The political activist and entrepreneur Kah Walla actively shapes Africa’s social, political, and business landscape. After moderating the session on youth employment during the EU-Africa Business Forum in February 2022, she talks about governance, the appeal of ‘Team Europe’s’ cooperation offer, and the role of youth participation in rural Africa.
Ms Kahbang Walla, some people call you Cameroon’s ‘female Obama’ – why?
Edith Kahbang Walla: I think it refers to working very much with the grassroots. I don’t necessarily agree with everything President Obama did, but I respect very much that he was a community organizer. I believe very strongly that for us in Africa, it is urgent that we put into place the type of governance systems that will really respond to the needs of our citizens. But to achieve this, citizens must demand it, they must organize themselves.
Hence, you try to support civil society in Cameroon, for instance?
Yes, you can say it that way. But these days I don’t like the term “civil society” because we made it to be something like an addendum: You have the state and if you like or if you don’t like, you have civil society.
But my vision of governance sees the citizens at the centre.
And civil society is all the different groups representing the citizens. Hence, it should not come after.
How intense is the presence of African states in the rural areas? Let us take a scale from zero to ten…
It is very difficult to give a number for African states as a whole because our countries are in very different situations. Let us look very roughly at three different categories. One is the states that are really doing a good job in terms of functionality. For me, that means three things: presence, notably in terms of basic services, safety and security. And thirdly you have hope, jobs and economic growth. The second category sees countries who are not fully present but move in this direction and make efforts to providing fundamental services like water, electricity, education, health care and security. Finally, you have states who have failed over decades…
…what characterizes them?
We can’t avoid the link between this lacking presence of the state and the ultimate consequence of this, which is conflict. If you look and see where the conflict areas are, it is almost without exception in parts of countries where there very little presence of the state. Rural areas there are lost.
Let us move to the capitals. Last week, representatives of the AU and the EU agreed on a “Joint Vision for 2030” at the 6th EU AU Summit. How do you rate the results of the summit?
There are positives. It was important for these two continents to meet, in this moment where we are going through a pandemic. The summit was able to set out this short term ‘Vision 2030’ – which is important because of the urgency of the problems that both continents are facing. Secondly, the key areas are covered by this vision: prosperous and sustainable Africa and Europe, enhance cooperation for peace and security, partnerships for migration and mobility, multilateralism – these are the fundamental issues.
Unfortunately, yes. We go back again to the question of functional states and how African states are holding themselves accountable for being functional, and how the European states in this partnership are insisting on the functionality of states…
They have not been tough enough?
It is not their job to be tough on Africa – Africa needs to be tough on itself. However, it is very legitimate for Europe to say: We have supported provision of water with xyz Euros, for example, so where are we? Do people have more water?
How attractive is the cooperation offer of ‘Team Europe’ compared to those of other actors like China, Russia and the US?
Europe will always be an essential partner for Africa.
We have a very important history together, also with difficult and ugly aspects. But that is our history.
And what about China or Russia – can they be more attractive?
Depending on the type of state. When we look at safety and security as preconditions for a functioning state, we call for fundamental human rights. A citizen without a state which is committed to these values will always immediately be in insecurity. We still have many dictatorships in Africa which don’t want to respect human rights and which look for partners that don’t bother putting an accent on human rights. Europe feels that it is in competition with China, Russia and to some degree Turkey now, and it has become a bit soft on these fundamental human rights and questions of justice. In many ways, it allows dictatorships to play.
Team Europe plays too softly?
Yes, it does. In this cooperation as we saw in the declaration and as we see in cooperation on the ground, there is very little demand from the European side in spite of the fact that these are in the fundamental charters that unite us: the human rights. Africa has a beautiful charter on democracy and good governance and also on human rights, so Europe is not asking: Where is the fundamental respect for these charters? Putting some amount of conditionality to support and aid on the respect for these preconditions would help.
Some African governments would not be pleased.
If you ask the African citizens, and not the states, then they will answer you that they would like to see more conditionalities and more European demand for these fundamental rights. For many Africans, Europe appears hypocritical because of its inconsistency on these fundamentals.
How optimistic are you concerning the rural areas in African countries? As part of the EU-AU Summit, you yourself moderated a discussion on youth employment in rural areas at the EU-Africa Business Forum last week. Is there a ‘Yes, we can’?
I am very optimistic. I walked away from the seminar with a lot of energy! In this seminar, where the young entrepreneurs, the young people who are investing in agriculture.
If you look all over Africa today, there is citizens on the move.
Citizens are organizing themselves in spite of very difficult civic spaces that are restrained. They demand better services in rural areas. They demand that they be included in the decisions that are being taken. That is where the rest of the world, Europe included, is failing them.
How could rural institutions be strengthened so that marginalised groups are no longer neglected? And what changes are needed in the governance system of food systems?
