Building the African Dream

Over 800 people attended the 5th annual Africa Business Conference – “Building the African Dream” – three weeks ago on the HBS campus. The conference was a mixing ground of established businessmen and women, aspiring entrepreneurs, and keen enquirers. Countries all over Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas were represented, the people drawn to the promise of more economic growth on the African continent.

The nations of Africa have generally been disregarded by the business world. Continent-wide problems with poverty, political instability and corruption have caused even the most daring entrepreneurs and businessmen to shy away from the African markets.

However, conferences such as this are marking a new era. With remarkable developments on the continent over the last decade (including such victories as the death of apartheid in South Africa and the end of a military regime in Nigeria), the explosive economic growth observed in various parts of the region heralds a new place for African countries in the global market.

The conference provided a forum where successful African entrepreneurs could share their experiences and offer advice to those considering business ventures on the continent. In one of Saturday’s panels, Oil to Industrialization – Diversifying the African Competitive Advantage, established businessmen and women such as Mr. Fred Papa Kwofie, General Manager of Domod Aluminum Limited, who returned to his native Ghana from England, gave applicable and invaluable advice to attendees. He cautioned for realism and flexibility when approaching the business opportunities in Africa. And among the many other reflective and experience-based insights, the panelists also warned against brandishing a foreign-earned MBA degree to local people as a license to push through immediate change at locally based firms. This action, the panelists admonished, could frequently increase resistance to change from local managers.

AIDS was also discussed as a major challenge for companies in certain African countries, which have incidence rates as high as 30% of the population. In the Defining a Corporate HIV/AIDS Policy session, Dr.
Pride Chigwedere of the Harvard AIDS Institute highlighted the fact that in Zimbabwe, for example, huge sections of the workforce are either dying of AIDS or being forced from work due to HIV related illnesses.

There is an ongoing debate amongst pharmaceutical companies, AIDS activists, governments in Africa, and Africa-based corporations on how much responsibility pharmaceutical companies should bear to provide affordable HIV/AIDS drugs in Africa. The panelists discussed the tensions and pressures of creating corporate policies regarding this disease, reflecting the broad range of stakeholder views on this issue.

Figuring out ways to make money in the challenging African environment seemed to be a general theme throughout the conference. One approach that is best illustrated by Mr. Fola Adeola (OPM 1995), founder of one of the fastest growing banks in West Africa, hinges on building an enterprise with strong corporate ethics and an equally strong customer oriented outlook. Mr. Adeola founded Nigerian-based Guaranty Trust, the subject of two HBS case studies, in the late 1980s, a time rife with political unrest and government-led corruption. As such, he brought a high degree of transparency and integrity to his organization by minimizing its dealings with the government and building a practice focused on the needs of corporate clients. With a deep management team and strong training program, Guaranty Trust now ranks as one of the top five banks in Nigeria.

Mr. Adeola’s work shows that with resilience and unadulterated business ethics, a successful business can be built within the sometimes chaotic environment that plagues many African countries. During his Saturday banquet speech, his soft words gave hope to many that through hard work and diligence, the African dream can truly become a reality.