The West and Central African Region: A resource mine (shrouded with challenges)

The West and Central African Region: A resource mine (shrouded with challenges)

by Shriya Sundaram, Consultant

During the past few months I had the opportunity to work on a project as part of Amarante ,through which, I got a deeper understanding of the West and Central African (WACA) region. In this blogpost, I would like to speak of some of the key learnings that I took away and where I think we can bring about some of the necessary policy changes. Stretching from the westernmost point of Africa, across the Equator, and partly along the Atlantic Ocean till the Republic of Congo in the South, the region encompasses 22 countries that spread across semi-arid areas in the Sahel, large coastal areas on the Atlantic Ocean and along the Gulf of Guinea and tropical forest covering many countries from Guinea to the Republic of Congo, through Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon and Gabon.[1] The region is resource-rich and agriculture still remains the pre-dominant occupation of many. 12% of the region’s population is under 15, making it one of the largest regions with a young population. But, despite these factors, the WACA region, is facing a lot of developmental challenges and adding to it, is the Covid-19 pandemic.

What are some of these challenges?

After doing extensive secondary research and conducting interviews with stakeholders, the study shed light on some of the major challenges facing the region today. These can be summarized as below:

  • Corruption, Conflict and Security: The WACA region has been facing corruption as a major problem since decades. In some cases, it has led to both impoverishment of the region as a whole and specifically in the alienation of its people from their rulers. The region has continued to face multiple quick-onset and chronic emergencies as well as the effects of protracted crises. The region has also seen an increase in displacement causing major intra-state conflicts as well.
  • Gender Inequality: Women are excluded from issues and decisions that affect their lives, mainly due to high poverty levels, illiteracy and patriarchy. Female Genital Mutilation, early and forced marriages, denying young women and girls’ equality of opportunities, high rate of maternal mortality, are still common place in many of the societies.
  • Youth unemployment: The WACA region countries are particularly vulnerable to the combined effects of the youth/growing demographic bulge and the high youth unemployment rate; many economies have failed to absorb large youth populations in their labour markets. Low income jobs are mostly held by youth people. The four limitations that youth face are: skills gap (employability), limited access to finance, to networks and to economic opportunities.
  • Low financial inclusion: Like in many developing and underdeveloped countries, lack of collateral and credit history, poor infrastructure are some of the key factors leading to low financial inclusion in the WACA region as well
  • Effects of climate change: As per the International Crisis Group, in their briefing dated April 2020, they talk about how conflict is rising in the region due to climate change and competition over natural resources in rural areas. Small holder farmers operate on small areas, are poorly qualified, not very technology-oriented and lack financing adapted to their needs. They have to deal with land degradation (overgrazing, deforestation, etc.) resulting from climate change (drought, floods, high temperatures) that has an impact on low land productivity and rural exodus.
  • Health concerns: Poverty and acute food shortages along with lack of access to safe water and sanitation particularly in displacement camps has given rise to the spread of many diseases. Many people find it difficult to access health care despite it being free of charge in some countries; people live in rural and often isolated areas, far from health facilities. Administration of the public health system is weak and Governments spending on health has dropped dramatically and the quality slipped. The Covid-19 pandemic has added to the woes of the region.
  • Poor infrastructure: Limited and/or unreliable network coverage, lack of power/ electricity, absence of broadband connections, poor transport facilities are not unheard of.

The way forward?

While the Covid-19 has impacted everyone globally, it has also given rise to the importance of digital and digital transformation.

  • In the WACA region, it opens up new avenues for going phygital (physical+digital) in the health space. For example, Gomedical is an app working towards this in Benin. You can read more about it here
  • The energy crisis is a grave problem in the region, hence, expanding and utilizing renewable clean energy such as solar and wind power or off-grid solutions for SMEs, or even considering cross-border trade of energy are possible solutions
  • Leveraging on e-learning is crucial as it can help promote education of young girls and women. As the Covid crisis has exacerbated the school drop-out rate, countries need to start experimenting with the digital learning model. Of course, a pre-requisite – and a large part of this effort – should look at sensitizing whole communities as to the benefits of education and learning
  • Young people can be incentivized to seek employment in agriculture for decent work. The emergence of innovative business models that merge agriculture business and technology can result in interesting employment opportunities for local communities, especially youth, who very often try to look to urban areas for employment opportunities. Building an effective employment policy is also the need of the hour. Governments must look at the long term and try to relieve the challenges that prevent the youth and the private sector from seizing opportunities and increasing productivity
  • And while we emphasize on digital transformation, improving access to capital to fight against poverty is also essential (receivable financing[2] could be one possible way)
  • Given the significant youth population, it is pertinent to support entrepreneurship in the region. Supporting and encouraging MSMEs by improving their capacity and access to financing, capacity building and enabling financial institutions to better understand needs, collate needed data and design adapted products and services for the profile of SME promoters are ways to promote entrepreneurship in the region
  • While easier said than done, within government offices, improvement in infrastructures (network and data coverage, e-government efforts, e-KYC regulations), structural reform of identity and civil registry, digitization of payments and salaries of certain civil servants, pensions for senior) are some of the areas where the system needs to become more efficient. Such governments will also appeal to the masses and build their trust

The region has faced structural inequalities since decades, and it is time to address these issues from the very depths of it. While this is a herculean task, we can at least begin by starting somewhere. It is important for international organizations, private sector and local organizations to come together. Even though we might just scratch the surface of the problem, our combined efforts and leveraging technology adapted to local contexts can still positively impact millions of people in the region.

[1] World Bank Group website

[2] Accounts receivable financing allows small businesses to receive funding for their business and other expenses while waiting for their invoices to get paid. In simple terms, this line of credit turns your account receivables – including outstanding invoices or money owed – into immediate cash for the business.