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Schools are about to resume, many parents will be unable to pay the fees. Many are right now not sleeping well at night. There is perhaps an increase in the sale and consumption of blood pressure tablets. Same as the rate of disagreement between spouses. The frustration is palpable. Suicide notes are already making headlines. Long-suffering parents trying to give their children the best suddenly feeling inadequate and unable to meet up with all the pressure. The monthly shopping budget now buys less than half of what it normally does. Yet the demand is rising. It doesn’t matter your social class, it’s an experience that cuts across board.

A child somewhere is about to drop out of school. Many more will not resume along with others or will have to be sent home sometime before the exams. Nothing can be more damaging to a child’s self-esteem. Even more, some are being withdrawn from schools abroad and planted in schools in Nigeria. And some others have been withdrawn from schools in-country and moved to ‘more affordable’ ones. For some others still, the dreams of starting school this October has just been deferred. The uncertainty looms large.

The slices of bread at breakfast has been reducing. For some, it has disappeared. Butter, jam and mayonnaise are long forgone. Rice. Did you say rice? It has for some, gone from a Sunday, Sunday delicacy to a once in a long while menu item. Who can afford rice these days? Millions are not sure of their next meal. Children are on the verge of becoming malnourished. No, I don’t mean those in IDP camps. That one is already a disaster. Immunity levels are dropping. Hitherto quiet diseases are awakening, aided by dropping hygiene levels. Brief illness, that known killer, is staging a comeback. It’s time to display its prowess.

We are cutting down and cutting down and cutting down. Start-ups are closing shop. Big companies are closing down. Multinationals are packing and leaving. It’s not even a joke. Go to the malls and see empty shops. No one is coming to rent. Old tenants can no longer pay. Entrepreneurs are watching their dreams turn into nightmare. Investors watch as years of built up value turn to ashes in their hands. It is not a pleasant taste. No. It is the kind that forces on you certain actions you will rather not think about as a business owner. Actions like debt renegotiation and unpalatable cost cutting measures. Like downsizing, right-sizing and bankruptcy declaration.

Jobs. Oh, those precious things that were hard to find even in the best of times. Now they are being lost like it is going out of fashion. Some of those who still have theirs are just turning up with their staff IDs around their shrinking necks for the pleasure of it. Many months of salaries already being owed. Many more months to be owed. Some others have accepted a ‘short sleeving’ of their take home. A pay that can no longer take them home. The labour market remains saturated. Skilled. Semi-Skilled. Unskilled. Nobody is employing. What do we do?

Consciences are being remade. Deadened. Otherwise good guys are pushed to become what they are not. Against the wall, not sure of what to do, the wrong ideas are taking over, building tents where bright ideas used to reside. The smart ones are signing up for Yahoo plus. The strong ones are picking the guns and becoming nocturnal. The gritty are breaking oil pipes and claiming to be freedom fighters. Others still are boarding flights for a career in Italy or Portugal, selling sex. Anything to bring some change into the pocket and food on the table. Something to make it feel easier. To make this nightmare pass quickly.

Checking out is becoming the anthem again. The privileged, many who only braved it back home in the last five years, with all colours of passports and Visas to their name are sneaking back out. Those with plans to return are cancelling it. There goes all the hymns and sermons by our leaders to the Diaspora about returning home, all these years. But not everyone has the luxury of bouncing out through the airports. Many more are taking their destinies in their hands and braving it through the deserts with nothing but the dreams of a better life across the Mediterranean. Many end up as food for fishes. Others in unmarked graves. Those who succeed have their faith renewed in the ‘miracle working God’

So please don’t tell me recession is just a word madam. No. It is not. The above is what recession is in black and white. Not fiction. Not economic jargon. Not politics. This is what it really means for a majority of the people. So stop trying to apply makeup to it or deodorise dog poop. It is nauseating really. Now is the time to sit up and get to work. It’s not so difficult for a recession to become a depression.

@nzesylva

First published here on 6 Sept 2016

nheNotting Hill Editions is the publishing imprint devoted to the best in non- fiction essay writing. NHE runs a biennial Essay Prize, in 2017  for the best unpublished essay of between 2,000 and 8,000 words on any subject.

