On Saturday, April 6, 2013, New York University hosted its second annual African Economic Forum with the theme―“Africa in Motion: People, Ideas & Events Reshaping the Continent.” It was a pleasant experience of camaraderie and a fantastic opportunity for Africans to come together and discuss the economic and social growth of the continent.
Having commenced with early remarks and an opening keynote, attendees had the opportunity to attend four separate panels: The Technology Panel, The Finance Panel, Social Impact & Enterprise Panel and The Development Panel. These panels provided attendees with an opportunity to understand the current circumstance in Africa and the need for Africans to understand that they have a role in the development of their communities and must work to create a stronger foundation on a local basis.
The Development Forum was remarkable. It provided valuable insight to the existing economic relationship between the continent of Africa and the country of China. Panelist, Emmanuel Akyeampong, a Professor of History at Harvard University, revealed that “there is a ‘China Policy’ on Africa.” However, the real question we must ask ourselves is whether “there is an ‘African policy’ on China?” Professor Akyeampong explained that in 2009, China became Africa’s largest trade partner, surpassing the United States of America and France. In addition, in the year 2000, trade between Africa and China generated about one (1) billion dollars in revenue. However, in 2012, trade between Africa and China had skyrocketed and generated about two hundred (200) billion dollars in revenue.
Forum attendee, Thomas Brigandi, who is an infrastructure and project finance associate analyst with Moody's Investors Service, explained that “sub-Saharan African economies are growing very fast, and according to one of the panelists, the Economist found that over the ten years to 2010, six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies were in sub-Saharan Africa.”
This significant growth makes Africa a fertile ground for economic investment, and China recognizes the possibilities. Unlike many of their African competitors, Chinese companies act very quickly and most often meet deadlines. Chinese companies also understand the need to “manufacture for a specific audience:” their products created and distributed in Africa are very affordable and so is their labor and services. This affordability motivates African governments and private companies to patronize Chinese businesses and products rather than African companies.
China also seems to have a long term plan that will benefit the continent of Africa. Unlike many countries whose principal purpose of investing in Africa is exploitation, the Founder and Managing Director, African Sunrise Partners, Mellissa T. Cook, explains that China is willing to contribute to the progress of Africa. As such Africans should embrace its economic relationship with China rather than have a protectionist attitude. Ms. Cook insisted that she was not advocating for Africans to solely patronize Chinese products. However, the fact is that the cost of production and distribution in Africa is very high. The price of electricity is high and so is the price of transportation. Also, Africa possesses a very unskilled workforce. As a result, rather than exclude China, Africans should concentrate on using their relationship with China to develop their local industries, as well as educate and train their workers in order to become more competitive.
Africa’s “mobile world” was also a topic of interesting discussion. A panelist on the Finance Forum, Paul-Harry Aithnard, who is the Group Head of Securities, Asset Management & Research, Ecobank Group, spoke of the importance of “mobile banking.” Mr. Aithnard explained that he “sees potential in the mobile banking industry.” He compared the number of bank locations in Africa to the number of mobile phone subscribers in Africa. While banks do not own locations and conduct business in every part of the continent, there is a very large number of mobile phone subscribers. Thus, “if banks can invest in that industry, the bank can reach more than 600 million customers,” majority of whom the bank would not ordinarily reach.
In addition to the importance of “mobile banking,” Mr. Aithnard spoke of the need for African countries to work together and promote trade between African countries. He expressed disappointment at the fact that presently, “only twelve percent (12%) of revenue received from trade in Africa comes from trade between African countries.” In order for Africa to develop and achieve its potential, trade between African countries must improve. Aside from improving financial condition, economic relationship fosters camaraderie. The countries involved have a serious interest at stake and naturally, this ensures that each country does not only work to improve its circumstance, but works in conjunction with its trade-partner to improve the trade-partner’s circumstance.
At the end of the Panel discussions, The New York University Africa Economic Forum introduced its “9-on-9 Series: New Faces of Africa.” The Forum program describes the series as a series that “provide a platform for nine (9) young pioneers to share their experiences and ideas on the growing opportunities associated with Africa.” The Managing Director of Mon Utopie Ideale―The PR Company (MUIPR), Ijeoma Genevieve Mbamalu, expressed her delight at attending the “9-0n-9 series.” She stated that “the inaugural ‘9-on-9 series’ was the best part of the African Economic Forum program this year. The ‘Ted-Talk’ like platform pulled together 7 young and successful African leaders blazing the trail and creating a niche.” Ms. Mbamalu explained that she was most grateful for the lessons she learned after listening to these young African pioneers, many of whom discussed the difficulties they encounter and how they have overcome said difficulties. In Ms. Mbamalu’s opinion, “this was very important for the scholars in the audience who will one day become entrepreneurs” because such discuss illuminates both sides of an entrepreneur’s story―a dichotomy that is not often presented at various African Economic Fora.
The New York University Africa Economic Forum is important to the development of Africa. It provided an opportunity to attendees, many of whom are young Africans who wish to invest in the continent and contribute to its development, to understand that they have a role to play in Africa’s story. The time for Africa is now and if Africans put the interest of Africa ahead of theirs, Africa will succeed.
Photo credit: Young Hollywood Family