Sonia Hoque (ODI) | National strategies for African transformation: how to make it happen

20 April 2016

Sonia Hoque – ODI, Programme & Communications Manager

Economic transformation now has the attention of African leaders. National strategies with the goal of economic transformation need to be developed inclusively and ultimately have the buy-in of citizens. Those developing them must be prepared to move from technical, rigid documents with unrealistic targets, to flexible, visionary ones, led by “politically savvy leaders” and supported by citizens who hold them to account.

These were among the key messages emerging from the first African Transformation Forum (ATF) convened by the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET), in partnership with the Government of Rwanda, in Kigali, on 14-15th March 2016. The conference brought together leading policy makers, business leaders, academics, journalists, civil society and development partners to share ideas and collaborate on advancing Africa’s economic transformation.

The motivation and need for such an event is clear. Despite a number of years of positive progress in terms of economic growth, an overall rise in population in Africa has seen increasing numbers of people living in extreme poverty across the continent. The ACET President, Dr. Kingsley Amoako, opened the ATF stating that African leaders must prioritise economic transformation to create the jobs for the future. The consensus across the forum was that whilst this is true, the real question and focus should be on how to make it happen.

The goal of economic transformation raises the stakes for policy-making in Africa and national transformation strategies remain essential. After decades of aid dependency and jobless growth, renewed positivity about the future of Africa was felt across participants at the forum. ‘African-led development’ was also a commonly used phrase, reflecting the fact the event was convened and organised by an African think-tank. In fact, Emmanuel Nnadozie, Executive Secretary of the African Capacity Building Foundation, argued the need for more of such think-tanks across Africa.

Creating national transformation strategies

The first step which leaders need to take in order to progress towards the goal of economic transformation, is to create a comprehensive national strategy which can be understood by the citizens of a country.

The importance of vision and long-term planning was echoed throughout the opening plenary session. Indeed, several African countries have produced strategies with ‘Vision’ in their titles, to show they are more than just a plan. The importance of feasibility was also highlighted and it was generally agreed that transformation strategies are more laudable than development models, which do not always apply to the vastly different contexts in African countries. Models can be borrowed but “transformation happens by design, voluntarily” (Ibrahim Mayaki, CEO, New Partnership for Africa’s Development).

Planning, sequencing and prioritisation are also needed in a good strategy. Carlos Lopes, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, stated “a developmental state is central to the process of accelerated growth and transformation” and this is evident in Ethiopia and Rwanda. However, the roles of the government, the private sector and citizens need to be crystal clear, with buy-in from citizens being particularly important. In a paper written by SET and ACET ahead of the forum, creating a transformation strategy inclusively with key stakeholders, with a shared vision which survives political cycles, was considered key to success and achieving results in the long-term.

Implementing national transformation strategies

Public-private dialogue and cooperation is essential for implementation. Governments play a critical role in mobilising a public-private sector coalition and serving as a broker between multinationals and the rest of the economy. As well as developing an inclusive strategy, SET and ACET also found other basic requirements for successful partnerships:

  • Have strong public agency that is able to discipline other ministries, public agencies which are embedded in private sectors (through both formal and informal networks) and public dialogue that incentivises collective action in the private sector.
  • Learning, experimenting and building in feedback processes is important in public-private collaboration for economic transformation.

The last point of learning and experimenting was echoed by President Paul Kagame who attended and addressed the ATF participants and stated: “we have to stay adaptable and flexible. Plans and frameworks should not become a barrier to action or to course corrections. Mistakes will be made along the way and money wasted. But that should not be the end of the road.” Strategies should not be rigid with ambitious and inflexible targets for industrialisation. They should rather be adaptable and realistic, to avoid becoming restrictive to policy-makers.

However, having a well-designed and implementable strategy is not enough. The importance of political will, strong leadership and buy-in from citizens came to the forefront of discussions on implementation. Rwanda’s Minister of Finance, Claver Gatete highlighted the fact many African states face difficulties in building partnerships due to challenges in governance and corruption. He believes Rwanda’s success in this regard has come from the top – with a president that believes in the need to fight corruption. His advice is to use the law, enforce tough penalties, and to not underestimate the importance of addressing corruption.

Catalysing and sequencing transformation

The importance of prioritisation and sequencing when designing a strategy, plus questions around challenges of implementation, naturally leads to questions on how to catalyse transformation. Several discussions at the ATF focussed on what could be done in several areas such as transforming agriculture and developing youth skills, promoting financial inclusion, amongst others. Trade and regional integration for example play an important role in stimulating economic transformation in several ways such as raising exports, stimulating export diversification, reallocating resources to more productive activities etc. And as argued by Dirk Willem te Velde manufacturing should not be neglected, given exemplary experiences and opportunities in a range of manufacturing sub-sectors and countries in Africa including Mauritius, Tanzania and Ethiopia. The wide range of discussions across the ATF alone, reflects the challenge for African leaders in selecting and sequencing public investment activities.


Sonia Hoque is the Programme and Communications Manager for the SET Programme at ODI.

ODI and ACET co-wrote a set of papers for the African Transformation Forum which was held in Kigali, Rwanda on 14-15 March 2016. An event report and Storify can be viewed online.



1. Emmanuel Nnadozie (14 March 2016) African Transformation Forum Event Report, prepared by Sonia Hoque. Available at
2. The SET programme produced three background papers, in collaboration with ACET to facilitate discussions around the ‘how to make it happen question. Available at

Photo credit: ACET