HomeFeatures/AnalysisExclusive interview Dr Carlos Lopes

Exclusive interview Dr Carlos Lopes

“Cape Town is an example of a city that is building the ecosystem for a smart city with its investments in connectivity”Carlos

Dr Carlos Lopes, Executive Secretary, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) will address the closing session at African Utility Week on 14 May with the special focus on Smart Cities.

1. We are so excited to welcome you to Cape Town in May. Any specific United Nations Economic Commission for Africa project or development that you are particularly excited about currently?

The Economic Commission for Africa holds an annual statutory meeting, jointly with the African Union where African Ministers of Finance and Ministers of Planning & Economic Development assess, review and make decisions impacting the transformation of the African continent. 2015 is particularly important because in July 2015, the United Nations will hold, at the Economic Commission for Africa, the Third International Conference on Financing for Development.

We will be contributing with knowledge products and analytical work, in line with the African Union Agenda 2063, adopted by the African Heads of States and Government in January 2015 in Addis Ababa, and the Common African Position on the post-2015 development framework.

One key policy research put forward by the Economic Commission for Africa, has recently found that private equity investments – usually associated with long term growth – has risen significantly, with an average annual growth of 26%, thus reflecting an improved and sound African business environment. Yet Illicit Financial Flows through trade mispricing are widespread in resource rich economies – growing at 32.5% over 2000-2009 (close to $60 billion a year) – equivalent to nearly all the overseas development assistance (ODA) received by Africa. Furthermore, our recent analyses on industrialisation through trade, regional integration and structural inclusive transformation positions the Economic Commission for Africa as a “go to” institution for cutting edge policy research and advisory. Our intention is to become the major think tank of reference in Africa.

Finally, the Economic Commission for Africa has been implementing a number of initiatives to fast tract energy development in the region. One of the identified priority areas is in the area of project preparation, particularly relating to renewable energy and energy efficiency. Over the past two years, and with collaboration with other United Nations Regional Economic Commissions, we have been providing capacity directed at African Project Developers. This capacity building included training in project development and in pro-poor Public Private Partnerships for rural energy development.

2. Are there any successful stories that you would like to share?

Across the continent, the Economic Commission for Africa’s relevance is increasing because we are changing the nature of the narrative on Africa with our publications and our different interventions in African countries especially. There is a greater demand by African leaders for us to assist in strategic thinking in different areas that will transform their economies and ultimately Africa.

I could highlight here, the fact that the Ebola scare is now out of the limelight is due to the extraordinary efforts of our member States and the development community. We contributed significantly through, the publication of the Socio-Economic Impacts of Ebola on Africa to put in perspective the impact of Ebola Virus Disease on the GDP of the three affected countries namely Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Our contribution also focused on working with affected countries to focus on post-Ebola recovery. Using country data, we were able to estimate that for 2015 growth in West Africa will be affected by 0.1 percentage point and a mere 0.02 percentage point for Africa. Together with the affected countries, we changed the perception of doom as well as the perceived threat of the Ebola epidemic on Africa’s development, thus rebutting the previous narrative of catastrophic downswings of Africa’s growth trajectory.

Another important story is related to the Economic Commission for Africa ongoing contribution pushing forward Africa’s regional integration agenda. A Continental Free Trade Area is a key block of the African structural transformation architecture. Thus, through advocacy and building policy consensus and providing technical assistance to Regional Economic Communities, we will witness in the coming months, the signature of the Tripartite agreement between the South African Development Community, the East African Community and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa on creating a free trade zone, encompassing 625 million people and a GDP of $1.2 trillion. A real boost for Intra-African trade. A step closer to the Continental Free Trade Area.

Last but not least, is the publication of the “African Bio-energy Framework and Policy Guidelines; a collaboration between the African Union and the Economic Commission for Africa. The Framework was ratified by Heads of States and Government, in 2013, thus providing a continental structure to deal with huge concerns about the impact of biomass depletion. Related to this issue is the associated impact on food security, ecosystem integrity and generally on land and water. The Framework comes with the validated recommendations on responsible and sustainable development of this very important energy sub-sector.

3. Do you think people focus too much on challenges instead of opportunities when it comes to Africa?

I think this is changing. The fundamentals impose a different narrative by Africans for Africans and others. Africa needs a narrative that really reflects the impact of youth, the contribution of women and all that is making Africans change their continent. Until now, urbanisation in Africa was associated with African cities being places of desperation. Rural exodus considered as a movement to be discouraged. As a result, ill-conceived policies were designed and implemented to limit the role of cities that were growing despite the lack of planning. The alternative, a closer look, shows that cities are places of hope and innovation. Also, by African cities have higher and better living standards compared to rural areas, it is a fact that 55% of Africa’s GDP is produced in its cities. One cannot possibly discount “the urban advantage” derived from the agglomeration effect with shorter distances and lower costs. For us at the Economic Commission for Africa, we are cognisant of this advantage, thus building a new narrative on cities linking urbanisation to structural transformation.