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We love to party in Nigeria. This national culture runs true regardless of social class. We close up streets and set out canopies populated with plastic chairs and tables. We sew uniforms, complete with caps and hifalutin headgears, and endure all kinds of discomfort to honour invitations to come and chop. In the clubs, we turn Champagne into water, so much so we are said to be the world’s second highest consumers, inching close to dethroning the French. Everything has to be elaborate, from naming ceremonies to weddings and even funerals. It has to be loud. It has to be lavish. It is as if we are in a competition with everyone else for the gold medal on whose party was the best within a period.

We are so consumed by this love for ‘owambe’ that sometimes it appears to be a form of a compulsive disorder. Last year I remember a patient who just had a baby in one of the wards in LUTH and was being kept because in addition to her baby having jaundice, her blood pressure was elevated and she needed to be monitored for a few more days. This lady was, however, more interested in being home for the naming ceremony so much that she was constituting quite a nuisance. It was as though if she did not go for the naming ceremony, the world will end. If strong advice by doctors on a life threatening issue were not enough to make this lady see reasons, one wonders what else can. There are very few scenarios that will beat this in the show of ignorance.

I can liken the lady’s story to the ongoing craze where states in Nigeria are falling over each other on who will throw the biggest party to celebrate their anniversary. There are certain things that take place in this country that are so stupid that you feel commenting on it makes you also stupid. This is one. Just when you think the state governors have done the very worst thing possible, they come up with something new to take it to a whole new level. The last time they (APC governors in that instance) took themselves to Germany supposedly on a training trip – an excuse for a summer holiday and shopping spree, on tax payer’s money. There seems to be no limit to the ability of public officials in Nigeria to shock.

There seems to be no limit to the ability of public officials in Nigeria to shock.

An Igbo saying goes that you do not need to tell the deaf that war has started. One ordinarily expects that nobody will appreciate the dire financial stress we are in as a country than the state governors, whose monthly trips to Abuja, cap in hand, to share money, has been producing dwindling returns. As a result, not a few, have raised their hands in dramatic declaration of defeat that they can no longer meet their monthly wage bills and capital projects have as we say “entered voice mail”. Indeed one can count on the fingers of one hand the states that are still working. If these states were businesses, Majority would have declared bankruptcy by now. A few have even reduced their work days, to allow helpless workers go fend for themselves and their families. There has already been two rounds of bailouts by the Federal Government yet many of the states are still hanging on the precipice, not to mention that many of them are so deep in debt that generation yet unborn will inherit.

It is thus shocking when the leaders of these states, even the worst hit of them, still turn out and declare senseless parties with the little they have. Clearly, these deaf people need a megaphone to remind them that the war is just about consuming them. As if it is not enough that they have not bothered, in the face of the crises, to cut down on their flamboyant lifestyles and over bloated cabinets, their Excellencies have caught the new bug of lavishing scarce resources on state anniversary celebrations as though they were some revenue generating enterprise.

The latest of the lot is the state of Osun which is debt-ravaged and last month received zero allocation from the Federation Account after statutory deductions of its debts. The state’s leadership apparently were not too bothered about this and were more interested in marking its 25th anniversary in grand style. How does one rationalise such show of shame? How do these guys, who are owing many months of salaries, who have sunk the state in debt, who cannot even get the free money from Abuja, sit around in their cabinet meetings and decide on such things? It is just hard for me to understand. Any explanation that can rationalise the expense on such celebration is welcome.

If Osun does not celebrate its anniversary, will the sky fall? On the other hand, could that money have been applied more profitably towards the welfare of the people of Osun? The answer does not require rocket science to decipher. This is one wastage and misplacement of priority too many. Their Excellencies should please note that toying with sensibilities of the ever patient citizens and getting away with it has its limits. At some point, the people will let them know they have had enough. We already have an example.

Last week it was reported that Governor Bello of Kogi was stoned in Lokoja during a Jumaat service to mark Kogi at 25. Let all those other states who are nursing the intention of throwing similar parties please note. When you are in a hole you seek for ways out and digging deeper is not one of them.

