Flags of the members of the African Union. Photo by: GCIS / CC BY-ND

The African Union closed its 29th Ordinary Session earlier this week, following nine days of high-level meetings in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, where leaders from the continent sought to discuss solutions to problems ranging from youth unemployment to HIV to cleaner energy.

The theme of the summit, “Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through Investments in Youth,” sought to further implement the development roadmap published in February 2017. That document outlined four critical components aimed at pushing Africa toward sustainable peace and development, including education and skills development; health and well-being; empowerment; and employment and entrepreneurship.

During the World Economic Forum on Africa last year, an article detailed the world’s 10 youngest populations and revealed that all are in Africa. Many experts see this youthful population as a potential advantage for Africa; such a huge working-age population offers vast opportunities for economic growth. This growth, however, is limited to the extent that countries provide adequate education and jobs for young people. Without those jobs and economic opportunities, there could be a risk of societal breakdown as young people become frustrated and marginalized.

On the meeting’s sidelines, more than a dozen first ladies called upon development partners to support their campaign to “eliminate new HIV infections in children and keep mothers alive,” a framework to urgently take action to end the AIDS epidemic among children, youth and young women by 2020.

Other key issues included the state of peace and security in Africa, as countries including Nigeria, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic remain in fragile states, induced by combat, food shortages, malnutrition and the spread of disease. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda also presented information on the AU’s upcoming institutional reform, and other sessions furnished updates for the ongoing negotiations behind the establishment of the Continental Free Trade Area, which would create continent-wide flexible and free movement of trade.

Here are top four takeaways.

1. The signing of a clean energy partnership with New Zealand

The African Union Commission and the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade signed a partnership agreement that detailed a framework for the creation and implementation of the New Zealand-Africa Geothermal Facility.

This agreement would see the New Zealand government invest up to $8 million to more than a dozen eligible countries of the Geothermal Risk Mitigation Facility — including Kenya, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique — and would make available New Zealand geothermal expertise based on country needs.

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To date, 27 projects have qualified for grant awards for a total amount of $79 million since the launching of the GRMF in 2012, from which four projects have been successfully completed, according to Amani Abou-Zeid, commissioner for infrastructure and energy of the AU Commission.  

The goal of this facility is to expand access to affordable, reliable and clean energy in East African countries where geothermal projects have been popular in recent years as a method of reducing the energy shortage in the region with substantial support from the African Development Bank.

Under the leadership of AfDB President Akinwumi Adesina, expanding access to energy has been prioritized as top focus under the High 5 agenda, aimed at connecting roughly one-third of 640 million Africans who remain without power to on- and off-grid solutions.

2. The launch of the .africa domain

This week the AU summit officially launched the long-awaited .africa domain to the general public. The tool offers the opportunity to foster a unique online identity for African business owners, service providers and information seekers on the continent and beyond to connect.

This project has been in the making since 2000 when a few African internet professionals first solicited for the domain. The campaign was spearheaded by the South African company, ZA Central Registry, which will now be responsible for registering .africa websites.

“DotAfrica is unique in that it gives Africans that important sense of pride and identity, at the same time motivates them to achieve the very best for their continent and themselves,” ZACR head Lucky Masilela said during the launch. Initiatives like .africa help harness the power of new technologies to solve old problems and grow value for the continent, he said, encouraging the African community worldwide to take advantage during general availability.  

Masilela estimated that .africa addresses could cost as little as $18. The registration site is available at http://registry.africa/ for more information.

3. African heads of state adopt new initiatives to help end AIDS by 2030

African Union heads of state and government adopted the AIDS Watch Africa Strategic Framework to strengthen AIDS Watch Africa, the highest level vehicle for collaborative action, advocacy and accountability toward ending AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria on the continent.

Kenya becomes first country to debut generic HIV drug

Kenya has become the first country worldwide to launch a new, affordable HIV treatment. This option, which has been prescribed in high-income countries as a first-line treatment method, will be available in public health facilities before being rolled out extensively nationwide.

