Say what you like about Africa: Starved, poor, disease ridden, war-torn, corruption infested, tragedy prone… whatever. But besides all the gloom and doom (which is real) is ample tangible evidence that Africa is working, and working very hard. Working to rectify the social and economic disparities across the continent, working for lasting peace, working for the rights of women, working to improve and advance healthcare, working to improve the business climate on the ground, working to make the continent better.
Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure to be invited to a summit on Africa at the London School of Economics (LSE) and Political Science, which was taking place from the 3rd to the 5th of April 2014 in their modern and state of the art facility, the £71 million Sheikh Zayed Theatre.
The initial news of the summit found me in a bad mood so the numerous pessimistic voices in my head kicked in, wondering whether this wouldn’t be another example of hot air devoid of real substance, one that would waste my time. Just another gathering of egoistic Africans talking great ideas which were largely impractical in a Western dominated world. The kind of people described in the cringeworthy description by Ken Follet in his 1979 novel Triple, when he wrote:
‘…thought he was fairly handsome, for a nigger, and haughty, the way they were when they made some money and got invited to white homes’
But after attending some of the sessions on Friday and Saturday, I couldn’t have been further away from the truth. I was wrong, my unqualified prejudgment rash.
What I found at the LSE Africa Summit were individuals who know the problems, know the questions that must be asked to solve those problems, know some of the answers to those problems, and are persistently searching for the answers they do not (yet) have.
I entered the auditorium the second day, halfway through the keynote address by Dr Obiagelli Ezekwesili, Co-founder of Transparency International and former Vice President of the World Bank Africa Division. She said that Government was a key ingredient to development across Africa and emphasized the importance of ‘eco-inclusivity’ in which the individual person was the creator of ‘eco-value’. For this to be possible, there was need for a focus on infrastructure development to create an atmosphere that would allow problem solvers to thrive, since solving the problems will lead to eco-value, and thereby ‘eco-exchange’. She said Africa needed an ‘agrarian revolution’, which to me meant using new or modern technologies to introduce efficiencies in agriculture. She stressed that governments must ask the question of what were the important obstacles which they (government) needed to remove. She made a reference to a ‘complete remodelling’ or overhaul of the educational systems in African countries, since this was key to developing an entrepreneurship mindset – one that was ‘far removed from the natural resources economy’. She said the role of government was to create the capacity for people to take advantage of opportunities.
The next session, a Panel session on Finance Investment, chaired by Dr Antonio Malfense-Fierro, was an exposition into a number of research theses undertaken by various researchers. LSE’s Adeline Pelletier kicked this off with her topic on ‘SME financing in East Africa: a supply-side story‘. She rightly identified Collateral as the main constraint on Financing, and among her conclusions was that credit scoring could be an oppourtunity so there was a need to ‘watch your credit score’. Dr Curtis Kidd Telemaque (‘The Implications of Secondary Markets on sub-saharan Development: a comparative study of Investors from the Nairobi and Johannesburg Stock Exchanges‘) from the USA, and Dr Salimata Fall (‘Entrepreneurship Financing and Economic Development in 4 West African Economic and Monetary Union countries: Domestic credits versus foreign inflows‘) from the International University of Grand Bassam (IUGB) in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire also made passionate and fact-filled presentations during this research session. By the time of the coffee break, I had already been challenged, and many questions swirled in my head (which thankfully I was able to discuss with various attendees at the summit) including:
The late morning and afternoon began with a panel session on Agriculture / Agribusiness chaired by Professor Waswa Balunywa in which the well-known fact that Africa has the lowest usage of technology and chemicals in agriculture which keeps it operating way below capacity was echoed. Among the contributors were Dr Chika A. Ezeanya from the University of Rwanda and Blessing Mabuto from the Organisation for Youth Advancement in South Africa. The themes included Indigenous Knowledge, a Case study at the University of Cape Coast on undergraduates entering agribusiness after graduation, and the increased Youth Participation in Agro-entrepreneurship as a Practical Solution to Youth Unemployment. [See Africa’s youth: a “ticking time bomb” or an opportunity?]
It was encouraging to see a Panel session on women, chaired by Dr Emilia Onyema , during which an engaging and thought-provoking discussion took place, after a presentation on ‘Entrepreneurship in Africa: Are female entrepreneurs shooting themselves in the foot‘ by Madvee Muthu from Global Integrity, Mauritius. There was a surprising revelation that in some instances, Women tended to start businesses when negative displacement occurred in their lives.
