American and European businesses will remain key players across the continent, but their dominance is in retreat. The full effects of the global financial crisis have taken years to reveal themselves – not least in the impact of stagnant wages and widening social divisions on the politics of western economies – but have been reflected in western banks pulling back, in some places to be replaced by Moroccan and South African institutions. The fallout of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings had unexpected long-term consequences, marked by Russia’s return as a major international player with an authoritarian emphasis on stability. The global slump in commodity prices has led vulnerable economies to reconsider relations with China and western partners as revenues and investment flows have shrunk (AE 304/24, 261/24). Such trends are increasingly influencing African policy-makers and business leaders, with the potential for much greater flows of trade and foreign direct investment (FDI) to stay within the continent.

Confédération Générale des Entreprises du Maroc (CGEM) employers’ federation head Meriem Bensalah-Bencheqroun told the International Africa Development Forum (FIAD), organised by Attijariwafa Bank in Casablanca on 16-17 March, that “Africa must launch an industrial revolution of its own” – and this would be achieved by African companies working together.

Guided by King Mohammed VI, Morocco – like Ethiopia (AE 311/20) and Rwanda (AE 315/7) – might be termed a ‘developmental state’, where incisive leadership shapes policy and provides a framework for economic actors to drive growth and build relationships. According to royal adviser Youssef Amrani, Morocco has developed “a singular model reconciling the imperatives of South-South solidarity, shared prosperity and international competitiveness”. Those buying into this narrative include China, which King Mohammed visited last year and which is supporting an estimated $10bn new industrial and technology hub near Tangier. But the policy hinges on Africa; over half of Moroccan FDI is now directed towards the continent, led by Côte d’Ivoire. Morocco has showed considerable finesse by attracting Arab and other financing to headline projects like the Baie de Cocody clean-up and urban development in Abidjan.

With its fast-growing population and emerging markets, Africa is a more credible long-term bet than in earlier decades when appeals to south-south co-operation usually remained no more than pious platitudes. Such thinking is apparent across the continent: the Moroccan model of state-supported business penetration of African markets has found an echo in capitals such as Kigali and Addis Ababa. Policy implementation is key. The Rwanda Development Board’s Winifried Ngangure told FIAD that Rwandan officials “go to a lot of conferences, but we have to come home and write up our conclusions so they can be worked into an action plan. I think you are also doing that here.”

The fifth annual FIAD spoke volumes for the new mood, attracting over 2,000 participants from 30 African countries. Morocco’s Attijariwafa Bank, BMCE and other financial institutions proved (not least to themselves) that by moving south to fill gaps left as French and other international banks retrenched they could make money. Much has been made of the policy’s political aims, underlined by King Mohammed’s personal success in reintegrating Morocco into the African Union, while also squeezing support for the Polisario Front in the Western Sahara (AE 336/18). But business is the key driver for this new model of south-south co-operation, based less on inter-governmental agreements than on deal flow.

A new spirit is running through African business, at least in those states that have managed to implement coherent policies. The mood was summed up in Johannesburg on 28 March, where Rwanda Energy Group’s Danny Rurangirwa commented that in his “resilient” country, “we are coming up, and we are coming up strong – in Africa, which is the future… Why should we depend on aid from Europe? There is much more we can do if we dare to try.”