The Africa Business Conference

Co-Chairs Weigh In

I would not have come to the Harvard Business School were it not for the 2008 Africa Business Conference. It was in Aldrich, listening to Nick Nesbitt recount the challenges and excitement of running a corporation in Africa, that I realized I wanted to return to the continent and drive economic growth through business. Two years later when I was given the honor of co-chairing the Conference, my singular focus was to create an environment that motivated attendees to get engaged and contribute to Africa’s resurgence. Thus for me, the highlights of the 2011 conference were the sound bites I overheard throughout and after the event. Said one lady in an e-mail to the club a couple of days after the conference: “… it [the conference] had a big impact on me //www.replicaforbest.co.uk/replica-breitling-watches-sale-for-uk.html. I feel empowered and enriched and I really want to fulfill a great legacy for Africa and the black community.” Wrote another attendee: “It was incredibly inspiring to see such an accomplished gathering of people focused on Africa’s success.” That a significant number of attendees felt as inspired as I had that freezing day in 2008, makes all the long nights planning the conference worthwhile. This year the conference boasted 20 panels covering a wide range of themes. In the past the panels have been extremely broad, which frustrated attendees that were seeking more depth and substance in particular industry sectors. Consequently, we introduced the concept of panel tracks this year to afford the opportunity for attendees to go deep on several key themes, which are central to Africa’s development. We had 5 tracks each with 2-3 panels, and a General Track capturing broader issues that did not necessarily align with our 5 central topics.

This year’s panel tracks were: Healthcare (exploring how business leaders are revitalizing the healthcare industry in Africa), Opportunities in Technology (focusing on innovative technologies that are enabling African countries to accelerate development), Entrepreneurship: Starting and Funding a Business (exploring how Africa’s emerging startup culture is contributing to African development) replica watches, Moving Up the Value Chain (addressing Africa’s evolution from an extractive industry model to one that adds value through manufacturing and production) and The Business of Infrastructure (focusing on the continent’s massive infrastructure challenge/opportunity). Over 78 panelists graced the conference, traveling from as far as Beijing (Vimbayi Kajese, Anchor, China Central Television), South Africa (Tshepo Mahloele, CEO, Harith Fund Managers), Nigeria (Chima Ibeneche, CEO, Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas), and Zimbabwe (Arthur Mutambara, Deputy Prime Minister of Zimbabwe).

The panels that I attended shared an acute sense of energy and expectation, a sense that Africa’s time is now and we in the Diaspora should actively shape the destiny of the continent. Mutsa Chironga and Acha Leke from the McKinsey sub-Saharan Africa office analyzed Africa’s impressive economic growth over the last decade, concluding that the continent’s major economies were becoming increasingly diversified and competitive, and that the refinedwatch continent’s growth was sustainable. In the panel entitled Building a Business from the Ground Up, young entrepreneur Taha Jiwaji (CEO of Bongo Live) encouraged attendees to consider launching their own business, and take the plunge, because there is nothing more rewarding than “following your dream.” The Ghanaian Minister of Trade and Industry, Hon. Hannah Tetteh, extolled Ghana’s pro-business policies, and encouraged people who already are doing great business in African countries to talk about their successes externally, in an effort to combat negative international perception.

Ultimately the underlying message of many of the panels was clear: Africa is not a continent of civil war, starvation and hunger as is often portrayed: business is booming on the continent in a variety of sectors. Despite the successes, a massive gap remains between the continent’s potential and its actual output: we as the business leaders of tomorrow are responsible for bridging that gap and bringing Africa to prominence on the world stage.

Just over a year ago, we started planning the Africa Business Conference for 2011. At the onset we conducted a preliminary “industry analysis” and realized that the industry for Africa Conferences at business schools was becoming unattractive and cluttered. Each school was vying to put on “the best” Africa Business Conference, with content that overlapped and messaging that sounded all too familiar. As such, this year our goal was not to regale our attendees with famous speakers (although we did!), rather our goal was to create an atmosphere that encouraged attendees to wrestle with the problems and opportunities facing Africa and determine where they could get involved. Our theme captured this perfectly – “Your African Legacy: Defining the contribution of the next generation”; our charge to our attendees – What will your legacy be?