I am certainly not discounting Africa’s challenges. They remain large. There is is a tangible optimism coupled with a clear paradigm shift: Africa is the land of opportunity. Our assets are not limited to our vast resources, our youth and growing middle class with increasing private consumption. What is changing is the role Africa plays in this new story line of “deciding on its own future” and in working with development partners on a more equal footing for the Africa we want.

4. Africa is a vast continent and exciting things are happening all over. How can we increase collaboration between northern and southern Africa for example?

Regional integration is a centerpiece of the transformation agenda of the continent. In this respect, the Action Plan for Boosting Intra-African Trade, the Continental Free Trade Agreement and the Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa are initiatives that aim at fostering regional integration through trade, industrialisation and infrastructure.

5. Do you agree that there are great investment opportunities in energy on this continent – how can we make this happen faster?

Africa is the continent that will experience the fastest urbanisation ever. While still at 40 percent urbanisation rate, cities are growing exponentially, due to population growth, migration and reclassification of rural areas. Africa will enter the urban age very soon, and by 2035 half of Africa’s population will be living in cities. Given this trend, energy needs will increase, probably, as fast as cities will do, if not more. So far, the supply has heavily relied on oil-based sources of energy for housing, transport, industries and services. Given this trend in a context marked by health and environmental concerns as well climate change pressures, Africa will need to make use of its tremendous potential in terms of renewable energies. So there is a big window of opportunity for domestic and foreign investors to invest in energy and consider its developmental impact on Africa.

Moreover, at the dawn of the post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals approbation, over 600 million people in Africa still have no access to electricity; over 700 million of them still lack clean cooking solutions; millions of them are already suffering from the impacts of climate change; and the vast majority of the continent’s clean energy resources will still be largely untapped. It is a unique window of opportunity to turn energy access and climate challenges into development opportunities. We have no alternative but to make it happen. All concerned parties have to take appropriate actions for policy reforms, large scale coordinated efforts and huge investments. Several billions invested in various clean energy projects in Africa, fall short of what is required for a transformative low-carbon, climate-resilient and socially inclusive energy future for the continent.

Key policies and strategic programmes are shaping Africa’s response in line with the goals of the United Nations’ initiative: Sustainable Energy For All. We ought to accelerate our efforts to implement Africa Power Vision – a long-term plan arising from the Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa. Consistent with Agenda 2063, it ought to increase access to reliable and affordable energy by using Africa’s diversified energy resources in a coherent and well balanced manner. In addition, President Obama’s USD 7 billion Power Africa project aimed at increasing the number of people with access to power in sub-Saharan Africa through public and private sector finance once completed will add 30 GW of capacity for at least 60 million homes and businesses. I also note Africa Clean Energy Corridor, developed by the International Renewable Energy Agency endorsed by 19 countries of the Eastern and Southern Africa power pools. It is about increased deployment of renewable energy in Africa. In the end, we must have climate resilient economic growth in Africa.

Coordination is essential in leverage large scale investment in Africa’s energy sector.

6. You are delivering the closing keynote on Smart Cities at African Utility Week? Can you give us a sneak preview of your message?

Innovation and technology are key to Africa’s future. The concept of smart cities, based on the approach of the “Internet of Everything”, when all of the city’s devices will be embedded with chips. On our continent, few cities are ready for this. Lagos, in Nigeria, despite its problems, has been chosen as a centre of smart technologies, and plans are underway to develop a cashless society. The city administration is working to find solutions based on technologies to improve some urban functions, such as public transport, and has identified the city’s waterways as a great option. Cape Town, in South Africa is also another example of a city that is building the ecosystem for a smart city with its investments in connectivity where 171 governments and city buildings are. There are also plans to roll out a broadband infrastructure throughout the metro. Cape Town government thinks that internet access is critical for economic development, and is willing to roll out a number of free Wi-Fi spots across the province, encouraging entrepreneurship, and options to connect to a range of opportunities including jobs, online education and starting or expanding businesses.

It is exciting, but most cities will not be able to develop the concept in the near future, or make it a reality given the implications in terms of innovation, connectivity and institutional capacities. Internet access is the backbone of a smart city. So, with limited access to electricity and limited bandwidth, a smart city could become a reality to a few for now. Investing to ensure wide access to electricity and internet is therefore a critical condition for any smart city to blossom.

7. What are you most looking forward to at African Utility Week?

As African cities are faced with the challenge of offering adequate and affordable services for the majority of urban dwellers – in terms of water, energy, sanitation and waste management, this event could certainly provide some solutions to address this enormous challenge. Solutions have to target cities and provide them with technical, but also financial responses. Innovation is at the core of the solution in redefining arrangements between central and local governments as well city dwellers.