Harnessing Africa’s blue economy

Maintaining political commitment and public interest can help develop and sustain the continent’s maritime resources.


The significance of the seas and oceans for the sustainable future of economic and human development and security in Africa and beyond is being increasingly recognised. This was evident at the Sustainable Blue Economy Conference held in Nairobi, Kenya, in November.

Around 18 000 delegates from 184 countries attended – far more than the 4 000 originally expected. These included government officials, representatives from a number of key regional and international organisations, members of civil society, academia and various maritime-industry representatives and other world experts.

Establishing a blue economy essentially means ensuring the long-term sustainable use of ocean or marine resources. The conference emphasised the massive potential that can be harnessed in littoral and marine resources – not just in Africa but around the world. This can be achieved through the creation of a secure maritime domain which would add value to a blue economy in terms of fishing, trade, transport and tourism.

Communicating this message has been the easy part though. It’s the implementation of these initiatives that will no doubt be more challenging. This is a problem often attributed to the metaphorical malaise of ‘seablindness’ – an indifference of the value of safe and secure seas, and now of sustainable development.

More jobs and greater maritime wealth lie in enabling the growth of maritime industries

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni for example said at the conference that he first ‘had reservations about this summit, fearing that [the blue economy] was another of cliché arrangements spearheaded by our external friends, however … I noticed this is about our survival, linked with sustainable goals’.

While the message is becoming increasingly clear that Africa’s blue economy holds the key to the sustainable economic growth of the continent, the ways and means by which this will be achieved are not as well developed.

The World Wildlife Fund in 2015 estimated the value of ocean assets to be $24 trillion, but this figure depends entirely on healthy oceans. The ocean’s health is negatively affected by climate change and harmful human activities such as pollution and overfishing, which diminish the ocean’s resources such as fishing stocks.

While November’s event was branded as the first global conference on the sustainable blue economy, the work has been going on for a long time. The Lomé Summit in 2016 and the United Nations Ocean Conference in 2017 also yielded results, although their impact will take years to become evident.

And the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) Blue Economy Handbook and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14, which commits states to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development, show that actors already possess many of the tools needed.

Firm commitments are needed by states and industries to develop thorough and progressive policies and goals

So despite the explosion of interest and descriptions of ‘untapped’ resources, we are not entering uncharted territory. Rather, those looking to establish or grow their ocean economies are entering some of the most overexploited spaces. Many regulations too are either largely ineffective or, while in place, have yet to have their functioning and enforcement tested. A good example of the latter is seabed mining – an activity that has yet to occur.

It is therefore useful to think of each conference as a link that will in time form a chain – where stakeholders can engage and discuss strategies that are largely unimplemented and charters that could take decades to ratify unless prompt action is taken. This could see countries eventually working together with common goals to ensure a healthy blue economy.

For a successful blue economy and strong maritime security, policymakers and decision makers need ongoing access to authoritative evidence-based research. The ocean’s potential and the threats to its well-being must be laid out in clear facts. This includes tempering unrealistic expectations that the oceans offer the quick panacea for numerous problems that hold back African states from achieving their true potential.

Keeping the momentum is crucial, as too often efforts wane. This requires champions. Among the most prominent and welcome outcomes of the recent interest in the blue economy has been the designation of Seychelles President Danny Faure as the African Union’s (AU) blue economy champion. This follows from the nomination of the Togolese president, Faure Gnassingbé, as an African maritime champion by the AU’s Peace and Security Council in 2017.

A High Level College of Champions, first proposed in the AU’s 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy, could help drive implementation and raise awareness and interest in maritime security and development.

Policymakers and decision makers need ongoing access to authoritative evidence-based research

From 2021 the AU Commission will, for the first time, include a dedicated maritime component in the agriculture, rural development, blue economy and sustainable development commission. In the meantime, the AU should, together with its partners and stakeholders, lead and facilitate a long overdue systematic process, originally envisioned for 2015, that facilitates better links between the AU and it Regional Economic Communities in the implementation of their respective blue economy strategies.

Firm commitments are needed by states and industries to develop thorough and progressive policies and goals, such as the creation of Marine Protected Areas. More jobs and greater maritime wealth lie in enabling the growth of maritime industries.

Ensuring this occurs, guided by the frameworks of Sustainable Development Goal 14 and the principles of sustainable development, is paramount, as the talk of exploitation of resources can too easily cover some of the most environmentally worrying practices and policies, causing tremendous harm to the environment unless well designed and implemented.

The immediate significance of the Nairobi conference was to draw political and public attention to the blue economy increasing its political importance. There is no shortage of frameworks and tools throughout the world that can be used to develop appropriate and tailored strategies. However, our next challenge is maintaining the level of political commitment and public interest in achieving these goals.

Timothy Walker, Senior Researcher and Denys Reva, Junior Researcher, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding, ISS Pretoria

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Picture: Media Club/Flickr

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