Development Dialogue 2018 | Blue Economy: A New Frontier of an African Renaissance? by Johan Spamer

The African Union recently proclaimed that the ‘Blue Economy’, as the ocean economy is increasingly known, could become the ‘New Frontier of an African Renaissance’. The Blue Economy promises sustainable development through its focus on socio-economic inclusion and the protection of the maritime environment, but is it really all it promises to be? With the first global conference on the sustainable development of the blue economy taking place in two weeks, this article takes a closer look at what the Blue Economy is about.  

It was as late as 2012 that the Blue Economy was officially recognised at the Third International Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro (Rio+20). In the absence of a universal definition, Verma (2018) argues that the Blue Economy can be regarded as the integration of ocean economy with the principles of social inclusion, environmental sustainability, and innovative, dynamic business models (p.103). As such, the Blue Economy offers a new and alternative sustainability approach that goes beyond simply harmonising activities in an ecologically friendly manner. It’s a notion that grew out of the Green Economy (Claudio, 2013), but with different policies and frameworks, offering its own characteristics and domain for countries whose futures are based on maritime resources. Africa is calling the Blue Economy narrative the frontline of the continent’s rebirth, but what is this new notion, and how is it different from other blue-infused (e.g. Europe’s blue growth) drives?


The paths followed by leading African countries (e.g. Seychelles, Mauritius, Kenya and South Africa) in establishing Blue Economy frameworks are important, and so is the manner in which these countries go about it by establishing dedicated departments for implementation. The Blue Economy per definition offers an opportunity to prevent the vulnerable, often also marginalised populations, from missing out on socio-economic opportunities in the maritime sector. Furthermore, these beneficiaries can now obtain a fair share of the public good, claim their voices on an equal footing, and can attain a secured sense of dignity through unlocking wealth opportunities.

At least, this is the picture painted by African legislators. However, we are still lacking sufficient empirical data and scientific research to substantiate these foreseen outcomes. Critique against or endorsements of the African Blue Economy are both reference to ad hoc cases and by making broad conclusions in the absence of rigourous in-depth case analyses. Furthermore, the scope of the Blue Economy within the African context includes lakes, rivers, dams, and underground water. It goes beyond the traditional coastal and ocean-based economies with landlocked countries also included in the regional strategies (UNECA, 2016). This makes generalisation and case comparisons with non-African Blue Economy countries complex.

Central to this approach, and within the context of people-orientated sustainability (Attri and Bohler-Muller, 2018), is the principle of social justice through fairness (equity) and inclusivity. The aforesaid echoes strongly with the SDGs’ sentiment (see SDG 14) to ensure long-term sustainability by:

  • Enhancing and leveraging newly received benefits from the ocean environments to the benefit of all (inclusivity) through activities such as bioprospecting, allocated fishing quotas or rights, oil and mineral extraction agreements;
  • Fostering national equality (parity which includes gender equity), allowing for inclusive growth associated with decent employment for all; and
  • Having strong international governance structures and measurements in place to specifically guide the developing country regimes for nearby seabed development. This relates to the management of their rights and interests to be properly sanctioned in the expansion of their national waters beyond the current state dominion.

Keen et al. (2018) provide a useful overview of the Blue Economy. As expected, the three main sustainable components (economic, social alias community and ecosystem) underpin the core Blue Economy aspects. These components are complemented by enabling institutional arrangements as well as technological capacity, reflecting the linkages within such a multi-scalar model. The three predominant concepts that are important to oversee this sustainable development framework are: a) agency, b) power, and c) politics.

As such, we can contextualise and link these concepts within the domain of development studies in the following manner (although not limited to): the need for agency through institutional platforms (e.g. multi-stakeholder initiatives), power relations (e.g. gender), influencing the political economy (e.g. the role of the developmental state), political ecology (e.g. ecosystem resilience), and the role of technology (e.g. innovation).

Notable is the acknowledgement of the importance of diversity (cultural values) and gender equity. The Indian Ocean Rim Association’s (IORA) Declaration on Gender Equality and Women’s Economic Empowerment, adopted at the 16th Council of Ministers Meeting in 2016 (Bali, Indonesia), affirmed the overall commitment towards the promotion of women’s rights (Verma, 2018). The success of the Blue Economy as an exemplar for promoting inclusiveness and equity depends on how different vulnerable groups such as marginalised women, skill-deficient persons, and poor communities are incorporated. At a theoretical level, the Blue Economy is portrayed as an evolutionary concept over the long term. The benefits are foreseen to mainly depend on the theories still to be developed by the scholarly activity in this research domain (Attri, 2018).


The Blue Economy as a sustainable development framework explains how social justice and equality can be addressed on different levels, especially for the most vulnerable. Partnerships, capacity building, infrastructure development and country-level frameworks are very important in the process of opening up new markets and allowing for greater access in a sustainable way. Barbesgaard (2018) challenges this view, labelling ‘blue growth’ as ocean grabbing. This view is supported by Brent et al. (2018), who highlight contradictions within the blue economy’s ethos and question the promise of an inclusive three-fold win on a socio-economic-ecological level.  Still, this is what Africa seems to be calling for (at least the African Union), and the Blue Economy is seen as the vessel to cross to new (socially just) opportunities by keeping a balance between factors; more growth but with less unsustainable practices.

Kenya will be hosting the first global Sustainable Blue Economy Conference from 26-28 November 2018 in Nairobi.  All are invited, with special arrangements to welcome the marginalised and often excluded parties (e.g. poor communities and small-scale fishers). However, the question remains: will all have equal voices and approve the agenda? See for more details.

Attri, V.N. (2018). The Blue Economy and the Theory of Paradigm Shifts. In Attri, V.N. and Bohler-Muller, N. (Eds). (2018). The Blue Economy Handbook of the Indian Ocean Region. (pp. 15 – 37).  Africa Institute of South Africa.
Attri, V.N. and Bohler-Muller, N. (2018). The Beginning of the Journey. In Attri, V.N. and Bohler-Muller, N. (Eds.). (2018). The Blue Economy Handbook of the Indian Ocean Region. (pp. 1 – 12). Africa Institute of South Africa.
African Union (2012). 2050 Africa’s integrated maritime strategy, version 1.0. African Union.
Barbesgaard, M. (2018). Blue growth: saviour or ocean grabbing? The Journal of Peasant Studies, 45 (1) 130 – 149.
Brent, Z.W., Barbesgaard, M. and Pedersen, C. (2018). The Blue Fix: Unmasking the politics behind the promise of blue growth. Transnational Institute.
Claudio, C. (2013). From Green to Blue Economy. Philippines Daily Enquirer 23 June 2013. Available at: [Accessed 23 Augustus 2018].
Keen, M.R., Schwarz A-M and Wini-Simeon. Towards defining the Blue Economy: Practical lessons from Pacific Ocean governance. Marine policy, 88 (2018), 333-341.
UNCTAD. (2014). The Oceans Economy: Opportunities and Challenges for Small Island Developing States. United Nations Publications.
Verma, N. (2018). Integrating a Gender Perspective into the Blue Economy. In Attri, V.N. and Bohler-Muller, N. (Eds.). (2018). The Blue Economy Handbook of the Indian Ocean Region. (pp. 98 – 124). Africa Institute of South Africa.
UNECA. (2016). Africa’s Blue Economy: A Policy Handbook. Economic Commission for Africa.

This blog article is part of a series related to the Development Dialogue 2018 Conference that was recently held at the ISS.

JS Photo #1

About the author:

Johan Spamer is a researcher at ISS in the domain of multi-stakeholders initiatives (MSIs), inclusive development and innovation, specifically within the Blue Economy.


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