African Business Conference: Can Africa Compete?

On the weekend of February 11-13 the Africa Business Club hosted the 7th annual African Business Conference. The conference, which hosted activities taking place over 3 days, brought over 600 Africans and friends of Africa to the HBS campus. Conference events included not only panel discussions, keynote speakers and networking events, but also prospective students information sessions aimed at increasing the number of African applicants to HBS, a fashion show showcasing the diversity of African wear, traditional drums and dancers from Uganda, and a concert by Kanda Bongo Man, the international Soukous star.

The theme of this year’s conference, “Beyond Natural Resources: Developing Africa’s Competitive Advantage” aimed to reflect the fact that, in an increasingly global economy, a simple dependence on exploiting natural resources and cheap labor is sure to keep African countries poor for the foreseeable future. In keeping with the teachings of world-renowned professors at HBS that competitiveness can be created and eroded over time, conference speakers demonstrated how well thought-out strategies and patient implementation can allow African countries to extract themselves from cycles of poverty.

Distinguished speakers, including panelists and keynote speakers, shared their perspective on Africa’s potential, and the challenges that remain, based on their personal experiences as business and government leaders.

The conference featured four keynote speakers: including Malik Fal, Africa Director of OTF Group Consultants; Dr. Bukola Saraki, Executive Governor of Kwara State in Nigeria, Basil Omiyi, Chairman and Executive Director of Shell Nigeria; and James Harmon, former Chairman, President, and CEO of the U.S. Export-Import Bank a post to which he was nominated by President Bill Clinton and former Chairman of the Corporate Council on Africa. In addition, over 50 panelists, all leaders in their respective fields, participated on 15 panels in fields such as venture capital and private equity, NGOs, capital markets, multilateral institutions, entertainment, news media, education, oil, gas and energy, HIV/AIDS, tourism, agriculture, microfinance, technology outsourcing, and SMEs.

Worthy of note, Malik Fal, Africa Director of OTF Group Consultants, used the case of Rwanda, a country labeled by many outsiders as a place of war and genocide, as an example of how a country could strategically position itself to spur growth in selected sectors. Through their work with the OTF Group and Professor Michael Porter, the Rwandan government has experienced early success in promoting private sector growth in the tourism and agriculture clusters, moving up the value chain, and creating value for local private companies and the local population. A coordinated strategy has allowed Rwanda to stop competing merely on low costs in these clusters, and to compete rather on quality and servicing unique customer demands, yielding early successes in breaking out of the poverty trap, which is an inevitable consequence of competing solely on cheap labor and factor endowments. (See the HBS Working Knowledge synopsis of this address at //

Dr. Bukola Saraki, Executive Governor of the Kwara State in Nigeria, shared some key insights from his experience not merely as a governor, but also as a former finance advisor to President Obasanjo. Similarly to Rwanda, Kwara State has begun adopting a strategy of coordinated cluster development, based on existing factor endowments and industrial activity, but focused on value-added activities and serving unmet international customer needs via private sector promotion. His work in environmental protection, private sector promotion, improvements in quality and access to health and education, and good governance have earned Governor Saraki much praise, both within Nigeria, but also internationally. More recently, Governor Saraki initiated a program to help white farmers expelled from Zimbabwe to relocate to Kwara State, where they have been offered access to government-owned lands in exchange for partnering with local farmers and agro-industries producers to train them in leading-edge farming techniques and efficient competition in international markets. The program is expected to rapidly uplift Kwara State’s agricultural and agro-related clusters and make it a regional powerhouse, driven mainly by the local private sector and local farmers, with the provincial government facilitating knowledge transfer and infrastructure improvements.

Finally, Basil Omiyi, CEO of Shell Nigeria, spoke of the importance of promoting African women’s rights and status. In September 2004, Mr. Omiyi became the first African head of Shell in Nigeria. In his keynote speech, Mr. Omiyi spoke at length of the need to lift the African woman from her current state of social inferiority. Mr. Omiyi’s statement that African woman represent Africa’s greatest under-appreciated resource was received with a standing ovation. Indeed, he emphasized the need for Africans to recognize the disproportionate amount of work done by women in Africa, and the well-documented fact that all forms of microcredit schemes have been disproportionately successful when they focused on working with women. In keeping with comments made by other keynote speakers and panelists throughout the day, Mr. Omiyi emphasized the importance of a change in mentality across the continent, with business and government leaders needing to lead by example, before true economic progress can be expected.

The conference was a spectacular success, with both participants and speakers leaving impressed at the number and scope of initiatives currently under way across the continent, dedicated to promoting positive change in every aspect of the continent’s daily business. Good and responsible governance, ideas of international competitiveness, cooperation with the Diaspora living in Europe and America, and gradual changes in outdated mentalities are yielding results across the continent, even as stories of war and disease continue to be the focus of international media coverage of Africa. African business leaders are leading the charge for positive change, and the Africa Business Club at Harvard Business School provides them with a forum to be heard, and to find strength in numbers.