Elsie Kanza WEF
Text: Eric Johnson/Images: Marc Wetli, A. Jansen

Job creator

With nearly a billion inhabitants, most of them young, Africa’s biggest challenge is to create employment. Elsie Kanza and the World Economic Forum (WEF) are working hard to do just that.

“I’m a proud African.”

You could call it a commodity conundrum. On the one hand, when producing food, Africa is really quite poor. Despite vast resources of land and labour, the continent does not feed itself, annually importing a whopping $35 billion of comestibles. On the other hand, when producing other basic materials, Africa is really quite rich. Cocoa, copper, cotton, diamonds, gold, oil … Africa’s export list goes on and on. But in most cases, the bulk of the value and the bulk of the employment are added somewhere else.

These are the main issues being addressed by Elsie Kanza. She’s tackled them for about a decade, first as an economic advisor to the president of Tanzania, and then as current Head of Africa at the World Economic Forum (see box). In trying to crack both of these nuts, the trained economist is taking on Africa’s biggest challenge: giving jobs to the continent’s vast numbers of young people.

“I’m a proud African,” says the daughter of Tanzanian parents who was born, raised and educated in neighbouring Kenya. “I want to help Africa find its own way to prosperity.”

“I want to help Africa find its own way to prosperity.”

Food fight

One element of that is to boost indigenous agriculture through a project called “Grow Africa”. Kanza helped to create the program during her time advising Tanzania’s president, and since then it has spread from that one country to another 11 countries in the Sub-Sahara.

African farming is predominantly done by so-called “smallholders”, who till less than two hectares (five acres). Obviously they lack economies of scale, not to mention modern seeds, tools, fertilisers and knowledge of agronomy. Most of them rely solely on rainwater, which in many places is increasingly scarce, due to ongoing climate change. On top of that are a mass of infrastructure challenges, such as inadequate storage, poor transport and weak access to regional and global markets.

“There is an entire continent full of opportunities.”

The challenges are huge, but then again, so is the $35 billion import bill. Grow Africa’s simple, bright idea is to replace the exports with domestic production. “Our approach,” Kanza notes, “is to bring all the players together so that they can start turning needs into opportunities.” So far that seems to be working well: the programme is funnelling $7 billion of investment into farming, creating some 30,000 jobs per year and working with nearly 3 million smallholders.

Industrial action

Meanwhile, the worldwide boom (and more recent bust) in non-food commodities over the past decade has also made its mark in Africa. Masses of money have flowed in to buy cash crops and minerals, but nonetheless, Kanza does not see them as the long-term job generator that Africa needs. “The commodities boom has created enclaves of wealth, not broad employment.”

The secret to broad job creation, she contends, is broad industrialisation. A shining example she cites is that of Huajian, a shoemaker. In 2011 the firm trained 86 Ethiopians at its home factory in China, and from there they returned to staff a new assembly line just outside of the capital Addis Ababa. By 2013 employment had sprouted to 3,500 workers, with most of the production being sold to name brands such as Clarks, Guess and Tommy Hilfiger. And this is only a start: over the coming half-decade, the company aims to raise its Ethiopian workforce to about 30,000.

Kanza’s quest at WEF is to replicate this sort of success across Africa. The key, once again, is to bring together potential partners to create and find opportunities. Several projects are underway elsewhere in Ethiopia, and the potential for car manufacturing in Nigeria is compelling – just to name two possibilities. “There is an entire continent full of opportunities,” contends Kanza, clearly enough to keep plenty of proud Africans busy for some time to come.

World Economic Forum and Elsie Kanza

The World Economic Forum is the international institution for public-private cooperation. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, the Forum seeks to catalyse multi-stakeholder action in order to achieve its mission to improve the state of the world through its defined global challenges. It is also well known for its Annual Meeting, which takes place every January in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland. Since 2011, Elsie Kanza has been the Forum’s Head of Africa. One of her main tasks is to run its annual Africa conference, a regional version of the Davos event. Kanza studied business, finance and development economics in Kenya, Tanzania and the USA, and is currently based at Forum’s headquarters in Geneva.