and the progress reached so far is proof that concrete achievements are possible amidst adversity,” Annan said.

“The economic, climate change and food security crises are all linked. They cannot be tackled separately.

“We need a new development model that provides security, stability, and addresses people's needs. Everyone needs to contribute.

“Business has a key role, as do Africa's trading and donor partners. But the primary responsibility to make it happen rests with Africa's political leaders,” Annan said.