However, overall not enough women were represented on the panel sessions or roundtable discussions during the summit – a point which was picked on by Lanre Akinola, Editor of This is Africa, on the second day of the summit, during the panel session titled Creating Value Chains in Africa.
The final panel session of the second day was on New Frontiers and explored issues of entrepreneurship and industrialisation. It included a presentation on the economic miracle in China (China and late-comer industrialisation in sub-sahara Africa – situating the role of (industrial policy) – by Christina Woolf,a PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London), a presentation titled ‘Enabling a Conducive environment to Fostering Entrepreneurship Capacities among Ghanaian Graduates‘ by Ivonne Mejia (Sonoma State University) and a final presentation on Unlocking the Internet’s full Potential (by Joshua Goldstein of the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, USA). The session was chaired by Professor Alnoor Bhimani, a director of Entrepreneurship at the LSE.
This session was followed by a roundtable discussion chaired by Richard Dowden on which Max Bankole Jarret (Deputy Executive Director of the Africa Progress Panel), David Campbell, Herman Kojo Chinery-Hesse (Founder of SOFTtribe) and Dentaa Amoateng (Founder of GUBA) were the contributors [See full program here] Among the discussions were modern technologies which would help propel Africa forward, and the participants explored topics such as the use of mobile money and mobile health technologies.
The highlight of the final day (5th April) was an address by His Excellency, President John D. Mahama of Ghana (see pics here) who started his address by stating that he was delighted to be at LSE to share ideas with other like-minded Africans, an exchange of ideas, he imagined, to be similar to that which had occurred during the pre-independence struggle that predated the independence of many African countries. After a brief historical background of the struggle for liberation in Ghana, including references to Nkrumah and various African leaders and organisations, he delved into the issue of private enterprise. He correctly noted that most African states had instituted state-owned enterprises soon after independence, but had quickly realised that the state enterprise model did not work properly in the climate at the time, so embarked on a privatisation and a diversification exercise. President Mahama outlined his vision of what government and the private sector must do together for entrepreneurship to thrive in Ghana and across Africa. He noted that as a social democratic government, his administration was mindful that as critical as entrepreneurship is to economic growth, it must also serve a higher and greater social purpose, which was to ultimately contribute to the well-being of his people. A bit of humour also featured in the Q & A session that followed, when President Mahama said “…thank God for the credit crunch in the west as now Ghana has a brain gain.” A recording of the address can be found here or below (Soundcloud).
After the address by President Mahama, there was a panel session titled Rethinking African Enterprise: Challenging Norms, chaired by Edward Paice, Director of Africa Research Institute, and at 12.05 a tribute to Komla Dumor.
After the lunch break, there was a panel session on Creating Value Chains in Africa chaired by Lanre Akinola, in which the participants included Mohit Arora (President of Capital pros Network, Inc), David Campbell, Founder of Farm Africa and CEO of African Fellowship Trust, Christoffel Wiese, the billionaire Chairman of Shoprite Holdings Limited and Jean-Marc Anga, Executive Director of International Cocoa organisation. Mohit informed the delegates that Value Chain integration was the biggest contributor to democracy, but posed the question of how Africa could integrate without moving people around? (a reference to the high cost and difficulty of transporting people across the continent from one country to another). He argued that productive capacity was too low (few tractors, productivity of the staff low) and that if cost of transportation and logistics remained high, ‘your people will remain in poverty’. Mohit, from his experience working with Asian countries, identified 4 important factors that needed to be independently available to farmers for progress to be made, namely:
Jean-Marc Anga surprised the delegates by declaring that 71% of Cocoa world production comes from 4 countries (Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Cameroon) yet they only account for 4 % of consumption. And only 18% of cocoa is processed by these countries. He recommended that human productivity in Africa needed to be increased significantly, economies of scale needed to be realised by countries/ companies and organisations working together, and that the ‘small producer’ (which I thought meant the smallholder farmer) must benefit. Jean-Marc called out to governments to address food security across the continent, and wondered why transportation continued to be a bottleneck to trade, with flights to South America from Africa requiring a connection in Europe. He posed what I thopught was quite the appropriate question that encapsulated the African Dream: Why can’t Ghana have a direct flight to Brazil? David Campbell talked about Zimbabwean farmers, and how what was reported in the media during the ‘land grab episode’ of the country’s history differed greatly from what was actually happening on the ground. Among other issues, Christoffel Wiese addressed questions regarding the intricacies of Shoprite’s employment and management training procedures, including reassuring one delegate that the majority of Shoprite managers in Zambia, were in fact Zambians, as opposed to white expatriates flown in from South Africa. He proposed that all borders should be opened as visa restrictions across Africa were hurting and costing businesses, receiving a round of applause from the audience.