@nzesylva

Now that Rio is over

Rio teamThe Rio Olympics has ended and it’s no more news that it was a shambolic and truly embarrassing outing for Nigeria. I hate to say I told you so, but I had written in an article published in this column about a month to the games that it would be a spectacular failure. But there was hardly anything prophetic about my prediction. The signs were everywhere for everyone to see. A popular adage posits that if you fail to prepare, you should prepare to fail. And fail we did. In every aspect. Even the lone medal, a bronze in the football men’s event, was won from the sheer will and determination of the coaches and players. We remember how the team only managed to reach Brazil few hours to the kickoff of their first match against Japan.

That is why it is laughable when the sports minister, Solomon Dalong, who had promised at least 10 medals prior to the games, blames the failure at Rio on the past administration. There could be no better case of burying one’s head in the sand. Perhaps the last administration was also responsible for the ceremonial wears of the team as well as their kits not making it to Rio, arriving only 3 days to the end of the summer games. Little wonder Don Wilder famously said; “Excuses are the nails used to build a house of failure.” Many are still waiting to see if the minister keeps his job after what was an embarrassing outing, but then you want to ask, which ministry really is currently delivering the goods?

Rather than the empty excuses and sharing of blames, one will expect that we will return from Rio with a basket full of lessons learnt on how not to make it at the Olympics. One will expect that sports administrators will take responsibility for the woeful outing, apologise to the country and then resolve to do what was necessary to ensure Tokyo in four years’ time is an entirely different experience for both the athletes and the country.

These things are not rocket science. If we cannot take a man to space, we should at least be able to make our mark on the global stage via sports. We know that the talents are not in short supply. This is the largest black nation on the planet. We have the population to draw from and experience has shown that Nigerians excel very brilliantly when they are given the opportunity and needed support. We must realise that winning medals at the Olympics does not come by mere wishful thinking or prayers. It is not also something you hold few weeks camping for, no matter how gifted an athlete you are. Countries who left Rio with their kitty full of medals prepared for at least four years for it. Indeed countries like the US and China have a long drawn out plan of action for these games such that they seemingly effortlessly trounce their opponents when the games finally arrive.

It is not magic. If we want to excel in Tokyo, we must begin now. There has to be a ‘method’ to the ‘madness’. First, we must identify the sports we want to compete in — especially those we have a comparative advantage in. The traditional areas of strength; Sprint, football, weight lifting, and boxing aside, we need to raise athletes that can compete for medals in other sports which we have simply ignored over the years. Someone said there was no reason why we had no contestants in Swimming, archery and shooting sports. It took a decision and personal effort of our US based lone rower Chierika Ukogu for us to participate in that sports when our people have been paddling canoes and rowing for ages.

The Federations of such identified sports must now rise up to the occasion. One wonders how people feel comfortable to occupy seats in federations that cannot even produce a single athlete for the Olympic Games. The Federations under the guidance of the Sports ministry must now draw up four year plans towards Tokyo 2020 and this should include building capacity of known talents, identifying new talents, engagement of coaches, planning of training tours, acquisition of modern training equipment and knowledge, exposing the athletes to international competitions, proper budgetary planning and clear strategies for raising funds outside of government’s purse through corporate sponsorships.

These are not things to be mouthed off for the camera like the sports ministers declaringrio to journalists recently that preparations for Tokyo have begun. It requires clear-cut strategies, a team of people capable of critical reasoning and execution, a commitment by government to keep its part of the bargain and pack of athletes who are fired up to see their nation’s flag raised and their anthem played in Tokyo.

If we are a serious people we will realise that beyond the medals and national pride, there is a lot of benefit to be reaped from sports. Nothing unites our people like it and indeed nothing better harnesses the strength, skills and creative abilities of our youths. It is thus an opportunity begging to be exploited both by the government and the public sector. But no private body will put their money into a sector where government has not created an enabling environment, where there is simply no order.

The tunes being sang now are familiar, we’ve heard them before. We heard them after London in 2012. We will still hear them again in 2020 after Tokyo if we don’t get off our behinds and begin to do what is necessary to give us a different result.

On a final note, I believe congratulations are in order to the U23 football team for doing us proud. Nigerians salute you.

@nzesylva

First published here on 23 August 2016

plasticI recently stumbled on a report which said that by 2050, there will be more plastics than fish in the world’s oceans. This prediction was by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and was launched at the World Economic Forum earlier in the year.