During the meeting, leaders endorsed two major campaigns: the emergency catch-up plan to accelerate HIV response in West and Central Africa and the Two Million Community Health Workers initiative.

The World Health Organization estimates that 60 percent of all people worldwide living with HIV know their status — but the western and central Africa regions lag far behind with only 36 knowing their status and 28 percent accessing treatment in 2015.

Under the leadership of countries and regional economic blocs — and in collaboration with UNAIDS, the WHO, Médecins Sans Frontières and other partners — the proposed “catch-up plan” would increase the number of people on treatment from 1.8 million to almost 3 million by mid-2018, giving an additional 1.2 million people — including 120,000 children — access to urgently needed treatment.

“We have a historic opportunity to end AIDS, TB and malaria in this generation due to advancements in science, technology and improved delivery systems at the community level,” AIDS Watch Africa Chairperson and Guinean President Alpha Condé said at the meeting. He urged for better mobilization and training of community workers and a needed transformation to health systems to forge better health outcomes through increased investments in health.

While acknowledging recent advancements in HIV response, including the introduction of the newest HIV drug in Kenya, leaders also noted the high rates of new infections among young girls and women in Africa. The meeting also emphasized a slow tuberculosis response and raised concerns about the resurgence of malaria in southern African countries that were reaching elimination stage, such as Namibia and Mozambique.

Unfortunately, achieving these ambitious health goals will not be possible without qualified health workers. UNAIDS estimates that there are more than 1 million community health workers in Africa today, but most focus on a single health problem and are undertrained, unpaid or underpaid, and not well integrated in health systems, the organization said.

The new initiative, endorsed by AIDS Watch Africa, seeks to retrain existing community health workers, where feasible, and to recruit new ones to reach the 2 million target. Community health workers have helped devise some of the most effective service delivery strategies for HIV testing and treatment, and studies have also linked community-delivered services with increased rates of immunization, exclusive breastfeeding and malaria control coverage.

“Few investments generate such a remarkable social and economic return as community health workers,” Jeffrey Sachs, director of Earth Institute at Columbia University, said in a written statement. “Community health worker programmes are essentially self-sustaining, in that they avert illness, keep workers healthy and productive and contribute to economic growth and opportunity.”

4. Release of two handbooks to amplify women’s voices

The African Union Commission Office of the Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security and UN Women jointly launched a handbook on “Practicing Gender-Responsive Reporting in Conflict Affected Countries in Africa.” The special envoy also launched a separate booklet on “African Women Mediators and Election Observers.”

This support came just a few weeks after the launch of the African Women’s Leadership Network, a networking group with the support of UN Women and the Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations aimed at stimulating women’s leadership in Africa and increasing their participation and influence in politics and peacemaking.  

African Women Leaders Network advocates for more women in leadership

A new networking group created for and by African women seeks to increase the voice and presence of female leaders in politics, humanitarian agencies and on-going regional peace efforts.

The handbook on gender responsive reporting promotes reporting that accurately portrays women’s lives in conflict and post-conflict contexts by highlighting the range of their roles and strengths, as well as the impact of conflict in their lives. The booklet on African women mediators and election observers aims to compile African women’s expertise in mediation and election observation in an easily accessible document and to facilitate and promote their effective participation in peace processes.

The goal is to encourage women to recount their experiences and enhance women’s participation in political processes and societal developments. While the crowd-sourced documents are in their infancy, future editions plan to capture more in-depth expertise in peacebuilding and elections monitoring.

“The role of women in conflict prevention, social transformation, community engagement, and in addressing issues of exclusion and structural violence is critical for the achievement of sustainable peace,” Letty Chiwara, UN Women representative to Ethiopia, the AU, and UNECA, told audience members during the launch. African women need to change the narratives on women, peace and security by documenting their stories of resilience and commitment to peace, she added.

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About the author

  • Christin Roby

    Christin Roby worked as the West Africa Correspondent for Devex, covering global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her master of science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.