President Jacob Zuma accompanied by Head of WEF Elsie Kanza conducting a state of readiness walkabout at the Inkozi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre in Durban ahead of the World Economic Forum on Africa meeting. Picture: Elmond Jiyane | GCIS
World Economic Forum (WEF) meetings have a certain timbre. They’re not conferences, after all, but annual meetings bringing together people from distinct communities, whether central bankers, social entrepreneurs or city planners.

All nudging agendas forward, task forces on skills and training get set up, healthcare pilots are launched and new efforts embarked on to unlock funding for vital infrastructure projects.

Much of this work is dry, technical and slow moving - not exactly headline-grabbing stuff, but I like to think it's significant nonetheless.

And yet I think this year’s meeting, taking place in Durban for the first time in 15 years, could be the most important meeting we have ever held in Africa.

One simple reason for my hypothesis is that the work of the forum, its partners and constituents is touching the lives of more Africans than ever before.

As an international organisation mandated to promote public-private collaboration, our modus operandi is to bring together diverse stakeholders in the hope that their combined energy, brain power and resources will solve challenges that are too large or complex for one party to fix on its own.

The list is too long to go into but watch out for new announcements this week in areas such as financial inclusion, rural internet and science and research funding - to name a few.

More important to me is the fact that there remains huge interest - in these polarised times - among diverse groups and nationalities to work together to produce a better future for Africa.

This year’s meeting, for example, will welcome people from over 100 countries - more than ever. Registrations from top South African businesses are also up 20 percent on 2015, the last time we were here.

The diversity extends into civil society: 40 leaders from charities, faith-based organisations, NGOs and other groups will join us this week. Trade unionists will outnumber central bankers in Durban, for example. These leaders come because they believe in the power of multi-stakeholder co-operation, as do the dozens of young people who will be representing cities from across the continent.

Which brings me to the nub of why I believe this year’s meeting will be more important than ever. Change is in the air: 70 percebt of the people living on our continent are under the age of 30. Most are poorly educated; tragically, most will struggle to find work.

To say this cannot go on is an egregious understatement, given the tide of political change sweeping through swathes of the northern and southern hemispheres today.

Market capitalism, which has done so much to lift people out of poverty and raise living standards, has allowed inequality to flourish to the point where without major reform it may no longer be fit for purpose.

But while there is a consensus emerging on the need for a new direction towards more inclusive societies - from all quarters - there is little on how to get there.

I welcome the fact that the term "inclusive growth" is increasingly entering common usage: it is in the theme of our meeting, and the heart of a lot of the intellectuals we are doing at our organisation these days.

Not only this, but we are making pro- gress on how to achieve it.

Inclusive growth means a wholesale rethink of the way we celebrate national accomplishment. Gross domestic product was never meant to be an all-encompassing way of measuring an economy’s health: our obsession with it these days means we think about little else.

It’s much better to assess progress in terms of how an economy is able to raise the standards of living of the people who drive its success.

The good news is this can be done in a variety of ways. Redistribution of income, taxes and assets has a role but it must not be overstated, and to see it as a panacea is plainly misguided.

The strongest economies in the world are those that see growth at their top line of gross domestic product and also their bottom line - the median income of its workers. They do this by putting in place robust education policies, building infrastructure, strengthening institutions, and encouraging home ownership and long-term investment.

This is the message we will be bringing to leaders in Durban this week. This is why I believe this year is so critical. Rescuing our economic and political systems so that they serve all people, not just a few, requires urgent action.

As we look to the dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Africa has a huge opportunity to harness the transformation to inspire entrepreneurial spirit and stable, strong societies. It is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.

Elsie Kanza is the World Economic Forum’s member of the executive committee and its head for Africa.