Q&A: Regional leadership discuss Africa Day, opportunities and challenges

May 25, 2023
A couple in Malawi who participated in the USAID-funded, Pact-led FISH project, which worked on conserving Malawi's lakes. Credit: Maggie Dougherty/Pact.

On May 25, 1963, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was founded as the precursor to the African Union. Each year, Africa Day commemorates the OAU’s founding and celebrates African unity and identity. Here, Ranahnah Afriye, our regional director for Africa, and Marianna Balampama, our deputy regional director for Africa, share their thoughts on Africa Day, including opportunities and what others can do to support the spirit of Africa Day beyond May 25. 

Q: What does Africa Day mean to you on an individual and professional level? 
Marianna Balampama: Africa Day is a celebration of a magnificent continent that is the home for the first of humankind and ancient civilization and is today rich in diversity while united in the vision for prosperity and wellbeing. It is a day to dispel the common myth that Africa is a country or a homogenous place. As a proud national of an African country, this is a day to reflect on what can be done by us to ensure sustainable development.

Ranahnah Afriye: Africa Day creates a platform to promote African unity, economic growth and development.  Africa Day contributes to shifting the dependency narrative and dispelling negative myths which once prevailed. The day provides us with an opportunity to reflect, celebrate and strategize how best to unlock the potential of African nations within the global landscape.   

This year’s theme focuses on opportunities in challenging times. What are the biggest opportunities that you see across the continent? 
Afriye: Economic growth is not distributed equitably; however, there is an untapped market that is often overlooked. According to the World Bank, Africa has the world’s largest free trade area and a 1.2-billion-person market. There is strong potential for small business growth and start-ups. With an eye on innovation and engaging youth in small and mid-sized enterprises, community initiatives can address the root causes of poverty and inequity across the continent.

Balampama: Another large and unique opportunity for Africa is its richness of land and natural resources that, if utilized optimally, can generate domestic resources to advance the continent economically and socially.

Turning to challenges, this past year has seen continued challenges due to Covid-19, but also the war in Ukraine and its impact on food security, among other things. What do you see as the most pressing challenges for Africa?
Afriye: Inflation has been one of the most pressing problems facing consumers across Africa, as in the rest of the world. African nations have some of the highest rates of inflation in the world: 92.8% in Zimbabwe, 83.6% in Sudan, 52.8% in Ghana and 32% in Ethiopia. With the rising cost of everyday items, households are unable to meet their basic requirements including housing, food, clothing and access to health services. This has resulted in reduced household income for the social safety net, which covers unforeseen expenses such as children’s schooling, health crisis and more.

Conversely, we continue to see a rise in unemployment, particularly in the aftermath of Covid-19 economic downturns. South Africa has the second largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa but also the highest unemployment rate on the continent at nearly 30%. This convergence of factors underscores inequitable wealth distribution and creates a “perfect storm” for civil unrest and decreased social cohesion.

Balampama: And rapid population growth is surpassing the speed of advancement of development. UN data shows that Africa’s population is growing three times more than the global average, and by 2070, Africa will become the most populous continent. This creates a threat of pressure from a vulnerable and frustrated young population that has not been adequately served by quality social services and availed livelihoods opportunities.

What is most important for international development organizations like Pact to support communities across Africa to combat these challenges and seize opportunities?
Balampama: Governments across Africa have solid plans to address the prevailing challenges. However, these plans need continuous actualization through mobilizing and optimally utilizing critical resources—technical, social and financial. True and sustained development begins at individual and household level when people are capacitated, protected and empowered to realize their own goals.

Afriye: And Pact is helping African governments and citizens to do this by working through an ecological model to achieve lasting impact. At the individual level, we promote positive decision-making such as Covid-19 vaccination in Eswatini and consistent condom use to prevent HIV in South Africa. At the interpersonal level, we promote positive communication, including discussing household expenses, savings and priorities. At the community level, we engage local organizations to improve service delivery by strengthening civil society organizations. Finally, we drive impact at societal level by engaging with governments to develop policies, guidelines and tools that inform national development strategy and implementation across relevant government ministries.

Are there other examples of how Pact is already doing this?
Balampama: Pact’s comprehensive approach to addressing the root causes of poverty is a game-changer, because most human challenges are interlinked. We work to ensure people are economically stable, socially connected, free of harmful behavior, able to address health issues and capable of utilizing existing opportunities.

Afriye: One tangible example of this is our DREAMS programming, which is a PEPFAR initiative to support HIV prevention for adolescent girls and young women. The core package offered to young women includes financial literacy, business skills training and micro-enterprise start up along with health education, parent-child communication and targeted curriculum for positive behavior change. The DREAMS program simultaneously addresses multiple factors in a girl’s life, home and community environment. 

What advice would you give to others who want to support the spirit of Africa Day beyond May 25?
Afriye: First, it is essential to know the facts. Africa is not a country. It is a continent of 54 nations. Once we challenge ourselves to go beyond mainstream media for accurate information related to African societies and economy, we open a door to deeper knowledge and positive contribution.

Balampama: Implementation of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 is in full swing, having completed its first decade. I urge everyone to continue engaging in the Africa Agenda 2063 vision of “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the international arena.” 

Looking to the future, what do hope for the conversations that we’re having around Africa Day in five years’ time?
Balampama: In the near future, I believe the conversations around Africa Day should focus on better harnessing technology and artificial intelligence for efficiency in productivity and knowledge.

Afriye: We are also working toward the successful adoption of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA) to promote intra-African trade across nations, encourage economic growth and increase employment across the continent. AfCTA galvanizes leaders and civil society toward policy change and political commitment with an end goal of long-term economic transformation. As we move toward Africa Day 2028, this aspiration is well aligned to Pact’s vision of thriving, resilient and engaged communities leading their own development.