The ocean opportunity in Africa

By: Kendra MacDonald, CEO, Canada’s Ocean Supercluster

Last week I was in market for the Ocean Innovation Africa conference.  Following several conversations with different groups and leaders in ocean in Africa, I was looking forward to joining them in person for this conference now in its fifth year. During COVID, I had the opportunity to virtually present at this conference, but the opportunity to be in person was critical to advancing some of the connections and conversations already underway. 
Taking advantage of a variety of experiences  throughout the week from presentations to workshops, to matchmaking to networking at a historical property and finally a study tour that included a kelp farm, seaweed lunch, wastewater management and rehabilitating turtles, it was exciting to explore ocean solutions being developed and deployed and also to have conversations around where Canada has complimentary solutions on offer.  There were hundreds of participants from all over Africa and around the world. 

There are many takeaways from my time at Ocean Innovation Africa, as well as opportunities for us to learn from each other and about each other. Here are a few: 

  • Community:  While South Africa is very far from Iqaluit, I heard many themes at this conference that were very similar to those that I heard at our roundtable in the North last month – the importance of community, sustainable practices, food security and thinking for the long term. There was also a lot of discussion about the value of Indigenous knowledge, how to make sure it is captured and how to right size projects for communities.  Finally, a focus on the importance of consultation, taking the time to understand communities before proposing solutions.  While I am a big believer in the power of technology, there are many low-tech solutions that can create positive impact for a community and scale to others. 
  • Talent: Africa has the world’s youngest and fastest growing population, expected to nearly double by 2050.  I was impressed by the energy and passion at the conference from startups to NGOs to investors looking to both grow the ocean economy for Africa creating economic prosperity and build sustainable solutions for a healthier ocean and a healthier planet.  Those that had the opportunity to present their solutions had tailored them to the local environment and community.  At the same time, South Africa’s unemployment rate is over 30%, a significant challenge to address as the population continues to increase. 
  • Biodiversity: Throughout the week, we were exposed to the tremendous biodiversity within South Africa. From seaweed to kelp forests to sharks, penguins, seals, and turtles, we were reminded of the tremendous adverse impact we are having on our planet as many of these species are under threat – this reinforced the important link between a healthy ocean and economic prosperity.  South Africa is increasing its focus on Antarctica and the Southern Ocean and the impacts of climate change as we continue to increase our focus on the North Atlantic and Arctic. 
  • Collaboration: Throughout the conference, there were many networking opportunities.  I was impressed by the number of conversations intended to provide support, mentoring and new contacts and avenues to explore.  There is much more opportunity for collaboration with Canada and I am thankful for the Canadian Trade Commissioner’s support in identifying meetings and opportunities for connections. 

As I sat at a restaurant on Thursday in the dark as Cape Town experiences significant and repetitive energy shortages, I was reminded that while Africa has many opportunities, it also faces many challenges including corruption, poverty, health and education outcomes which brings me back to my first point, this is all about building the right solutions that fit the community and as we bring our solutions from all over the world to Africa to try to help, we need to remember this. 

One thing is certain, there is much more to come from the ocean ecosystem in Africa, they are just getting started and there is a role for us to play as collaborators and global partners.