This could be Africa’s century – Old Mutual’s CEO Iain Williamson summarises WEF 2023

Bronwyn Nielsen caught up with Old Mutual CEO Iain Williamson on the ground at the World Economic Forum 2023 in Davos. Williamson summarised the event from his perspective, focusing on how Africa and how this may be the continent’s century to stand out.

Iain Williamson on Africa being on the agenda at WEF

The team, together with some very friendly partners – and this applies across the continent – has done a good job in elevating Africa’s profile at the forum this year. It feels like we are on the cusp of moving from talking to doing, which is a good thing. There has been a lot of discussions about the African Free Trade Continental Agreement. Up to now, the steps that have been taken by the secretariat and our political leaders have been to put the foundations in place to allow that to happen. But now the conversation is shifting to what concrete steps to take in the next 12 months, which will progress this and benefit particular sectors; for example, pharmaceuticals. We need some of those quick ones to get a bit more energy behind that system. So, it has been fantastic.

Whether the Africa Collective is going to be different than any other initiative 

The collective role for me is more about elevating African issues on the agenda, whether that is the Free Trade Agreement or anything else. It is really about reminding people that Africa exists. We have a market of 1.4 billion people. It is the market of the future. We will have 60% of the global population under the age of 35. We are going to have the biggest working population in the world in 20 years. That is also the biggest group of consumers in the world in the next 20 years. If there are global companies out there looking for growth, they would be silly to ignore the African market. They need to be sensible and keep their eyes on the risks as we move towards this. However, there is a big prize with some risks to be taken in the short term to get there.  

The support Africa needs to make a just transition 

What has been encouraging is the open acknowledgment among the collective voices that the north versus south is a real issue; that the north needs to support the south to make the transition. There is also an acknowledgment that the emissions in the south are likely to go up before they come down; that the south must  have a different trajectory in terms of the just transition to get to a suitable end position that contributes to a global outcome. So, pragmatism is entering the picture and there is an acknowledgment that we cannot be too – not to mix up the metaphors too much – black and white about the brown versus the green. We need to understand the transition pathways from brown to green and actually support certain industries and companies engaged in what is currently regarded as undesirable activities; we must help them to make a transition for a more desirable outcome.  

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