Season of Growth and Opportunity in Africa

World Bank Group President Robert Zoellick ended a three-nation African tour last week by affirming that despite setbacks to Africa’s steady progress as a result of the financial crisis, this could be a century of African opportunity and growth.

“We need multiple poles of growth and that will make for a more balanced international economy; and there’s no reason Africa can’t be one of those poles,” Zoellick told journalists in Entebbe, Uganda at the end of his trip.

The six-day trip that took Zoellick to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda was an opportunity to see first-hand the impact of the financial crisis on Africa, assess progress on post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction, and explore ways to stimulate investment and donor support to help the continent weather the crisis in anticipation of the Group of Twenty (G20) meeting in Pittsburgh, next month.

The president also wanted to assess the region’s infrastructure needs, spotlight the importance of regional integration, and better understand opportunities for enhancing agricultural productivity and food security which have recently been placed high on the agenda of the Group of Eight (G8).

Democratic Republic of Congo, Making Infrastructure Work

Zoellick confirmed that DR Congo and the Bank are continuing to work toward meeting the triggers that would give the country debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC). “It may be ambitious, but we said we should try to accomplish that by the end of March next year for the benefit of the people,” Zoellick told the press after meeting DR Congo’s President Joseph Kabila.

At the Inga hydropower generating plant on the river Congo, the world’s second largest river, Zoellick said the site was the hub of DRC’s immense hydropower generation promise – estimated at 100,000 MW, or 13 percent of global potential.

He urged African governments to design more “bankable” infrastructure projects to help plug the considerable infrastructure funding gap and underscored the importance of reforms to improve the environment for doing business.

“You must think of expanding generation capacity as well as efficiency in transmission; about maintaining and rehabilitating facilities, as well as systems to make sure the bills are paid,” Zoellick stated. “Investors want to see that all stages of the project have been thought through.”

Commenting on a major theme of his visit, Zoellick observed, “As I go around the world, if there’s one thing that brings the biggest change to people’s lives it’s bringing electricity to rural communities.” He added, “It transforms the lives of women most of all because they get labor saving devices, they get lights so they can study at night, and it helps the kids with school.”

The World Bank Group President was struck by the immense biodiversity he learned about in a presentation on Virunga National Park, the oldest and most biologically diverse in Africa, near the Congolese eastern city of Goma. He praised the courageous rangers who faced down poachers, charcoal traffickers, and militia embedded in the forest, managing to increase the numbers of the park’s rare mountain gorillas during years of violent conflict in the region.

Rwanda, a Country on the Move

In Rwanda, Zoellick took a short boat ride on the scenic Lake Kivu, bounded by undulating hills and the active Nyiragongo volcano, to a floating plant that produces 2.5 MW of electricity from methane gas drawn up from the lake.

“This is just a fascinating example of the innovation we have seen throughout the Rwandan Government and a good example of regional cooperation,” Zoellick observed.

The government-funded pilot has proven the viability of the process and already has attracted a private investor who will produce 25MW of electricity and quadruple this output in the second phase. Rwanda is negotiating commercial production contracts designed as Public Private Partnerships with other investors to tap into the lake’s power generation potential, estimated at 500MW of continuous production over 50 years.

During each leg of his trip, the president met with the private sector, civil society organizations (CSOs), and senior members of government.  The private sector was concerned that growth was being held back by inadequate energy supply, poor infrastructure and transportation, high taxes, and limited access to finance.

The president highlighted some of the Bank Group’s initiatives to help meet these needs at one meeting. He cited the International Finance Corporation’s asset management facility, the index for local currency bond markets, and the trade finance facility. The proposal to tap one percent of sovereign wealth funds, Zoellick said, “can bring $30 billion to the table.”

After a meeting with CSOs in Kigali where he was told of the swift pace of reforms by government, Zoellick quipped, “This is the first time I’ve heard CSOs say they’re having to race to keep up with the government.”

Clearly impressed by the progress on the path of reform, Zoellick said at a press event after meeting President Paul Kagame, “On issue after issue this is a country on the move and it is a country that brings great momentum; it recognizes the need to develop regional integration and it has a president and a team that has garnered respect.”

Zoellick told ministers of the East African Community in Kigali to get ready to tap into the money that will be set aside by rich nations for low carbon energy sources.

One of the most moving stops in Zoellick’s itinerary was at a Bank-assisted program to provide homes and vocational training for severely disabled ex-combatants and their families on the outskirts of the capital, Kigali.

“All of you provided valuable service; you are people of courage and strength and, given help, we know you can help others,” he told the wheelchair-bound men and their families sitting under canvas canopies and using battery-powered lanterns to hold off the nightfall.

Asked what he would want the Bank to do most for him, John Ndekezi, a spokesperson for the group and former soldier said, “What we want is your assistance in helping us to work … we have the ability to work like anyone else.”

“My conclusion after leaving Rwanda is that this is a very ambitious country,” Zoellick stated. “We at the World Bank, including the IFC, need to act with the same ambition that Rwanda acts with.”

Agriculture: Filling Gaps in the Value Chain

During a visit to the International Development Association (IDA)-assisted one-stop border post at Malaba on the Kenya-Uganda border, Zoellick saw how customs officers from both countries, working side-by-side, have cut transit times at this major border crossing that handles 53 percent of Uganda’s freight. He commended the use of “hardware, software and the business processes” to bring efficiency and move produce around more quickly.

In Uganda, Zoellick also visited the Tilda rice plant in the east of the country. He was pleased to see that the plant that produces one-fifth of the country’s rice buys half of its crop from small local farmers. “This provides food and income security,” Zoellick observed.

“With agriculture it’s about filling all the gaps in the value chain – from seeds and fertilizers to storage and linkage to markets,” he added. Uganda has half of East Africa’s arable land and could become the granary of the region.

The president said the Bank could improve access of African produce to markets in developed nations by establishing research centers on the continent to build capacity in sanitary and phytosanitary standards.

At a joint press conference at his Entebbe residence on the shores of Lake Victoria, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said Uganda planned to tap into the $20 billion fund set up by the G8 to help boost Africa’s agricultural production.

“We want to promote food security and income security,” he observed, saying he would use the money for irrigation, fertilizers, and research.

Zoellick urged African countries to get behind NEPAD’s Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) which aims to raise agricultural productivity on the continent six percent per year. “One of the starting points for Africa will have to be the CAADP process to see how we can get your own markets connected to this,” said Zoellick. “If it’s got an African imprimatur on it, that will help with the G20 process.”

Museveni said the Bank has been a partner as Uganda made progress in growth, education, and health. “In all these areas the World Bank has been with us,” he concluded.

Zoellick was accompanied on the trip by Obiageli Ezekwesili, Africa Region Vice President and Colin Bruce, Regional Director of Strategy and Operations.

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