Celebrating Africa's Success

Simply put, the 10th Annual Africa Business Conference was a celebration of Africa and the 10th year anniversary of the conference, starting with a showcase of successful leaders and ending with an electrifying concert with Grammy award-winning artist Angelique Kidjo.

The conference theme “Controlling our Destiny: Celebrating Africa’s success” set the tone for the day for speakers and panelists to share their success stories and provide advice on how people can make use of the many untapped opportunities in the continent. The discussions were engaging, frank and extremely informative. Over 900 people were in attendance. Participants reported they gained incredible value by attending any of the several events which took place during the three day conference.

The conference was kicked off by Fred Swaniker, Founder and CEO of the African Leadership Academy, a world-class pan-African high school, based in South Africa that aims to develop the next generation of African leaders. Fred started his conversation by proposing a toast to the success of the conference and Africa. He mentioned that Africa has lots to celebrate such as its GDP growth of around 5%. He then shifted gears to how Africa needs more growth, such as GDP growth of 7-10%, to really lift people out of poverty and that only Africans themselves can make the necessary changes in Africa. The bulk of the conversation from here focused on how Africans should control their destiny, which is consistent with the theme of the conference. He explained that Africans need to move from micro-entrepreneurship to building large scale enterprise that creates jobs and wealth. He said that there are plenty of ideas and lots of money in Africa, but that there is a shortage of people to execute on these ideas and efficiently utilize the financial resources. He encouraged participants to go to Africa with the mindset of creating opportunities in the continent. He boldly said “Go back to Africa to create your own opportunity and don’t wait for someone to give it to you.” He believes that entrepreneurs should think on a pan-African scale because of the huge market potential similar to other leading emerging markets like India and China.

Towards the end of his speech, Fred spoke about building an institution that would develop entrepreneurs, ethical leaders and stimulate better collaboration with African countries. In 50 years, he hopes to have developed 6000 leaders for Africa. Fred concluded with the following, “We need to come up with more dreams and bring them to fruition. Stop talking and act to control our destiny.” Fred received a standing ovation because he truly inspired the audience. Since he graduated from Stanford Business School less than five years ago, he is living the HBS dream having developed an enterprise that will make a positive difference in the lives of many in Africa.

The conference featured 13 dynamic panels with a wide range of topics-private equity, venture capital, FIFA 2010: South Africa and the World Cup, microfinance, infrastructure, information technology, capital markets and entrepreneurship. It also gave participants the opportunity to gain honest insights into a wide spectrum of business success stories and investment opportunities in the continent from Africa’s maturing capital markets generating double-digit returns uncorrelated to the world markets, to the launch of several private equity funds focused on Africa, to the first FIFA World cup tournament being held in Africa, to successful privatizations, to exemplary enterprises and emerging giants, to the rise of Google and Microsoft in Africa and the development of effective public sector organizations.

Over 900 participants came from Africa, Europe, and several U.S. states. There was great representation from the African business elite, HBS alumni and academic communities, and several other business schools. For most participants, the conference was an opportunity to develop an understanding of the current trends and opportunities on the continent, share their experiences and network.

The second keynote was an interview moderated by Harvard Business School professor Catherine Duggan. The keynote speaker was Irene Charnley, a South African who was the former Executive Vice President of MTN, a major communications company focused on the African continent. She is also the founder and CEO of Smile Telecom, a low -cost telecommunications operator providing affordable communications to the “Bottom of the Pyramid” consumers. Irene talked about her various experiences as a union negotiator in South Africa, an executive in MTN entering several African markets and her new entrepreneurial venture. As a union negotiator in South Africa fighting the negative repercussions of Apartheid, she talked about how she was able to negotiate to provide better working conditions for mine workers. She stressed that when you go into negotiation, you must know more than the people – the industry and the facts”

Irene talked about the importance of understanding the culture of a country when doing business in the country. She described her experience doing business in Iran while at MTN and the challenges she faced as a woman and an African. Since she already understood the need for cultural sensitivity, she dressed and interacted as a local in Iran but dealt with people on a business level. She said that she had to build their trust to overcome the perception that as a woman she was incapable and that as an African, her company’s technology was inferior. Irene also explained the importance of understanding the political and economic context of the country one does business in. She mentioned Nigeria as an example of a country that to the outside world is considered corrupt. However, she spoke highly of the Nigerian entrepreneurs that she dealt with and mentioned that MTN did not pay a bribe to them. Nigeria continues to be the most profitable operation for MTN, as it generates EBITDA margins of 40-50% each year. She also stressed the importance of the role of businesses in investing in their communities, especially in the rural areas.

Consistent with the theme of the conference, Irene also spoke about how important it was for Africans to take charge of their destiny. She mentioned that the majority of US investors see poverty in Africa and don’t see opportunities. She said that Africans must invest in the continent themselves and spread the good news about the opportunities in African businesses. She said that despite poverty, Africa still has the most efficient businesses and best EBITDA margins. She asked that if we don’t believe in Africa, how can we convince others of the opportunities? She concluded that we must use our talents to come back, invest and start something.

The conference ended on Saturday, February 16 with the final keynote speaker of the day, Obiageli “Oby” Ezekwesili, Vice President for Africa, World Bank. Oby joined the bank from her most recent position as Minister of Education in the Government of Nigeria and with a rich mix of experiences in the private sector and civil society. The last event was the Gala Banquet at the Sheraton Boston Hotel, where the Co-presidents of the Africa Business Club gave recognition to the founders of the Africa Business Club, which was founded 10 years ago. The Third Africa Business Club Leadership for Excellence Award was given to Mr. Alan Gray, a dynamic entrepreneur who founded an investment management firm in South Africa and provided scholarships to several Harvard Business School students. Angelique Kidjo, a Grammy-award winning African artist ended the 10th year anniversary celebration with an invigorating performance that drew participants from their seats to dance to her Afro-funk fusion rhythms. Angelique herself was as eager to dance with the crowd as they were to dance with her.