The third panel session was on Disrupting the Global Technology Space (chaired by Jonathan Ledgard, Director of Future Africa Afrotech Initiative at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) and the fourth titled Improving Access to Capital for SME’s (Chaired by Jubril Enakele, Director at Deutsche Bank AG, with contributions from Jenny Knott, Rob Hersov, Tutu Agyare and Zain Latif). The final panel session of the summit titled An Enterprise Map: Africa’s Prospects included contributions from Mthuli Ncube, Chief Economist and Vice President of the Africa Development Bank, Jacqueline Muna Musiitwa, Founder & Managing Partner Hoja Law Group, and Professor Thandike Mkandawire, professor of African Development at the LSE.
Throughout the summit, there was an ongoing theme that African countries needed to move away from resource dependency and inefficient agricultural methods whereby countries depended too much on natural resources and subsistence farming, to industrial, commercial agrarian and services sectors. There was a need to have more emphasis on labour, as opposed to the current situation where there was greater emphasis on capital. However shallow capital markets across the continent posed a real problem that needed to be overcome. There was consensus that African governments were the effector on which progress depended. There was a view that African countries needed to do more business with each other, and that trade barriers between African countries should be scrapped. Some speakers said they believed that better agricultural methods were essential to realising the full potential of agriculture across the continent, a goal that was crucial in ending food shortages on the continent. There was general consensus that systems needed to be put in place to create the environment that would spark and foster creativity. In regards women’s issues, there was a realisation that men needed to do more to enable women’s success, and that tradition should not be an impediment to progress. There was also general consensus that a change of perception or attitude was necessary in some sectors (for example in agriculture, ending the practice of using ‘weeding the school farm’ as punishment in primary schools) in that negative things needed to be turned around to reflect the positive. Similarly, there was a need to have a cultural awakening (e.g. more parental attention to risks when a child is developing) . Finally, there was a realisation that adding of value to raw materials was what would create wealth, instead of exporting raw materials.
It was disappointing to see that the summit leaned heavily on West Africa, especially Ghana and Nigeria, with not as many views and representation among the speakers from Southern and Central Africa. In addition, I disagreed with the assertion that state-owned enterprises are inherently inefficient. While the atmosphere after independence was such that it was difficult for most African countries to run state-owned enterprises (even though in Malawi Press Corporation had been a great success), as I stated here, knowing what we know now, there is a much higher chance that ‘hybrid‘ state run enterprises will perform much better today than those in the late 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.
But besides these minor issues, I believe the LSE Africa summit was a success. The range of speakers at the summit and diversity of topics ensured a more realistic picture of the happenings on the ground than say what one is likely to see on TV. Thus, in my view, the major implication of the summit is that there are thousands of Africans in the diaspora who have great plans for Africa, visionary individuals who are driven and have a sober view of Africa as a continent of potential on which they would like to establish business operations. Many of these individuals have great ideas that would satisfy real needs on the ground, and are under no illusions that setting up shop will be easy. The discussions I had with various delegates revealed that most have already started working their way towards a position to not only take advantage of the opportunities on the ground but also to contribute to Africa’s progress in various sectors including Health, Education, Business, Third Sector and Government.
Having said this, it was very much up to national governments in Africa to create the favourable environment by establishing policy frameworks and initiatives that would reach out to these entrepreneurs, some of whom find it difficult to invest and operate in the African climate due to bureaucracy, capital constraints, corruption, lack of institutions and lack of favourable infrastructure.
But some governments in some African countries were trying to create the right atmosphere, and it was important that this positive energy be replicated across the continent. In any case, the investments that would follow would be in Africa’s best interests, since theoretically, it means creation of jobs, increased tax contributions and forex, as much as creating wealth for the entrepreneur.