African Leaders Optimistic About Continent’s Business Prospects

Africa is open for business and doesn’t intend to close shop any time soon. That was the overarching message during the Kellogg School of Management’s inaugural Africa Business Conference in Evanston, Illinois, on Jan. 30.

The conference was organized by the Kellogg Africa Business Club and featured a powerhouse of experts from the public and private sectors. It joins the ranks of similar business forums by Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Optimism is the word

“Look beyond the headlines,” Arnold Ekpe of the Ecobank Group said. “When the news is bad, that’s where the opportunities are…if you have the guts.”

The keynote speaker and chief executive officer of the “first Pan-African bank” acknowledged that while numerous challenges exist, they represent opportunities waiting to be seized.

Vijay Mahajan, author of Africa Rising, echoed this assertion during his keynote address.

He said: “To me, the biggest asset is not oil. The biggest asset is not mines. The biggest asset is not gas. To me, the biggest asset is what? People.”

While population declines are projected for many of the world’s richest countries, Africa’s current population of about one billion is expected to double by 2050. This, Mahajan believes, makes the continent’s consumer market its sleeping tiger.

A new age of business

Until the global economic crisis hit in 2008, it seemed the tide had finally turned for Africa. The frequency of wars had diminished, as had the number of forced government takeovers. Economy-wise, the second-largest continent recorded growth rates of about 5 percent, a marked improvement from previous years.

Post-crisis, Africa – like the rest of the world – is recovering. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, growth rates for 2010 are projected for 4 percent after falling to 1.9 percent in 2009.

For Euclid Walker, a board member at Africare and founder of the Renascent Capital Group, all hands need to be on deck in order for Africa’s growth to be sustained.

“I think that development has to be about partnerships. It has to be about nonprofit and for-profit partnerships. I don’t think either one alone produces the correct results or the best results,” he said.

One area where such partnerships might spring up is in Kenya, where local cooperatives control 43 percent of national income.

“Up until now we’ve been local. For example, for now, we [local cooperatives] control 30 percent of the Kenyan coffee exports,” Joseph Nyagah, the Kenyan minister for cooperative development and marketing said during the event.

“But as we now move from traditional agricultural sector, we now need partners for major housing estates that we’re doing in Kenya,” Nyagah noted.

Cooperatives are tasked with providing 25 percent of housing in Kenya, and are eager to win local and international partners to do so, said Nyagah, who also cited business opportunities in the technology sector.

“We’re basically capable of raising the bulk of the money in Kenya,” the minister said. “But as we move to high technology things and sectors, we will need partners from the U.S. and from other countries to help us with the expertise.”

He – and others – urged potential investors, particularly those in the U.S., to redefine their perceptions of Africa. “African business,” said Nyagah, “has changed.”

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