Reflections from the Africa Business Conference: Debunking Myths about Business in Africa

Sadaharu Saiki, Contributor
Tomomi Saiki Ito, Contributor

Is the African continent not the best destination after graduation for MBAs? According to HBS’s career location statistics, it seems that less than 1% of students have chosen to pursue careers in Africa over the recent three years. We were left pondering this question as we saw very few non-African HBS students attending the 21st Annual Africa Business Conference held on February 15 and 16. The conference theme was “Africa Forward: Forging New Alliances for the Future.” As the theme indicated, the panels covered a variety of sectors in Africa including entrepreneurship, finance, infrastructure, healthcare, education, agribusiness, and consumer packaged goods.

Speaking of ourselves, we both fell in love with Africa through personal trips and business assignments in several aspects. We were fascinated by its “economic potential” to become the next China or India indicated by various positive macroeconomic data such as high GDP growth (5 out of top 10 highest GDP growth in 2017 were African countries), having the largest workforce in the future, and its growing capital inflows; by its “need for social impact” to contribute to achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); by the great people we met from the region; and by the scenic beauty of its natural environment that we saw.

Considering our mission of becoming leaders who make a difference in the world, in our view, the continent has good reasons to attract more HBS students than it currently does. Why on earth are they not interested in Africa?

There should be reasons, or “myths,” which may be preventing our classmates from getting actively involved in business in Africa. The typical myths, we assume, would be:

  1. You can’t really make money in Africa due to consumers’ low purchasing power. Products with quality and brand are not a good fit for African consumers.
  2. The need for social impact in Africa can be served solely by the public sector.
  3. Poor regulatory systems across the African continent hinder private actors to enter the markets.

The sessions we attended have dispelled these myths.

One session, “Understanding the African Consumer Opportunity — Powered by the Boston Consulting Group,” led by Stefano Niavas, Partner & Managing Director, BCG Johannesburg, was very insightful. Especially interesting were the findings on their survey asking “Why do you buy this brand instead of others?” Across all the categories of phone, home electronics, automobiles, and beer, “price” was not the first reason and there were higher-ranked reasons than price such as “durability,” “functionality,” “experience,” and “taste.” This result debunked the first myth, suggesting that the quality and brand of the products actually do matter more than price. The important thing is how to establish the brand which attends to local consumers through effective go-to-market strategies with the right distribution setup and right partners.

The second myth was dispelled by the panel “The Role of the Private Sector in Improving Healthcare Quality” led by Dr. Nwando Olayiwola, a Chief Clinical Transformation Officer of RubiconMD. She asked the audience in the room to stand up and questioned “How many of you believe that we can achieve Universal Health Coverage (UHC) by 2030? If you don’t, sit down.” Upon recognizing that some of the audience still remained standing, she continued, “Now, if the ‘Coverage’ means the one with the same standards as high-income countries?” Everybody sat down except Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, the former Minister of Health of the Republic of Rwanda. She said, “We can, if we change the way.”

The concept of UHC is one of the most audacious challenges for the health sector. Dr. Binagwaho’s statement implies a paramount need for public-private partnership. Since the Declaration of Alma-Ata in 1978, primary healthcare has been the mandate of the public sector as a human right. In fact, according to the Institute for Health for Metrics and Evaluation, the fund from private actors such as philanthropy and NGOs over global health financing for Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for only less than 5% in 2000. However, after adopting SDGs and UHC in 2015, the landscape has dramatically changed. In pursuing UHC, the targets are no longer only mothers and children or patients with HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, but also people with all forms of unhealthy conditions in the world. No one should be left behind. In 2016, the private fund was quadrupled to 22%, which is the supporting data to disprove the second myths. To achieve UHC with quality, collaborations with the private actors are crucial. There is a growing need in healthcare technology which enables healthcare provision to hard to reach areas and marginalized populations—for instance, telemedicine, AI diagnosis, and utilization of drones, among others.

The third myth was countered with the keynote address on “Lessons from Rwanda’s Healthcare Sector” by Dr. Binagwaho. She spoke resolutely about trials of Rwandan Ministry of Health to adapt innovations and technologies which enabled rapid restoration despite the shortage of human resources for health after the tragic genocide. As a part of success, she shared a striking story of how Rwanda has higher coverage of ART treatment for AIDS than the United States has. In addition, she emphasized the importance of regulatory flexibility to enhance the public-private partnership. Rwanda is not the only example. We found promising data to dispel the last myth, which is the Governance Indicator by the World Bank. Some group of African countries have improving trends on Regulatory Quality metrics compared to 2010. These groups belongs to lower-middle-income countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Our key takeaway for this exercise was that instead of generalizing data for “one Africa,” we would be better deepening our analysis on specific countries. “Africa is not one country” was the comment from African panels in the conference. As they alerted, we should not stereotype or generalize a whole continent with more than 50 nations in one way.

After the conference, the African continent looks more lively and attracting to us. At the same time, as outsiders, it looks complicated and overwhelming. Yet, we can’t help being fascinated by the potential of Africa. We know the myths dispelled above are just some of them. We are excited and looking forward to spending our upcoming summer doing internships in South Africa, and debunking more myths and discovering more truths.

Sadaharu Saiki (MBA ’20) is from Japan and graduated from Kyoto University in 2009. Prior to HBS, he worked in an advertising agency in Japan and India, handling global marketing and communication of Japanese MNCs.

Tomomi Saiki Ito, MPH, is a Japanese aid worker who worked in the health sector in Tanzania and Bangladesh. She earned a master’s degree in Public Health from the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Belgium. Tomomi did her undergraduate studies in International Politics and Economics at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo. Tomomi and Sadaharu were married in 2018.