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How sustainable is sustainability

Much of the debate around economic growth in Africa revolves around sustainability. Frustrated investors in developed markets look at Africa and see a continent of huge potential, only hampered by short or medium term restrictions as a result of lack of investment. Reports that originate from sources with this vague notion of African reality, are often upbeat, and dare I say, somewhat divorced from real life.
It is true that Africa is a continent of vast potential. But those analysts that only look at the continental make-up, are deluding both themselves and their clients. It is a fallacy to offer the construct that the continent will magically transform itself into a productive haven, in a relatively short time, if only we continue to throw in massive amounts of investment to unlock this potential.
The reality on the ground is unfortunately neither as simple as this view claims, nor is the roadmap clear, even in the most general of cases.
What we have seen over the past twenty years, is first, an Africa that has become aware of itself across the societal spectrum from grassroots to leadership. Secondly, after completing the liberation phase, it quickly dawned on us that we shall be mostly responsible for our own prosperity. This is based, in part on the outdated quasi-colonial template still employed by the vast majority of non-Africans. And then in the third place, I believe there is a deep and pervasive failure to understand both the size, and the complexity of the continent.
The building bricks that constitute Africa are neither regionally, nor continentally integrated, as pundits of Africa as the new investment frontier, would want us to believe. There are regional blocks, typically the south, east, west and north, but these are by no means integrated, or operating in a synchronised fashion. North Africa, in my view, is estranged from the continent south of the Sahara, but even the relatively integrated West Africa and southern Africa, are fragmented areas revolving around the aspirations on a single dominant player in each region. East Africa basically consists of only three countries with some potential (at this stage).
It is therefore an eye-opener to come across an opinion expressed by the director of the consulting arm of one of the world’s biggest companies. Earlier this week I received an opinion piece based on the observations of the Regional Director of DuPont Sustainable Solutions, the operations management consulting firm of the science and technology company.
One would think the concept Sustainability is precise and clear, but the message I picked up is that this is not so. Noticeable is the fact that the DuPont director states that sustainability is not properly defined. Now that is an eye opener because it seems rather obvious, sustainability says something about who will be successful and who not, and who will be around in ten, twenty or even fifty years. This may seem simple, but the answer to the question of Who? is rather complicated.
Growth, profitability and stakeholder benefit seem obvious candidates to provide an answer, but these only provide criteria. They still do not say anything meaningful about the identities of the future survivors. And this is where I think the director provided a solid take.
“A key element of sustainability is the creation of social value. Companies are under pressure not only to deliver profits for shareholders, particularly evident in mining companies, but also to deliver higher value to government through increased taxes and royalties, as well as communities where they operate, who are looking for employment opportunities and improved facilities.”
I believe that says a lot. Looking at the direction our own extractive sector is developing to, it looks as if this short definition was drafted for us. It certainly is not preposterous to expect large investors that pay attention to these three new-age elements of growth, and sustainability.
Sustainability thus encompasses more than the growth at all cost model which is basically the one our generation grew up with.
If Namibia seems to have taken the first strides towards a broader definition of sustainability, then there is no logical reason why the entire southern Africa can not do the same. And if the southern African region eventually manages to integrate cohesively, can the west and the east not do the same.
There is however one reality check: this process will certainly take longer than the next twenty years. Still, I believe it has started already and we must push this agenda with everything we got.

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