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‘Africa’s Davos’ to plot continent’s rise

The great and good of global commerce descended on Cape Town Wednesday to take part in “Africa’s Davos,” which hopes to flesh out the promise of a continent-wide economic revolution.

More than 1,000 people — including heads of state, captains of industry and assorted onlookers — will gather for the World Economic Forum’s annual Africa gathering, which runs until Friday.

They will discuss a continent long-defined by poverty, disease and war, but one that is expected to grow at more than five percent this year.

Greater stability, better governance and high returns are helping fuel interest in the continent, said Mark Otty, a managing parter at professional services firm Ernst & Young.

“Investment into Africa has grown significantly over the last few years. We have a very positive expectation around the years to come.”

Yet amid the rosy prognosis, a plethora of problems and potential pitfalls remain.

Titled “Delivering on Africa’s Promise” the meeting will discuss how to improve lives and make Africa a real player on the world stage.

Panels will mull how to ease dependence on natural resources, how to build infrastructure that would improve trade and bind disparate economies and how to unleash Africans’ talent.

“Good economic growth has not really made a difference to the livelihoods of millions of Africans,” said the Brookings Institution’s Mwangi Kimenyi, pointing to what is perhaps the biggest challenge.

And recent slumps in commodity prices — most dramatically the drop in gold prices — has underscored the potential for growth to be undercut.

“Are there risks in Africa? Yes, but certainly I would argue there are some tremendous risks in Europe as well,” said Otty.

“I would see risks in both markets but the opportunity for far greater returns in Africa. So the risk return equation I think for Africa is very positive right now.”

As if to illustrate the challenges ahead, the World Economic Forum, which also organises the well-known Davos conference, itself recently ranked host country South Africa’s system of teaching maths and science as the second worst in the world, ahead of Yemen.

But there is little doubt that the mood among investors is upbeat.

“The narrative around the continent is now dominated by business, rather than the traditional development issues,” said Frontier Advisory, a consultancy for developing world investment.

There is growing interest in areas like telecommunications, retail, manufacturing and financial services.

“But for Africa to deliver on its growth promise, its governments must create environments of opportunity.”

A major networking session among those expected to take part in the three-day talk shop is to include the leaders of South Africa, Nigeria and Ethiopia.

Ahead of the formal opening Zuma said the conference would be an “opportunity to demonstrate to investors, the competitive advantages of our economy.”