Amid frigid New England conditions this weekend, over 1,300 attendees from across the world braved the elements and thronged Harvard Business School venues for the 2013 Africa Business Conference.
Over 20 panels lined up academics, entrepreneurs, professionals, students — those manning the frontiers of a much-hyped phenomenon these days: Africa’s “rise,” the continent’s newfound economic momentum and the challenges / opportunities such upheaval brings. Sectors highlighted include private equity and finance, agriculture, technology and innovation, insurance, media and entertainment, venture capital, natural resources, human capital, geopolitics and the macroeconomy.
The 3 keynote speeches roused: Eva Muraya, a Kenyan CEO who is dragging the field of branding and marketing into uncharted territory, unraveled—with much zeal—a variegated catalogue of Africa's success stories.
Nkosana Moyo, the grey-haired Zimbabwean eminence, gave a typically chilled delivery that belied the most powerful and thought-provoking talk of the entire conference.
And finally, the most ubiquitous face on any A-list business/economic event on Africa, Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria who delivered—in time-honored fashion—a speech that entertained, informed, challenged (and inspired: during Q&A, a 30-something-ish delegate opened his question thusly: “We love you; we are proud of you; we all want to be like you when we grow up.”)
Later, after some wine-soaked dining and a rare chance to banter casually (and I hope wittily) with denizens of the business and cultural elite from all corners and curves and crevices of Africa, I wound up the experience on the dancefloor, waltzing and stunting into the crepuscular hours of Sunday the 17th. But I did manage, at the end, to smuggle some powerful lessons from an overall great experience that began on Friday, during the conference's HBS Prospective Students Day.
So here, My 3 Biggest Lessons from the #HBSABC Conference:
1. Women, Followed by Youth, are Africa’s Greatest Untapped Resource
Forget the mountains of raw copper ore around subterranean Lusaka, or spurts of natural gas geysering up from the floors of Ghana’s Cape Three Points Basin. Africa’s greatest resource is women, and it is, largely, an untapped resource. From the subsistence farmers in the hamlets of rural Benin (a boucing baby strapped on her back) who will symbolize a coming agricultural revolution, to the cosmopolitan MBA-type who will sit in the driving seat of an international corporation coming onto the continent, the African woman, long overlooked, is the pass code to Africa’s much-hyped potential.
Youth, too, are a magic demographic: the rest of the world's eyes turn green when looking at Africa’s demographics: Africa has the youngest population, and everyone at HBSABC seemed to have gotten this memo: from the vivacious HBS professor Catherine Duggan concluding her mind-blowing class on Nigeria on Friday with a powerful ode to the African youth, to Nkosana Moyo getting nearly bleary-eyed talking about the young in the audience, to Okonjo-Iweala discussing her country's painstaking efforts to woo Africa’s younger blood to the continent, the palpable worry in her voice as she spoke of the challenges they face, such as unemployment and a deficit in technical and entrepreneurial training.
Women, and youth. Women and youth. Women an—yes, repeat after me.
2. For Success, Look Beyond M-Pesa
So, you have heard of those obvious success stories. In Kenya, for instance, M-Pesa and Equity Bank. Each country has a few of its own. But these are harped on in the media until they officially attain cliche status.
So, did you know Africa has a luxury industry ready to to take on Italian dominance? And for African agribusiness and agriculture, you still have that 1980s image of scrawny village-dwellers hoeing a stony garden, don’t you? How about filmmaking? Still stuck onto that Hollywood-first, Hollywood-last thing? Or the idea that venture capital will remain chained right next to Hollywood Mountain in California, with no vacations to Lagos or Cape Town anytime soon?
And when they say “health care” and “Africa” in the same sentence, do you see an obvious misnomer, as opposed to one the fastest growing investment and financing opportunities anywhere? Have you heard of the good tidings lately emanating from Tanzania, Gabon, Angola, Ethiopia? About African bourses outperforming stock indexes from almost everywhere else in the world?
Being serious about opportunity means plunging deep, past that oft-misleading venner popularly known as "the surface."
3. Africa is rising, yes, but challenges still abound
The conference’s theme was the cheerily optimistic "Re-defining Africa: The Emergence of a New African Story," and it managed to paint a new and positive picture of Africa’s booming business opportunities.
But actually jumping onto those opportunities also entails facing the challenges that undoubtedly still remain. Take, for instance, Ghana: a political and economic model for Africa. The country faces new worries over its economy (e.g. an impending inflation soar) and the burden of managing newfound natural resources without falling into the resource-curse-type of challenges that have plagued the likes of Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Kenya needs to shed an aura of political tension especially around elections; Rwanda is strange mix of increasing economic success and an odious human rights record emanating from its dabbling in the DR Congo’s political crisis; Zimbabwe’s vast natural resource deposits, gargantuan tourism potential, arguably the continent’s best educated population per capita, all still lie masked underneath the country’s political issues.
China’s aggressive courting of Africa natural resources (somewhat evocative of a belligerent frat jerk preying on fresh-from-high-school first years at the First Party of the Year) still presents both tangible development projects across the continent, and on the other hand, cringeworthy undertakings in corruption, butchery of common business ethics, and resource-grabbing that gives off a distant whiff of Scramble for Africa 2.0. Furthermore, even amid a construction binge by Chinese companies, infrastructure deficit remains an existential threat to the economic gains most African countries have registered in the past decade and seek to consolidate going forward.
So all said, great conference, insightful panels, and on a personal level, a refershing break from economic growth models, multivariate probability distributions, and the quiet lull of Providence after a snowstorm.
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