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At Africa-France summit, youths not govts tipped to lead continent’s growth

When economic summits are held, heads of governments and their numerous agencies are often those in attendance, with inter-government meetings dominating the agenda. This month, the Africa-France summit was organised, starting with a number of pre-events in Paris before the main summit in Montpellier. It was a clear departure from the past; it focused on young entrepreneurs and experts from Africa, of African origin in the Diaspora, and the French too, with over 1500 in attendance, more than even expected.

For over three and half hours, President Emmanuel Macron of France listened to young Africans on their concerns about the continent’s future, and of course France’s role in it. He listened, and he responded, details of which are to be captured subsequently.

“More than 70 percent of Africa’s population is under 30, it is a continent filled with promise and youth,” Macron said, when emphasising the urgency of collaborating for growth.

While a summit with heads of states was held earlier in the year in May, it focused more on supporting African countries to weather the COVID-19 storm. The recent summit of October, was capturing the past, the present, and the future.

Benoit Verdeaux, secretary general of the New Africa-France Summit, in an exclusive interview with BusinessDay, had explained the objective of the summit is to define paths to improve and develop the relations between Africa and France.

Read Also: Africa-France summit kicks off with focus on young entrepreneurs

And to have this done, “instead of institutions dialoguing among themselves, or even heads of state that dialogue and talk amongst themselves, it seems more rational or logical that the active forces of civil society dialogue,” said Verdeaux. “Whether it’s the entrepreneurs who are first in line, but it could be students, artists, athletes, scientists, all these key players or actors that on a daily basis reinvent the relationships between the continent.”

For him, the summit had a primary purpose to “organize these key players and listen to them.”

President Macron had also referenced the work by a committee, which among other things tried to capture the frustrations of development on the African continent and the roles of countries like France. A study was commissioned with thousands of responses sought, and some of the responses, he said, showed scepticism and indignation, but for him, would form part of rebuilding Africa-France relationship.

Verdeaux had noted however, that while the summit focused on the continent’s youth, France wanted institutions to be present to listen to what these key players have to say, and how they project themselves. Perhaps, the institutions, and the entrepreneurs can subsequently work together in creating partnerships to actual grow the continent.

“I really see things coming out of the relationship. Personally, I think the French are ready and willing to partner,” said Victor Boyle-Komolafe, CEO of Givo, which digitises industries in Nigeria using Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence. For him, however, focusing on young people should not mean ‘not government’. “It is not one or the other. It’s for collaboration,” he said.

If France is deciding to engage more with young people, I think it is a good idea, because those young people are the future of business, government, technology and all

Tolu Ogunlesi, an aide to Nigeria’s president was also in attendance but as a Fellow of the 2021 young leaders programme by the French Africa foundation, which sponsored a hundred delegates.

“Historically, the focus has been on government to government, and they’ve dealt with African governments. So, it’s probably not out of place for them to decide that they want to shift focus,” he said. “If we are being honest, the future of Africa is its young people. If France is deciding to engage more with young people, I think it is a good idea, because those young people are the future of business, government, technology and all.”

Of course, the engagement with the government is expected to continue, but putting young people at the centre of conversations, brings a new dynamic in planning along with those who are the continent’s future.

But, how much can be achieved without government and policy makers at the centre? Verdeaux told BusinessDay “It is important to understand that these (young) actors are key players. They do not always need help from the state or public policies to actually build new alliances, new partnerships. They can do it on their own very well.

“They don’t need institutional people to reinvent the interdependencies that they build on,” he said, but later on, when needs seem to emerge for policies, the institutional context to actually work better can then be developed with the policy makers.

For him, the summit focused on these new fronts of partnerships that will lead to sparking new policies. The follow-up is that these actors form new connections across the continent, and are able to influence policies from Africa to even France.

If anything, the summit was a huge intercontinental networking event of over 1500 young people, most of them entrepreneurs, who attended several B2B meetings over the course of about one week in different parts of France.

Over 2000 B2B meetings were organised within two days of an Ambition France programme hosted in Paris, according to Axel Baroux, Business France managing director for Sub-Saharan Africa.

“In terms of demographics, one in four of the World’s population will be African in a relatively short term. Half of those two and a half billion Africans will be under 25. This is an incredible resource but it’s also a major challenge,” said Baroux. “We are going to have to find jobs, create wealth and establish added value in each country.”

Noting debates in France and other industrial democracies on the subject of migration, Baroux explained that the only valid response to that is to create futures for people, on site, in their own countries.

However, when the talks and networking ends after the summit, the question remains, what next? Verdeaux, explains it is up to the young delegates to talk to each other and reinvent the relationships that they want to build. The second stake, especially on the French side, is that the tools to accompany or assist them will be provided to the entrepreneurs, which are the different support tools available by French entrepreneurs to export to Africa.

“We have to be adapted to the new expectations of the new players and the different tools for assisting cooperation that tend to be focused on the players and the economic network”, he said.

Increasing the financing from France to benefit enterprises in Sub-Saharan Africa, and across the continent of Africa, is a high stake. It is more money but, perhaps, better targeted financing, he says. Usually, it is big companies that are seen as driving forces but, there should be a new focus on small or medium companies that may only need a little bit of help or tools to scale exponentially. This cooperation of providing support and right set of tools, Verdeaux says may have a bigger result.

“We have to rethink the business model of these tools to better target and help the small and medium companies,” he emphasised.

For Nsanu Lionel Eric, an entrepreneur from Cameroon, who is into software applications and printing, he participated in the summit because he has hope it could change economic dynamics on the continent.

“We really expect that the little proposition that we have given here will be taken to consideration, so that Africa will smile and France will also have good outcomes from the partnership,” he said.

Like many other delegates told BusinessDay, he emphasised that this new development between Africa and France has to be seen as a partnership driven by mutual respect.

“It is certainly not for delegates to come, go home and continue with business as usual,” Macron said, emphasising the summit is expected to lead to practical outcomes for Africans and Africa, but only time would tell what the results would truly be.

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