The keynote sessions were a key component of the conference. They were funny, honest and hopeful. The first keynote was Mr. Leostan Ekeh, a serial entrepreneur and the CEO of Zinox Technologies, one of the foremost computer companies in Nigeria. Mr Ekeh talked about the challenges of building a successful business in Africa and yielded that it was difficult. However, he also contended that the benefits far outweighed the frustration, subsequently charging the audience to take advantage of the opportunities that exist today. His main message was – come to Africa but view African opportunities through an African lens. Do not superimpose your western education on African problems otherwise you will leave frustrated. A telling example was an anecdote of how he had to employ different means to deal with IP protection given the lack of law enforcement in Nigeria.

Mr Thierry Tanoh gave the second keynote address. An Ivorian national, Mr Thanoh is the Vice President for Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Western Europe at the IFC and HBS alum, MBA class of 1994. His stimulating speech helped to put Africa in perspective. Using a number of different lenses, he depicted the progress of Africa relative to other regions of the world. Viewed with lenses such as GDP and electrification, Africa was almost smothered by its fellow continents, difficult to make out on the map. However using a lens of poverty and lack of base amenities, Africa ballooned in comparison to its counterparts. The main takeaway? This picture presents problems which are waiting for business leaders to address. This also presents that fact that it will take innovation and searching to figure out what the right solutions are. Doing more of the same is not necessarily the answer. Finally, he charged the audience to do more than the previous generation – we are standing on their shoulders, if we only accomplish as much as them, we have failed.

The last keynote session was a fireside chat with Ms. Tsega Gebreyes, managing partner of Satya Capital and HBS alum, MBA class of 1996. Tsega, an Ethiopian national, was open and disarming and talked about her own African legacy. Tsega seemingly has the perfect resume, having worked in tier I companies such as McKinsey and Citibank before joining Celtel International, a pan-African telecommunications company, as director in 1999 and subsequently starting her own successful private equity fund – Satya Capital. While attendees pondered how to clone her resume, she charged attendees to really outline what their passions are and pursue those passions with unbounded focus and energy. This, she said, is critical to achieving your African legacy, whatever that may be. She told of the story where she got fired from the first fund she started, a little known story, stating that it could have derailed her is she had let the disappointment determine her future. While she conceded that private equity is indeed a much needed player in Africa today, rather than jumping into it based on its lucrative nature, she asked attendees to really assess if this was something they were passionate about. She echoed other keynotes by stating that there is much to do in Africa and this can only be accomplished if each individual plays their part and does what they enjoy.

The conference was brought to head with a special presentation called Voices from other generations. This panel featured parents of conference planners; Mr. Udo Udoma, father of Eme Udoma and Mr. Chima Ibeneche father of Onyinye Ibeneche. Both parents reminded us that in their day the world was vastly different and contrary to what we may think, Africa has come a long way since then. While this is true, they both stated that the future is ours to make of it what we will and we should not take this responsibility lightly. The panel also featured students from the next generation. Kenyan national, Githiora Thuku and South African national, Mbali Zondi (South Africa), two graduates from the African Leadership Academy, now freshmen at Brown University and Bernard college, gave rousing addresses that elicited two standing ovations! These young leaders spoke about their African legacies and made clear that the focus had shifted from our parents’ generation to our generation – they are looking to us to lead Africa forward. This presentation left each attendee with a clear message, no longer can we blame others for Africa’s condition, this is our time.

It truly was a fantastic conference and I could not have asked for things to go better. That said, if it all ends at the conference we have failed. Africa is not a static continent and it is certainly not a set of issues that can be solved in one day. As was encapsulated so poignantly at the conference, Africa is a vibrant, dynamic continent, rife with opportunity and ready for solutions. These solutions can only be fulfilled by conscious, willing individuals who are ready to peel back the onion that is Africa and design African solutions for the African populace. As we reminded our attendees at the conference, adapting a famous quote, “a different Africa cannot be built by indifferent people”. There is truth to this statement and as some of the most engaged individuals we know, we invite you now to stay informed – do not consume well meaning platitudes about the continent – be active in your quest for knowledge; visit the continent; and commit to engaging positively with Africa sometime during the course of your career. We leave you with the same question we left our attendees, – “what will your African legacy be?”

March 7, 2011
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