Asserting Africa’s Relevance

Key takeaways from the biggest student-run conference in the UK, hosted by the Oxford University African Society, by Paula Owino.

“Africa is the future because Africans want Africa to succeed but also because the world needs Africa to succeed." - Ms Arunmah, Former Treasurer of the World Bank Group

High level dignitaries including: Dr. Mo Ibrahim, Founder and Chairman of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, Ms. Arunma Oteh, Academic Scholar, University of Oxford & Former Vice President and Former Treasurer of the World Bank Group and Dr Kandeh Yumkella, Former Director General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) convened in May for the two day University of Oxford Africa Conference. Hosted by The University of Oxford University Africa Society, the annual student run conference purports itself to be the “leading interdisciplinary conference on Africa”.
The theme of the conference this year was “Asserting Africa’s Relevance: Locally, Continentally and Globally”. My initial thoughts and expectations based on the theme meant I started preparing myself to have conversations around various topics associated with Africa’s development in modern day society.
Brexit was the first topic that came to mind when I thought about “asserting Africa’s relevance”. Globally, as political and economic policy experts are attempting to plan for the aftermath of Brexit, commentators frequently make reference to the massive potential that could come from increased UK – Africa Trade deals. According to, Nigeria will have a bigger population than that of the USA by 2050. Some may argue that such factors should be taken into consideration by the UK as it seeks to negotiate individual trade deals with countries outside of the European Union.
Thinking about the theme from a more literal perspective, “asserting Africa’s relevance” also suggests to me deliberately acknowledging that the old narratives associated with the continent are shifting. Indeed, negative labelling depicting Africa as the “dark”, “forgotten” and “backward” continent have been, and continue to be, challenged by mainstream academia, media and global politics. Therefore, “asserting” Africa’s relevance directly correlates to reinforcing, strengthening and placing emphasis on sectors and industries that contribute massively to the continent’s development trajectory.
Opening the Saturday session of the conference was one of the keynote speakers, Ms Arunmah Oteh, former Vice President and Treasurer of the World Bank. Ms Arunmah was optimistic when discussing the progress Africa has made developmentally. However, she did not shy away from discussing the obstacles Africa is still facing, namely the demographic dividend, lack of agricultural innovation and corruption. She pinned these all down to the current “political leadership crisis” facing many countries in Africa.
This has been a long standing issue across the continent often attributed to a “lack of political will”. Without strong political leadership, governments across the continent struggle to make and commit to sustainable socio-economic developmental policies.

This is not say that strong political leaders do not exist. Incumbent President Paul Kagame of Rwanda is frequently applauded for his leadership and strong economic vision for the country. Similarly, Africa’s youngest head of state, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, is making great developmental strides within the East African region. During his first year, he ended the 20 year border dispute with Eritrea, increased access to the internet, released thousands of political prisoners and appointed half of his cabinet positions to women.

Whilst it is important to remain cautiously optimistic in regards to the sweeping reforms enacted by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as well as other noteworthy leaders on the continent, one cannot help but argue that improved governance is a significant contributor to improving key development indicators.
The other highlight for me was the panel on “Agritech and Agribusiness: Innovations and Opportunities for Producing and Consuming Locally”. In tandem with the theme of the conference, the agricultural sector is an obvious front runner when discussing Africa’s relevance. Africa contains “65% of the world’s most arable and uncultivated land” and “60 per cent of the continent’s most active population is engaged in agriculture”.
Asserting Africa’s relevance within this industry undoubtedly requires a cross sectoral approach. In order to create and facilitate sustainable ways of scaling up innovations within the agricultural sector, key in-country stakeholders need to play their part. By creating local demand for reform, governments are encouraged to implement policies that ensure agricultural (and in turn, economic) growth. Examples of this include ensuring all schools source foods locally. In addition to this, the private sector and other financial institutions should commit more enthusiastically to the agricultural sector as a key driver for economic growth.
Overall, the conference provided a good platform to engage with fellow African development enthusiasts. I also believe that the speakers as well as the sector-focused panel sessions thoroughly explored and contributed well to the overall theme, sparking a few heated, but still very entertaining debates. As Africa continues to assert itself “locally, continentally and globally”, the leadership within governments need to intentionally break cycle of the lack of political will as well as continue to invest key sectors.