By Maram Ahmed, Fellow, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London

While it is often difficult to make generalisations about Africa, Africa’s blue economy will remain a key facet of the continent’s future development. 

Dubbed the ‘new frontier of the African renaissance’ by the African union, Africa’s blue economy has vast potential.

The blue economy comprised of oceans, seas, lakes and rivers, reaps many benefits and is a great source of wealth. It regulates the climate, enables trade, creates jobs and provides mineral resources and food.

Seventy percent of African countries are coastal and more than 90 percent of the continent’s trade is conducted by sea putting Africa’s blue economy high on the continents policymaker’s agenda and fast becoming an area of geopolitical intrigue.

As with any emerging frontier, the rules of the game are being written and opportunities and challenges abound.

As we celebrate World Environment Day and World Oceans Day this month, how viable is Africa’s blue economy? 

The blue economy covers a wide-range of sectors such as fisheries, maritime transport, tourism, aquaculture, energy and extractive industries. These sectors need to work together in order for the blue economy to be sustainable.

A number of challenges face the continent.

Firstly, climate change and ocean acidification is threatening the marine ecosystems. This is a direct impact from human-related activity such as fossil fuel burning that has caused a change to the chemistry composition of the seas.

In brief, burning fossil fuels increases the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere which is partly absorbed by the seas. As excess carbon dioxide is dissolved in sea water, it decreases the ocean’s acidity level causing ocean acidification. This, combined with other climate change related stressors, adversely impacts fisheries, aquaculture and coral reefs. For many African countries, marine ecosystems are a lifeline for livelihoods and rich sources of food.

Secondly, rapid population growth in Africa, as well as illegal fishing, is dwindling fish populations. At the moment, the gap between the amount of fish being caught compared to those being replaced by natural reproduction, is quickly widening. Fish account for “a major source of animal protein” and are an integral part to food security and nutrition for millions of Africans. Furthermore, the fisheries sector is a major employer and source of income for rural communities impacting millions of livelihoods.

Thirdly, ocean pollution such as plastic poses an imminent threat to marine life. More than 8 million tons of plastic are infesting in the oceans every year. If the current trend continues, there will be more plastic that fish in the ocean by 2050. Tons of plastics polluting African seas are being ingested by marine animals, causing their deaths, or are being caught up in them.

An African solution to an African opportunity?

Recognising the blue economy is only the beginning. As with any natural resource, unlocking its potential poses various challenges.

As governments across the continent initiate efforts to harness the blue economy and formulate strategies, a pan-African commitment and cooperation is required to drive progress. Africa’s sixteen landlocked countries should be an integral part of process given how interconnected the blue economy is. 

In order to reach UN Sustainable Development Goals goal number 14 “conserve and sustainably use the ocean, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”, an inclusive approach is needed.

Governments must pledge to put conservation and sustainability at the heart of the agenda.

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