NAIROBI – The Sustainable Blue Economy Conference concludes today in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Siddharth Chatterjee, the United Nations Resident Coordinator and U.N. Development Programme Resident Representative to Kenya, spoke to IPS about the economic potential of oceans, lakes and rivers for Africa.

Excerpts follow:

Inter Press Service (IPS): We are seeing this great, inclusive African voice at the conference. Dr Cyrus Rustomjee, the former economic director for the Commonwealth Secretariat said we will look back to this point in five years’ time and say ‘This is where it all started’. He said that how the blue economy plays out in Africa is a make or break example for the model. What are your thoughts on this?

Siddharth Chatterjee (SC): I entirely agree with him. I would start by commending the President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, for the vision and foresight he’s had in terms of what this new frontier of African economic renaissance looks like. And there is nothing that matches the potential of the multi-trillion dollar opportunity that the Blue Economy provides, which is perhaps not even conceivable in a land-based economy. I would like to also commend the vision and leadership of the governments of Canada and Japan for co-hosting this historic Blue Economy Conference with the government of Kenya.

So in my view, this is going to be the game-changer for what the new Africa, in terms of the new economic model and perhaps an economic miracle would come up with over the next few years. Most importantly, Africa is at the cusp of a demographic dividend, with the biggest youth bulge ever in its history. The median age of Africa is about 19 years old. What we need to see happen is that young people, and women in particular, are brought into the centre of the conversation and into the narrative of the Blue Economy.

That will be the definitive feature that will help to become the very engine of driving the exponential growth of the Blue Economy.

So once again, without inclusion, without ensuring that the Blue Economy gets interconnected, which perhaps allows the opportunity of the free trade agreement [the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA)] that we recently signed in Rwanda. This gives it wheels, this gives it momentum.

What I see is the entire United Nations family in Kenya, which is united behind the government of Kenya’s initiative, of bringing all of Africa together in terms of this change potential.

Perhaps, with the establishment of an Africa-wide trust fund on the Blue Economy – which really is about capacitating governments, whether landlocked or countries lying on rivers, lakes and other water bodies — we improve governance of the Blue Economy.

IPS: We are seeing a huge commitment here in terms of African governments. Kenya is not just talking, but acting by launching the country’s newly-formed Kenya Coast Guard Service, with the president’s ‘Eat more fish’ campaign, which aims to support the local fisheries industry. Kenya is positioning itself in terms of being a leader in driving the Blue Economy. Kenya has also managed to get other leaders to commit to developing Blue Economies. What do you see in the future in terms of Kenya’s role?

SC: I may be slightly biased as the U.N. Resident Coordinator to Kenya. I actually see Kenya as a window to the soul of Africa. Kenya has the ports. Tt has the infrastructure. It is interconnected. It is a beacon of hope in a region of enormous instability. In fact it represents everything that we want to see happen all across Africa. And therefore to me Kenya becomes even more crucial in becoming the convener and the facilitator of the entire Blue Economy dialogue.

So what is going to be most important is the post-event. And already we have seen from the Kenyan Foreign Minister Monica Juma where she is emphatic that she wants to see follow-through. She asked me as the UNDP Representative to Kenya here as well as the UNDP Africa Bureau Director Ahunna Eziakonw to help Kenya in the journey forward. Which is exactly what we intend to do.

The U.N. secretary general António Guterres, the U.N. deputy secretary general  Amina Mohammed have given us marching orders. They have told all the U.N. offices in Africa to get behind this, because this is the new frontier of African economic growth.

IPS: What are your thoughts now in terms of African participation going forward? What are the next steps involved?

SC: This is precisely what the intergovernmental bodies, which are already present, plus the African Union needs to be very much at the centre of this [the AU is driving the Blue Economy with its Africa Union Integrated Maritime Strategy (AIMS 2050)] and is ensuring that the convergence takes place.

But you also need personalities to drive it and what I find is that in President Uhuru Kenyatta we have the kind of pragmatic leader who has the ability to reach across countries, to reach out to heads of state. He’s a very affable and personable, and gets along very well with everybody.

In fact, a good model is the Kenya/Ethiopia cross-border programme that he initiated in 2015. And it has become a model which was recently showcased in the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

I just think that he is the right person to move it forward. And this is going to be an important part of his legacy.

IPS: What do you think can be done in terms of including inland African states in this Blue Economy?

SC: When you talk about a free trade agreement, it covers all states. Now states will have to be connected by infrastructure because they need to move their goods, services and people. And that infrastructure means roads and bridges and everything else that goes towards and leads to ports. We can’t just be using airports to get things out and this will lead to ports. And therefore everybody has an equal stake in the progress of a Blue Economy. And keep in mind that Europe is ageing, the Asian Tigers are ageing. It is being referred to as the demographic echo. The new markets for Europe and the Asian Tigers will be in Africa. So it is actually a big win for the United States, for Canada, for Europe, for the Asian Tigers, to really come together and see progress in Africa. Because this way, everybody wins.

It’s just like the Marshall Plan that the U.S. had in Europe after the Second World War. It not only became a major market for the U.S. but created a new group of allies and created new prosperity and opportunity for all of Europe.