The 2022 Commonwealth Business Forum opened in Kigali, Rwanda, on Tuesday with a resounding call for action to do more to spur intra-Commonwealth trade, protect the environment and invest in young people for an equitable common future.
African Development Bank President Dr. Akinwumi Adesina was one of several high-level speakers on a panel at the event.
The forum--a run-up to the official opening of this year's Commonwealth Heads of State and Government Meeting (CHOGM)--is the first and largest in-person gathering for governments and businesses across the Commonwealth since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Hosted jointly by the Rwandan government and the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, this year's business forum addressed the CHOGM 2022 theme, 'Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming,' with a focus on a global reset, dealing with the pandemic's impact and the Commonwealth's role in rebuilding the global economy.
During a panel discussion at the opening plenary, Rwandan President Paul Kagame said the time had come for Commonwealth countries to harmonize and translate common visions into action to build back a shared future, prioritizing the youth.
"We seem to understand what we need to do. We should just do it," said Kagame, who was commended by fellow panelists for transforming Rwanda.
Kagame called for a balanced Commonwealth. He said: "We need to keep making sure that when you talk about the Commonwealth, you mean the commonwealth; not just being common to a few, so everyone in the Commonwealth family feels they are part of it. So even those at the lower level feel not left behind."
Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland said intra-Commonwealth trade exports had rebounded from $700 billion in 2019 to an estimated $760 billion in 2021, the highest ever recorded in value terms.
She projected that intra-Commonwealth exports would grow steadily over the next five years, surpassing the $1 trillion mark by 2026. "We hope to put trade back on track following the economic setbacks caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the spillover effect of the Ukraine conflict," Scotland reassured the audience.
Scotland said there was substantial progress in boosting intra-commonwealth trade and investment towards the goal of $2 trillion in intra-commonwealth trade by 2030.
Recognizing the presence of the African Development Bank President, Scotland extolled Adesina's leadership of the institution and its achievements.
Alongside the Rwandan leader and the African Development Bank Group President, other panelists were Australian mining businessman Andrew Forrest, CEO of climate data cooperative Subak, Amali Chivanthi de Alwis MBE, and Managing Director and Executive Vice President at the International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank Group, Makhtar Diop.
The future of African youth lies in Africa
Adesina said the future of the Commonwealth must be well-shared across its 54-nation family, must be youth-driven, and climate-resilient. He said it was also important for everyone to have equitable access to vaccines.
Adesina stressed: "We have to prioritize young people in all our financing. We must create youth-based wealth. What the youth need is access to skills, education and finance." He spoke of the African Development Bank's 'Job for Youth' scheme and its 'Coding for Employment' program, explaining that these programs greatly contributed to youth becoming leaders.
The African Development Bank chief commended President Kagame for showing exemplary leadership in Africa. "A common future needs good leadership to make the people believe they can build their life where they are. [... ] I don't believe the future of the youth in Africa lies in Europe. I don't believe it lies in Latin America, Asia, or anywhere else. It lies in Africa growing well, able to create quality decent, competitive jobs for its young people."
For Subak's Chivanthi de Alwis, the Commonwealth must protect the planet and invest in education to give young people the skills for the future.
The IFC's Diop said Commonwealth member countries must have ambition and vision and also go on to implement them.
He said the IFC had initiated products to support trade finance in Africa and help de-risk investment. "Trade financing will be essential to building a resilient ecosystem of value chains in Africa," he posited. He added: "We have a lot of businesspeople who don't know the continent as we know it. They would like to put their money into the economies but ask us to derisk it, so we'd use our resources to de-risk it to attract more investment."
Diop expressed confidence in the Africa Continental Free Trade Area as one of the ways to boost exports from Africa.
Australian miner and businessman Forrest backed calls to invest in education for children. "We've got to invest in boys and girls for equal education outcomes," he said, adding: "Africa must also adapt to green energy, taking advantage of its vast renewable potential. Let's capture that for the kids. Let's capture that for the economy. Let's capture that for quality."
The Commonwealth is home to a growing membership of 54 countries, covering 2.5 billion people (60% under 30), representing a third of the world. The combined GDP of the Commonwealth community stands around $13 trillion and is estimated to reach 19.5 trillion in 2027.
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