Seizing Opportunities in Africa

More than 800 global business leaders, students, and members of the international community gathered on President’s Day weekend to focus on Africa as a business destination and an investment opportunity. The first topic touched on how to develop Africa’s economies to create profitable and sustainable enterprises, capable of tapping the continent’s potential.

“A good investment climate creates centers for all sectors to grow,” said Shell Sr. Business Development Adviser Koosum Kalyan. “Africa is not an easy place to do business but the rewards are great,” he added.

More than one speaker noted that the continent is now home to more than 750 new Chinese firms. Trade between China and Africa has reached nearly $50 billion today.

“Clearly Africa is not too risky to attract foreign investment, it is the type of investment and the people involved,” said Professor Patrick Okedinachi Utomi of Nigeria’s Lagos Business School. “Afro-pessimism is on the wane, but we need to expand the investment focus beyond extractive industry.”

While the challenges in terms of capital and infrastructure to doing business in Africa are real, so are the opportunities. Among the growing sectors are telecommunications, financial markets and extractive industries. The mobile sector in particular has witnessed tremendous growth in the past half-decade with benefits that are more than financial.

“Telecom with pre-pay (mobile phones) has moved people in from the informal economy,” said Kofi Arkaah, senior investment officer with the International Finance Corporation, adding, “Most of the mobile companies are now lending money to the banks.”
Noted Arkaah, “If you look at the right projects and evaluate risks properly, you can mitigate them and make a substantial return.”

Among the slew of panels offered at the three-day gathering were sessions on successful venture exits, real-estate opportunities and sustainable tourism. It is this breadth and depth that makes the Africa Business Conference stand out among its competitors according to those who made the trip to Cambridge.

“I go to a lot of these different types of conferences to refresh my store of ideas,” said Diony Cespedes, an entrepreneur and business consultant based in Hartford, CT. “The level of conversation (here) is much higher and there really is an opportunity to genuinely learn, whereas with other conferences there is a lot of reviewing what you already know.”

Much discussion centered on Africa’s image and how to improve it. A number of conference speakers argued that getting the word out about the continent’s good news is an integral part of attracting investors and building a brighter future.

“Press coverage often refers to Africa as if it were one entity,” said Shell’s Kalyan.

Keynote speaker Kofi Bucknor, chairman of the Council on the Ghana Stock Exchange, underlined this point by highlighting the coverage Africa receives in U.S. newspapers and the often unrelated and negative images accompanying it.

“The media continues to dwell on news about famine, corruption, AIDS, Ebola and child soldiers,” said Bucknor. “There is a tendency to generalize about Africa and ignore the fact, for example, that Africa’s land mass can hold the whole of China, the continental United States, Europe, Argentina, India and New Zealand together.”

There is much good news, said Bucknor, noting that seven of the globe’s fastest-growing economies are in Africa. The continent’s stock markets, too, recently have ranked among the world’s best performing.

“Led by Egypt, the All Africa share index rose by 56 percent in U.S. dollar terms last year, compared to a 45 percent gain in Latin America and a 22 percent gain in Asia,” he said. “Trading volumes on African bourses also increased by an estimated 223 percent last year to $22 billion, excluding South Africa.”

What Africa needs most, said the conference’s speakers, is leaders. “Be prepared to lead and innovate and to be at the forefront of change,” Bucknor told his Burden Auditorium audience. “Don’t be afraid to set new paradigms.”

Professor Utomi said there is a real need for Africa’s talent to return home.” At the heart of the issue is local entrepreneurship in Africa,” he said. “Until some of us here are willing to take the risks we are not going to have happen what we want.”

Brand Management Consultant Leke Adler agreed, “I would encourage those of you who study at Harvard to come home,” he said. “We need management leadership; we need you to get the job done.”