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Kenyan graffiti artist Bhupi Jethwa has left his colourful mark on numerous walls, sharing his vision through large-scale paintings.

Kenyan graffiti artist Bhupi Jethwa has left his colourful mark on numerous walls, sharing his vision through large-scale paintings.

Envisioning African Futures

Blog Joint Futures 28, 24.11.2023

Germany’s future depends on Africa in many ways, including with regard to some burning issues such as migration, energy supply and climate change, which can only be solved in cooperation with African partners. Detlef Müller-Mahn and Eric Kioko ask: How do Africans envision their own futures?


Recent visits by President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Chancellor Olaf Scholz and several German ministers to Africa provide evidence of the government’s renewed interest in the continent. Quite obviously, this interest is driven by domestic problems that require closer cooperation with partners in Africa. Migration is one issue, with xenophobic sentiments now influencing election results. Energy is another, as is the disruption of gas supplies from Russia, which has left the country extremely vulnerable. Finally, it is self-evident that Germany cannot solve the problems of an ailing economy or climate change on its own because this requires global approaches.

Appeals to “Our Common Future” have been repeated again and again since the publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987. However, the belief in universal interests and goals is increasingly being questioned, especially by voices from the Global South. Like other actors in the Global North, Germany has to accept that we live in a pluriverse with divergent ideas about desirable and possible futures. Against this backdrop, it is essential that partners acknowledge each other’s objectives and expectations, respect mutual interests and are prepared to compromise in order to jointly shape their futures.

International debates on the prospects of the African continent have oscillated from Afro-pessimism to Afro-optimism (“Africa Rising”) and back again. In contrast to the rather pessimistic visions about African futures offered by Western experts, African voices are often more optimistic. They focus less on economic objectives and emphasise the importance of agency, freedom, self-reliance, emancipation and identity. These visions are formulated not only by national governments, but also by intellectuals, civil society organisations and countless social groups in urban and rural contexts. In the following, we sketch out some examples of how Africans envision their own futures.

The African Union’s Agenda 2063

Given the fact that the African continent comprises 54 independent states with enormous cultural and economic diversity, it is better to speak of futures in the plural. The question arises about how to find commonalities in the plurality of envisioned African futures. As the continent’s overarching political organization, the African Union (AU) has produced a strategy that outlines a roadmap towards The Africa We Want. The AU’s Agenda 2063 was first launched in 2013 as a strategic framework for achieving inclusive economic development over the next 50 years. Its goals refer to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, linking them with efforts to improve human well-being and sustainable livelihoods. These include the eradication of poverty, political integration, the strengthening of African cultures and identities through an African Renaissance, the establishment of justice, peace and security in all parts of the continent, and liberation from foreign domination. The goals of Agenda 2063 have been translated into 15 flagship projects, which are designed to give a major push to the continent’s economic and social development, including the construction of a high-speed rail network, the establishment of a common free trade area and several large infrastructure programmes. The extent to which the ambitious goals of Agenda 2063 can realistically be achieved remains questionable, as 2063 is still a long way off. For the time being, Agenda 2063 may be read more as a wish list of desirable future developments.

Afrotopia – the View of African Intellectuals

Visions of a better future were the backbones of the independence movements and decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s. To this day, these visions remain among politicians and intellectuals and are considered controversial. In his book Afrotopia, the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr reflects on a future African society that is built on the traditional values of family relations, solidarity and humanity. Despite his background as an economist, Sarr rejects Western models of economic growth and progress. Similarly, many African intellectuals are calling for a decolonisation of the mind, which means that the shaping of African futures is contingent upon the continent overcoming its continued dependence on Western funds and experts, emancipating itself from copying Western blueprints and searching for African values and autochthonous solutions. Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, a historian from Zimbabwe, calls this epistemic freedom”, that is, liberation from Eurocentric thinking. In contrast to postcolonial debates, the historian and political theorist Achille Mbembe of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg argues against retro-topian visions. Instead, he sees the unfolding of possible futures in the coexistence of the continent with the rest of the world.

Urban and Rural Perspectives

Africa is urbanizing rapidly. Recent estimates suggest that half of Africa’s population is expected to be living in urban areas by 2030, rising to 60 per cent by 2050. African policy-makers and economists see urbanisation as an opportunity for the realisation of Agenda 2063 to promote continental integration in the framework of the African Continental Free Trade Area, which brings together 54 countries in the AU and eight Regional Economic Communities. This integration establishes an African economic powerhouse that will redefine trade and compete with the rest of the world. Agenda 2063 envisions cities as hubs of economic and cultural activity, ultimately contributing to the continent’s prosperity.

In contrast to the often urban-centred priorities of international development cooperation, rural areas are equally central to realising visions of a better future for Africa. Rural areas should therefore not be treated as the “waiting rooms for development”. They provide the necessary space for the mega-infrastructure installations – such as geothermal, wind power and hydropower – that drive urban growth. Newly established development corridors, most of which are still being planned or implemented, can be considered as Dreamscapes of Modernity. The promises of megaprojects may sometimes be misleading, but people see them as “beacons of hope”. Furthermore, Africa’s rural areas are increasingly experiencing the positive externalities associated with the expansion of infrastructure and better services, including physical and social infrastructure and ICTs, creating opportunities for rural populations. Ultimately, these notions of modernity shape the visions and aspirations of people living in Africa’s rural areas as much as those of the rest of the world.

African futures are also linked to the rapid growth of the youth population, both in rural and urban areas. African youth are seen as a fundamental resource capable of unlocking the continent’s potential, while also contributing to the labour force. In his book Youthquake: Why African Demography Should Matter to the World, Edward Paice opens the critical debate on the relationship between population growth and Africa’s developmental prospects, rejecting the predicted apocalyptic scenarios and doom-laden prophecies for the continent and looking at the influence and action of youth – for Africa and the world. The “African Youthquake” presents an opportunity and a valuable resource for Africa and the world, and as such it should demand the world’s attention.

The Plurality of African Futures

There are vibrant debates about desirable futures across the African continent that reflect its diversity of cultures and social conditions. What distinguishes the visions of many Africans from those in the West is the hope for a better future. Africa is a hopeful continent, against all odds. If there is one point on which governments, intellectuals and various social groups would probably agree, it is the urgency of improving the living conditions of the poor and the prospects of the urban middle classes. But there is no consensus on whether the way forward should follow a Western – or Asian – model and to what extent it should build on traditional cultural values.

Responsibility for the content, opinions expressed and sources used in the articles and interviews lies with the respective authors.

Detlef Müller-Mahn is Professor of Development Geography at the University of Bonn. Eric Kioko is Lecturer of Social Anthropology at Kenyatta University, Nairobi. Both authors are members of the DFG-financed Collaborative Research Centre Future Rural Africa (CRC-TRR 228).