News

Is Africa Taking the Lead?

For one weekend each year, the “Final Frontier” is unleashed on the Harvard Business School campus as huge numbers people from Africa, of African descent and numerous others who are simply interested in events relevant to the continent flock to our hallowed grounds to participate in the Africa Business Conference. This year was no different, with close to 1,200 participants representing over 20 countries coming together to engage in networking, panel discussions and social activities during the 11th Annual Conference themed, “Africa on the Move: Transforming Quick Wins into Lasting Change” over the weekend spanning February 20th – 22nd.

The conference has gained notoriety as the preeminent African Business Conference in the Diaspora; one would be hard pressed to find another, whether student organized or otherwise that matches it in terms of participant base, geographic reach and overall quality. From undergraduate students at Stanford to Executive MBA students from the University of Ghana Business School to accomplished entrepreneurs and institutional professionals from across the continent, everyone was assured of several moments of pure astonishment at the potential of the African continent as highlighted through the conference.

In the current unprecedented economy (at least in most of our lifetimes), you might be forgiven for assuming that people would rather stay as far away from business as possible especially in a generally unproven market, however this conference displayed the growing awareness of Africa as a critical destination for business. For those in the know, attendance was an absolute necessity; particularly this year – they needed to find out about ongoing initiatives around the continent, see what opportunities would present themselves and meet the people who are likely going to be the next wave of leaders in the business spheres in their respective countries in Africa. For those who may be less clear on their near term goals, the conference helped shed light on areas where they may have a vague interest and there was always the odd chance that they would run into an entrepreneur on a panel who could flip the switch for them and provide a career opportunity greater than anything they might ever have anticipated. There was plenty of inspiration to go around and it was certainly not lost on the HBS contingent at the conference;

“I was completely blown away by the phenomenal experience that was the 11th annual African Business Conference. Not only was it unbelievable that the conference attracted close to a thousand participants…but it was amazing to see so many people completely engaged in thinking about issues that are so critical to the continent’s continued advancement.” Farai Shonhiwa (NC)

“The opportunity to hear insider secrets to successful entrepreneurship in Nigeria, debate the sustainability of micro-finance in Ghana, dance to a live performance by the soulful Cameroonian duo Les Nubians, and observe the trendy creations of a Sierra Leonean fashion designer, all in one weekend, was truly refreshing.” Taiwo Ajayi (NH)

This year’s conference began on Friday the 20th with a series of events for prospective students. They were shown around the campus, participated in a case discussion on the darling of African Capital markets, Celtel International B.V., and sat in meetings with the MBA Admissions office where they had the opportunity to ask questions related to the application process. The highlight of Friday night was a cocktail reception with music and a fashion show by designer Adama Kai from Sierra-Leone showing her Aschobi line.

The main event started with registration at 7:30am; it featured as keynote speakers W.P. Ofosu-Amaah, Special Advisor to Donald Kaberuka, the President of the African Development Bank; Jite Okoloko, CEO & MD of Notore Chemical Industries in Nigeria, Former CEO & MD of OandO Energy Services in Nigeria and an OMP alum of the Executive Education Program here at HBS; and Runa Alam (HBS ‘ 85), CEO of Development Partners International, an Africa-focused Private Equity firm based in London. It featured 14 panels including a McKinsey Case Study discussion on Africa’s ability to sustain its remarkable growth in the face of a global economic slowdown. We asked the tough questions – with panels ranging from “African and China: Friends or Foes” to “Doing Business in Post-Conflict Countries in Africa.” We discussed the old established but fundamental business issues – with panels including “Private Equity and Venture Capital’s Role in Sustainable Economic Development” and “Infrastructure as Key Bottleneck to Sustained Growth in Africa.” We explored new and exciting business avenues – in panels such as “Renewable Energy: Unlocking Africa’s Green Potential” and “The Growth of Internet in Africa.”

The day concluded with a banquet including an announcement of the Alumni Achievement Award to Cyrille Nkontchou (HBS ’94) and a concert featuring les Nubians, the internationally acclaimed, Grammy award nominated singing duo from Cameroon. They kept the party going as the swayed the crowd with their trademark mellow crooning over lively beats; they left everyone in the right mood to enjoy the conference ending party covered by not one but two DJs spinning an assortment of African tunes from the Democratic Republic of Congo to C“te d’Ivoire.

The key questions on participants’ minds were along the lines of, “what is really going on in Africa? Can I actually return there and have as successful a career as everyone seems to believe at this stage? How sustainable are the opportunities being highlighted on the continent? Is this a bubble or a real wave of change? How will Africa react to the global economic downturn? What can my country learn from the existing successes on the continent?”

Answers to the “what” are as diverse as there are countries on the continent. There are pockets of remarkable social, political and economic advancement on the continent, although it would be disingenuous to suggest that Africa as a whole is a new dream destination for any and all business minded individuals. There is consensus that the population offers an appealing opportunity for any business that is capable of comprehending the nuances of 12 million Senegalese as well as the extreme differences spanning the 150 million-strong Nigerian population or 36 million Kenyans. This diversity is reflected in a comment from the conference panel coordinator;

The panels were strategically selected to provide insight into these opportunities and challenges. As a result of deep-rooted differences, each country has unique attitudes and cultures that profoundly impact business initiatives within its borders. For example, the Francophone panel sought to demystify business in those countries with the goal of encouraging businesses to truly invest across Africa rather than solely in hand-picked Anglophone or Francophone countries. Also to that end, we included a keynote interview with Jite Okoloko to discuss entrepreneurship in Nigeria – a country that has the dubious distinction of being perceived as both one of the top countries for business opportunity as well as for corruption. His discussion of the bold steps required and the obstacles surmounted for his ultimate success was enlightening for conference participants. Additionally, the opening and concluding keynote speeches by W.P. Ofosu-Amaah and Runa Alam respectively successfully emphasized the existence of viable upcoming and established businesses on the continent. The commitment of the African Development Bank and private equity firms such as Ms. Alam’s DPI, to invest in developmental initiatives and businesses across the continent should allay fears that Africa’s increasingly appealing business climate is simply a short-term bubble. It is in reality the result of an increasingly legitimate market with underserved customers who have real needs.

The day concluded with a banquet including an announcement of the Alumni Achievement Award to Cyrille Nkontchou (HBS ’94) and a concert featuring les Nubians, the internationally acclaimed, Grammy award nominated singing duo from Cameroon. They kept the party going as the swayed the crowd with their trademark mellow crooning over lively beats; they left everyone in the right mood to enjoy the conference ending party covered by not one but two DJs spinning an assortment of African tunes from the Democratic Republic of Congo to C“te d’Ivoire. We wrapped up the conference with a brunch on Sunday for our panelists, sponsors and alumni.

All in all I believe everyone departed HBS fulfilled and the EC members of the conference planning committee can rest assured that next year’s group will take up the charge to deliver an exceptional 12th annual Africa Business Conference, with just as much vigor as they did.

Africa is definitely on the upswing.

March 16, 2009
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