Essentially, the report says that if we keep producing (and failing to properly dispose of) plastics at predicted rates, plastics in the ocean will outweigh fish pound for pound in 2050. Plastic production, the report says, has increased since 1964, reaching 311 tonnes in 2014. It is expected to double again in the next 20 years and almost quadruple by 2050.

Despite the growing demand, humans do a terrible job of making sure those products are reused or otherwise disposed of. About a third of all plastics produced escape collection systems, only to wind up floating in the sea or the stomach of some unsuspecting bird. That amounts to about 8 million metric tonnes a year. Just 5% are recycled effectively while 40% end up in landfill and a third in fragile ecosystems such as the world’s oceans.

The veracity of the claim especially the very worrying figures stated, has been questioned; like in this article in the BBC which raised two questions: how do you measure the plastic, and how do you count the fish? While the claims might be far reaching or the premise from which it was made faulty, there is no denying the fact that the problem exists. We do know that plastic, once added to the ocean, does not decay for decades, possibly centuries. Disposing them is thus a real challenge. Indeed there is a waste disposal problem globally and in Nigeria, this challenge is even more pronounced.

The report of the study serious implications for both governments and businesses especially in these parts where recycling is nearly negligible. When the rest of the world is talking sustainability and climate change, we in these parts make like we cannot be bothered, like the planet being talked about is different from the one we live in. One would say we have more pressing and immediate issues of putting ‘food on the table’ to be too bothered about things that concern preserving the environment. The truth is that we might soon have no way of putting that food on the table because our environment has become none existent following years of neglect.

Waste disposal in Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city is a nightmare and this is despite the best efforts of the state government in this regard. High population density means overtly high waste production and a critical part of urban waste are non-degradable materials such as plastic bottles. Stop for a moment and ponder where all the pet bottles and other drinks you consume end up. We just keep shopping, refilling the refrigerator, drinking, quenching our thirst in traffic and tossing the bottles away. They mostly end up in water bodies and constitute a huge threat to aquatic life and our future wellbeing. We need to begin to take note and react appropriately.

One part of the solution is to rethink the way goods are packaged. Can we effectively cut the demand for plastic? Are there alternatives? Water-soluble film, for example, can be used to wrap small items. Can we begin to phase out Hard-to-recycle plastics such as PVC and expandable polystyrene?

Manufacturers could redesign plastic items so they can be reused better, and rethink their production methods to make recycling easier. More products could be made out of plastics which can be composted on an industrial scale, including rubbish bags for organic waste and food packaging for outdoor events, canteens and fast food outlets.

We need to radically increase the economics, quality and uptake of recycling. In addition, the report prescribes that we scale up the adoption of reusable packaging and do what we must to drastically reduce the leakage of plastics into natural systems and other negative externalities.  This will generally require joint efforts along three axes: improving after-use infrastructure in high-leakage countries, increasing the economic attractiveness of keeping materials in the system and reducing the negative impact of plastic packaging when it does escape collection and reprocessing systems.

Nice sounding recommendations but really, who will effect this? What agency of government in Nigeria should bear responsibility for this? Do we have the laws to regulate such matters? Do we even consider it important? What does sustainability mean to our government? Is there a policy around it? If there is one, how well communicated is it? Is this not the kind of issue our national assembly should bug itself about rather than their endless squabble over nonissues?

The environment matters and its future sustainability is critical to our continued survival. We cannot continue to act less concerned about topics such as this, especially when it is at the front burner of public discourse in other climes. Monthly Saturday sanitations cannot be all we can offer. It is high time we began to take this matter more seriously and do what is necessary to maintain the balance in our environment.

@nzesylva

First published Here on Tue August 16, 2016

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It will appear that the Federal Government has finally woken up to the fact that we are in a recession and that it needs help. This view is informed by the fact that last week it was reported that the Economic Management Team (EMT) held a consultative forum with a team of notable economic and financial experts including Mr Bismarck Rewane, Mr Bode Augusto, Prof Akpan Ekpo, Dr Ayo Teriba and Prof Badayi Sani. This meeting on the economy was presided over by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo.

At the parley, which lasted for four hours at the Presidential Villa, according to the report, strategies and suggestions on how best to reflate the economy, bring it out of recession and promptly restore growth topped the agenda. The Vice President also expressed the President’s determination to continuously consider and adopt policies that would boost business, increase employment and provide succour to the poor and disadvantaged at the forum.

