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Africa’s blue economy

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Africa’s blue economy

The global conference on the Blue Economy held in Nairobi this week highlights the huge contribution of the oceans to sustainable development – but, in most cases, Africa remains on the sidelines, looking on while others take action.

The first global conference on the blue economy is being held this week in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, bringing together some 4,000 participants from around the world to discuss and learn how to build a sustainable ‘blue economy’. Held between 26-28 November, it is under the theme: “The Blue Economy and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”.

Its two main goals are: (a) To harness the potential of the world’s oceans, seas, lakes and rivers to improve the lives of all, particularly people in developing countries, women, youth and indigenous peoples; and (b) To leverage the latest innovations, scientific advances and best practices to build prosperity, while conserving the earth’s waters for future generations.

Remarkably, despite its increasing high-level adoption, the term ‘blue economy’ still does not have a widely accepted definition. For example, the World Bank sees it as the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, while preserving the health of the ocean’s ecosystem.”

The US-based Center for the Blue Economy says it “comprises the economic activities that create sustainable wealth from the world’s oceans and coasts.” By far, the Commonwealth has the broadest definition. It says the “blue economy is an emerging concept which encourages better stewardship of our oceans or ‘blue’ resources. It highlights in particular the close linkages between the ocean, climate change, and the wellbeing of the people of both coastal and landlocked countries. “

At its heart, it reaffirms the values of equity and public participation in marine and coastal decision-making. It supports all of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG14, ‘life below water’, and recognises that this will require ambitious, co-ordinated actions to sustainably manage, protect and preserve our oceans now, for the sake of present and future generations.” 

Africa’s hidden treasure

Nearer home, Prof. Said Adejumobi, the director of the Southern African office of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) has a sweeter definition. “The blue economy, which some refer to as the ocean economy,” he says, “is what I often call Africa’s ‘hidden treasure’ and the African Union hails it as the ‘new frontier of African renaissance’. “This consists of the vast array of coastal water and maritime resources, which could serve as sources of food, energy, mineral extraction, leisure, good health, science, and technology. Indeed, our livelihood and existence are inextricably linked with the coastal ecosystem, which affects various aspects of socio-economic life.”

Still in Africa, President Danny Faure of Seychelles sees the blue economy as encapsulating “all of the potentials of our oceanic resources, [and] offers us a platform for Africa’s transformation both in terms of Agenda 2063 and the post-2015 Sustainable Development goals … The majority of world trade is by the sea. The majority of the world’s oil shipments are by the sea. There is no food security without a sustainable ocean. The majority of new mineral resources will not be found on land but in the sea. The blue economy is Africa’s future.”

This, in effect, is the essence of the Nairobi blue economy conference, and what it hopes for Africa and the world. Lamentably, so far, Africa has not been serious with the blue economy or the sea itself. Not many of us care a hoot about the health of the oceans, yet we know that “oceans are like the central nervous system of the body.”

According to statistics recently quoted by UNECA, oceans and seas cover 72% of the surface of the Earth and are home to 95% of the Earth’s living organisms, commonly referred to as the biosphere. Oceans are also essential to life on Earth and provide the largest source of oxygen and protein. They absorb around a quarter of carbon dioxide emissions, recycle nutrients, and play a significant role in the regulation of global climate and temperature.

Over 80% of world trade merchandise is moved by water and thus maritime transport is a major international trade facilitator. Therefore, the importance of the oceans and inland water bodies (such as the great lakes of Africa) cannot be understated. It is why, while the world’s attention is focused on the outcome of the big blue economy conference in Nairobi, I want to take readers back to an earlier though much smaller conference on the blue economy organised in mid-September 2018 in Mauritius by UNECA’s Southern African Office.

The UNECA conference spoke very well for Africa. Prof. Adejumobi, as usual, rallied the troops for action – as implementation has become one of Africa’s biggest problems. We have become a continent of talkers, grandiose talkers, but not implementers. Prof. Adejumobi explained that the concept of the blue economy was first raised during the UN Conference on Sustainable Development held in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro in 2012. “At that time, it was essentially a developing world initiative pioneered by Small Island Developing States,” Prof Adejumobi said, “however, the concept has assumed greater importance and popularity on a global scale, relevant not only to coastal countries but also landlocked and land-linked countries, which constitute part of the production networks and value chain of the blue economy sector.”

He went on: “While Africa is essentially a coastal region, in which it is estimated that about 38 countries are coastal states (apart from the island countries mostly in Southern Africa which have vast ocean territories), yet our coastal sector remains largely underdeveloped, under-utilised, and poorly governed, which has enabled other forces from outside the continent to benefi t more from it than us. “But the blue economy can be the engine of economic growth, the basis of socio-economic development and industrialisation for many African countries, if well utilised. The maritime industry, for example, is estimated at over $1 trillion, and there are other related and emerging sectors of tourism, off shore renewable energy, aquaculture, seabed extractive industries, marine biotechnology and bio prospecting.”

Prof. Adejumobi cited the example of China, where the ocean economy contributes $962bn or 10% of GDP and employs over 9m people. The same goes for the US, where the ocean economy was valued at $258bn or 1.8% of GDP in 2010, and in Indonesia where it contributes about 20% of GDP.


Africa losing where others are gaining

“While other countries and regions are harvesting the gains and returns from the blue economy, West Africa for example is estimated to be losing about $2bn annually from illegal fishing,” Prof. Adejumobi lamented. Which brings me to my main point: It is time Africa takes itself seriously. We cannot continue to be the latecomers of the world forever. At the UNECA conference, we heard about a few African countries, such as South Africa, Seychelles and Mauritius, that are doing well on the blue economy. The rest are either sleeping or have just plans, plans, and plans but no action.

Yet, as Donald Kaberuka, the former AfDB president points out, “We have a right as a continent to benefit from our terrestrial and maritime resources; there is a commercial case to be made for choosing to support the development of Africa’s blue economies.”

Dr Leopold-Auguste Ngomo, the head of the AU Southern African Regional Office, spoke for most when he said at the Mauritius conference: “We should be more aggressive like China, USA, and the EU to help the private sector and SMEs in Africa to play their role in the blue economy. No invisible hand will help the private sector to grow. We expect the private sector to grow by itself and absorb the millions of unemployed youths. Africa cannot stay stagnant. There should be continuity.” I rest my case. 

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