Speaker 2013

Charles RobertsonEmerging-markets economist

Africa: from the "bottom" to the "fastest" billion

Charles Robertson is a leading emerging-markets specialist and a co-author of The Fastest Billion, a book suggesting that behind the classic narrative of Africa as a continent of poverty and conflicts there are many spectacular indicators of fast economic and social growth. With his colleagues at Renaissance Capital, where he heads from London the macro-strategy unit, Robertson argues that Africa is quickly moving away from the “bottom billion” and “will be the fastest continent to reach the fourth economic age… of high-income, low-corruption and generally democratic norms.” In his talk he will discuss how Africa now has more of the world’s fastest-growing economies than any other region, and how this trend will play out.

Report : Africa: from the "bottom" to the "fastest" billion

Those who still see Africa as a continent devoid of hope, as the respected British magazine The Economist dismissively put it back in the 1990s, could not be more mistaken. According to Charles Robertson, such a view takes no account of a decade and a half of expansion in the sub-Saharan region, during which period over a dozen countries have witnessed 7% growth. Comparisons with the Asia of today are futile. “If we must compare, it would be better to measure Africa’s current situation up against that of South Korea in the 1970s, when the “tiger” was still a poor…

Those who still see Africa as a continent devoid of hope, as the respected British magazine The Economist dismissively put it back in the 1990s, could not be more mistaken. According to Charles Robertson, such a view takes no account of a decade and a half of expansion in the sub-Saharan region, during which period over a dozen countries have witnessed 7% growth. Comparisons with the Asia of today are futile. “If we must compare, it would be better to measure Africa’s current situation up against that of South Korea in the 1970s, when the “tiger” was still a poor country largely dependent on agriculture,” he explains. “Take a country like India, which has raised millions out of poverty without necessarily becoming an industrial powerhouse, in contrast to what has happened in South-East Asia. And yet, their respective rates of growth are comparable. In my opinion, sub-Saharan Africa lags some 20 years behind India but its rise to economic success is set to accelerate along the same lines.”

For Charles Robertson, the prerequisite for any “economic miracle” is a healthy primary sector. Even Britain, which led the way during the Industrial Revelation, began by overhauling its agricultural sector in the 18th century. The same was true of Russia. During the 1960s, African countries may well have made the mistake of jumping feet first into industrial processes for which they were unprepared. That is certainly no longer the case today. Thanks to the mining sectors and natural resources of the countries in question, they have been able to build infrastructures which will henceforth enable the continent to embark on a more measured industrial forward journey. Three factors will play a part in this: first, labour costs in China are rising, in part due to the ageing of the workforce, which will ultimately lead to a continental transfer of business; second, educational levels in sub-Saharan Africa are now equivalent to those in Turkey or Mexico in 1975 – two countries which in the following two decades carved out an industrial niche whose added value has been constantly increasing, especially in textiles; and third, African governments are finally beginning to implement policies that are friendly towards investment and business growth.

“In my opinion, demographic and educational change in these African countries should enable them to follow in the footsteps of emerging economies such as Malaysia, Indonesia, India, South Korea or Brazil, which began to move ahead twenty years ago,” concludes Charles Robertson. “However much the continent currently lags behind, there can be no doubt that the development of Africa will be the most striking phenomenon of the 21st century.”

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