This move is not just too little too late, it also does not look like a strategy that will rescue this economy.

This government, as has been pointed out by various commentators, was going to face challenges but the extent the economy has depreciated under its watch is such that it must take full responsibility for. Much of this has to do with complete inaction and time wastage. The economy is ailing today partly because it took forever to appoint a cabinet. For many months the country drifted like a rudderless ship. Then there was the drama around the budget and while that lasted, things went from bad to worse.

For over a year into its tenure, monetary policy was (and is still largely) subject to the emotions and feelings of Mr President. The uncertainty in the foreign exchange market was so much that even the most patriotic zest couldn’t save the naira from a free fall. Economists and those who should know, from both within and outside the country, screamed that the government should float or devalue, but the government continued to foot drag, chasing shadows and hoping perhaps for a miracle.

When we did finally float the Naira, it soon emerged that the CBN was still manipulating things, pegging the Naira at an unrealistic rate against the dollar. We lost valuable time again. While we had our head buried in sand, time went by and with it, investor confidence.

There was the issue of removal of fuel subsidy which some elements in the government had argued. while still in the opposition, did not exist. It was the hope of most people that given the current realities and the corruption associated with the subsidy regime, the new government would soon after inauguration fully deregulate the downstream sector. But no. They marked time, allowing the country to almost grind to a halt with many months of fuel scarcity, the type not experienced in recent memory, before it took the decision. Those months of inertia did an incalculable damage to the economy.

And while all these time was being wasted and uncertainty drove away investors and the economy took a nose dive, with GDP entering negative realms and inflation achieving record heights, everyone wondered when the President will appoint an economic team. It was shocking (and still is) that a President who had up to five persons managing communication and his image did not have an Economic Adviser. Nobody can essentially define what the economic direction was. It was muted in some quarter that the vice president was leading the economic team (whose members nobody was sure of), but then the vice president is a lawyer, not an economist and cannot be said to be a competent hand to manage an economy in recession, no matter how well-read he is.

All the while, economists offered their opinion from the sidelines and on all media. But the government went on like they knew it all and could not be bothered. Now that we have literarily sank to the bottom, the government now seeks the opinion of experts, the same people it had ignored all this while. About time, you may say with some relief. Unfortunately, few hours of power point slide presentations by these experts, no matter how well intentioned, cannot change the economy or get us out of recession. Those sessions might as well be akin to turning and turning in a widening gyre…ideas flying all about but no consensus on any. After the four hours of intellectual masturbation, the invited economists, (who might even hold varying opinions on the way forward) will close their laptops and go back to their businesses and normal lives. Pray tell, what happens next.

After the four hours of intellectual masturbation, the invited economists, (who might even hold varying opinions on the way forward) will close their laptops and go back to their businesses and normal lives. Pray tell, what happens next?

This impromptu approach does not ‘epp’ anyone. What this economy needs is a team of seasoned professional in diverse fields related to the economy, paying full-time attention on the economy, monitoring the indices daily, making adjustments, engaging other stakeholders, and advising the president on key policy decisions. It requires an agreement (by the government at least) on a clear cut strategy which will be dedicatedly implemented daily and outcomes monitored. We need a number of pragmatic decisions that make economic sense taken to force start the engine of the economy and see us ride out this storm not the flip-flops of the last several months. Few hours of power point presentations by economists I am afraid does not look like the solution.

Food in Africa

We live in a rapidly changing world with megatrends that are leading to significant disruptions in the commercial and political landscape. Africa is not isolated from this. Indeed, Africa and the rest of the planet currently referred to as ‘emerging economies’ appears to be the epicentre of these changes. The continent has a growth potential and demographic edge over the rest of the world and is (or is expected to be) the converging point following the ongoing shift in global economic power.

A number of megatrends that are critical to current and future growths in Africa has been identified. These trends (five of which will be discussed in this piece) are critical because they have a major influence on the economic and commercial landscape over the next decade; permeate across all sectors of the economy and society; and fundamentally disrupt our lifestyle and the way we do business. In other words, these trends will change the way we work, travel and the way businesses and governments operate. It is thus important that we begin to think critically about them, especially what their implications are and begin to shape the future of our country and the continent accordingly.