Two things would radically change the food security and even agricultural economies. One is decentralization. That is why governance is important. Because a state that wants to be present throughout the whole country, will then move automatically towards decentralization. You need to have strong local governments to provide fundamental services. They are the interlocutors of the state with the citizens of the rural areas. This is no longer talked about much these days. We discussed it much more in the years 2000s, but it has not been so effective and needs to come back on the table. Also, when you have nice strategies like the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), like the African Agri-Business Youth Strategy, these strategies will not produce results of scale if they are not operationalized at the local level. They need to be implemented the sub-region, the country, and within the country at the subnational level.
In governance, farmer-led groups that are actually doing the work on the ground, must be a central part of the governance system at the national level, and even the continental level. We are still talking about agriculture without farmers or with only a token representation of farmers. We are still not integrating young farmers and women farmers in the decision-making process.
How would that help?
They would bring to table the actual needs. We saw this in our seminar at the Business Forum: The young people we had at the table had some very interesting innovative ideas concerning financing, which is a tough question in agriculture. Most of the rest of us working in policy and who talk about these issues had not thought about it from their perspective.
Such as how they can link technology with financial services where groups can be formed to ensure guarantees for the loans that are taken. This is a connection, once again, to local government to ensure access to machinery, for instance. These young people in the seminar are in the field, testing this and that at micro levels and so they have some experience that can be scaled.
You mentioned that young farmers and especially women farmers need to be integrated more in decision-making. Why women?
Because they are 50 percent of the citizens. I always wonder a little bit about this question because if you did not integrate them, it means you have chosen to leave out 50 percent of your citizens.
When we talk about African agriculture and farming, we talk about women.
In some countries, over 50 percent, in other countries up to 80 percent of the farming is done by women. I still see these meetings in Ministries of Agriculture without any woman present. I still see these discussions where they do their national agricultural investment plan, and you don’t see any woman in the room. That means: The farmers are not in the room.
That means: The mistake is in the systems – in the African and the European ones?
Absolutely. I am a firm believer in quotas. I know that quotas are always very controversial for people, but I wait for another mechanism that enables us to overcome centuries of imbalance and inequity in a reasonable period of time. My general experience is that marginalised groups that are not in power, in an enterprise for instance, have a different way of thinking and a different way of approaching a problem. They always add value to a conversation.
Because they are more creative?
And more centred. Groups who are not in power, they don’t worry so much about power. They are more outcome-oriented and more in touch with the realities of a problem.
There are these three big challenges – climate change, biodiversity and hunger – that are to be thought together at COP 27 this year, even more in terms of transformation. What opportunities does the transformation of food systems offer for rural areas in terms of employment and ecosystem services?
For the past 20 to 30 years, African farmers have been raising the red flag on climate change.
Their governments have not been listening, have not made this a priority. But for farmers, this is their priority number one. There is a huge opportunity, a tremendous number of solutions that have been developed for mitigation, for adaptation – but once again, are not scaled. Second, when we talk about biodiversity, there is a huge challenge for Europe. As you know there is a debate on European companies putting a lockhold on and trying to monopolize seeds which really impacts biodiversity. I feel, Europe must look at itself in the mirror and take the necessary regulatory steps. On the African side, a lot of biodiversity is being safeguarded by small communities who are not getting much assistance from their own governments and are certainly not equipped to face major multinationals coming in. So, I see opportunities for these communities in these three priorities – but the challenges must be addressed on the African side and very much so on the European side.
What is the role of big players in agriculture, such as international agricultural corporations – a curse or a blessing?
It depends on what they are coming in to do, which value chains they are coming in for and how they are coming in. Africa is a bit late, but we can learn from the mistakes that others have made. So, just going in for largescale agriculture and knocking out small players is not a good solution for the earth and not a sustainable solution for us as human beings. I believe in other enterprises. In the seventies, the solution of cooperatives was abandoned – but it is a convincing collective force of farmers for production, for transformation and for marketing. I don’t think that Africa should follow in the steps of Europe in terms of the way agriculture has gone. We have the opportunity to have a much better mix: You need largescale farming in some areas, but you need also midsized farms that are viable, competitive and that safeguard better questions of biodiversity and climate.
What do you think about demands coming from the global north that African farmers don’t use chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides?
Once again, this has to be thought through as an entire value chain strategy. Not just “Don’t use chemicals for production”; the question is: If we don’t use chemicals for production, how are we putting into place the knowhow, the technology and so on to be able to produce at scale without them. Number two: How are we ensuring that those farmers are able to make a living with their production method? The African farmers can’t pay the price for the mistakes Europe has made.
But the idea is good?
It is, but the implementation of it requires a very hard, serious thinking about the entire value chain. And you can’t do it without functional states!
Every answer in this interview returns to states and functionality…
…this is a fundamental pillar. In development, we have a tendency not to talk about it. But without functional states we cannot succeed.
The interview was conducted with regard to the 7th EU-Africa Business Forum February 14th to 18th 2022 leading up to the 6th European-African Union summit. Click here to read the summit’s final declaration.