Africa has a larger, younger and more affluent population. By 2050, the continent is expected to account for nearly 24% of the global population. Together with India, the continent represents the two major global population growth areas. Furthermore, by 2020, more than 50% of households in Africa will be middle class. What are the implications of this on education and health for example? Data from UNESCO indicates that Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) represents close to one-half the global lower secondary education shortage (46%). SSA will need an extra 1.6 million teachers by 2015, and 2.5 million by 2030. Similarly, the 2013-2014 Global Competitiveness Reports states that SSA continues to underperform in providing health and basic education. Nigeria ranks 140 of 140 nations in the 2015-2016 report for Health and primary education. What is government’s response to this?

The second megatrend is Africa’s transformational Urban Swell. From a current rate of 38%, urbanisation level in Africa are expected to increase to 50% in 2030 and by 2050, two in three Africans will be urbanised. One of the implications of this is that pressure on food supply will continue to increase. Likewise housing and other infrastructure. There are even possible health implications. Urbanisation and the reduction of physical activities will likely result in widespread obesity with undernourishment and over nutrition co-existing in some instances. This population need to buy products, go to school, move around, how are our policymakers planning for this?

Africa is also a fertile ground for technological advancement. New solutions have changed banking, social engagement, education, entertainment, agriculture and will continue to do so with increased broadband penetration and advancements in mobile technology. With a younger population expected in the next decade, how are governments preparing to bring these impact to bear in key sectors such as education? For example, how are we remodelling our curriculum to be in tune with this reality and what are the policies in place to transit from the current system to a more digital and mobile way of learning for our children in school?

Resource Scarcity, a global challenge, will also be impacting the continent. Africa we know is endowed with an abundance of untapped resources. 60% of the world’s total amount of uncultivated, arable land is in Africa. What are the implications for food security on the continent? In addition, Africa has majority reserves of platinum, chromite ore, phosphate rock and cobalt among others. This is in addition to large reserves of oil and gas. Globally by 2030, the demand for energy will increase by 50%. What is the implication of this on the exploitation of the energy resources on the continent and the flow of FDIs?

Africa’s deepening financial services sector is another megatrend that will shape the future of the continent. According to the World Bank’s Global Financial Inclusion Database, approximately 2.5 billion people do not have a formal account at a financial institution. As a result, most poor households operate almost entirely in the cash economy, particularly in the developing world. Mobile money, FinTech and other non-typical banking models are critical to closing this gaps.

In considering how we can prepare for the future, we must acknowledge that Africa is complex and diverse. There are few generalisations that hold true on the continent as the countries are profoundly different from each other economically, geographically and historically. In essence, there is no one size fits all model.  But there are general lessons we have learnt from developed economies which can serve as guidance for African countries. Typically these economies have gone through a process of economic diversification, have witnessed the spread of new technologies, ensured the expansion of the manufacturing and service sector and championed the development of a skilled workforce.

To achieve this in Africa, there has to be greater collaboration between the government and the private sector. Three fundamental shifts in the relationship between government and business is needed viz; (1) From a belief of ‘public good, private bad’ to an appreciation of the best of both; (2) From forced cooperation to mutual collaboration and; (3) From distrust to mutual recognition of responsibilities on both sides.

Governments should create a business-friendly environment by improving their countries infrastructure, create skilled a workforce, ensure financial sector stability and access to affordable capital while also creating jobs for young people. In addition, Africa’s resources must be sustainably managed for the benefit of Africans. The plundering of Africa’s resources has to cease.

The twin deficits in infrastructure and inclusive finance must be addressed. Regional co-operation on energy and transportation is vital in order to achieve economies of scale in infrastructure projects. Governments can also support the development of mobile banking and e-commerce to overcome financial inclusion building on successes such as M-PESA in Kenya. Free movement on the continent should also be actualized. Its hope the recent launch of the Africa passport will bring this dream to reality.

Both Government and the private sector must work together to invest in agriculture. Governments should act on their pledge to spend 10% of annual budgets on agriculture. Businesses on the continent must also focus on building the right organisation, reducing cost and inefficiencies. They must educate and train their people and invest in technology thus positioning their companies and the continent for higher agility and sustainable growth.

@nzesylva

First published here on July 28, 2016

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