6 tips on how to make the most of conferences in Africa

World Economic Forum on Africa. Mobile Web East Africa. Oil & Gas Africa. Mining Indaba. Every year there are hundreds of conferences and exhibitions across the continent. Many of these events can be extremely valuable for landing new business or gaining fresh insights. Claude Harding looks at how to get the most out of the conference and exhibition experience.

A panel discussion at last year's World Economic Forum on Africa.

A panel discussion at last year's World Economic Forum on Africa.

1. Attend the right conferences

Visiting conferences cost a fair amount of money in registration fees as well as travel and accommodation expenses, not to mention the ‘lost time’ spent not ‘working’. It is therefore essential to ensure that you attend events that will be able to benefit your career or business.

Not all conferences attract high calibre people or have quality sessions and presentations. It should be remembered that most events are hosted for commercial reasons – either to make money from exhibitors and conference sponsors, or to position the host as a leader in its industry.

Despite their commercial objectives, many conferences do however aim to offer attendees value for money. Last year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa, held in Cape Town, was probably one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended. Why was it so good? Each panel discussion featured business people that were truly leaders in their industries. Panel discussions can easily be dreary if the panellists shy away from saying anything too provocative in order to keep their companies’ reputations intact. What distinguished the WEF is that it had excellent moderators who were able to get the panellists to speak their minds. In addition, the WEF is also slickly-run with comfortable meeting and relaxation areas. That said, the WEF has far more resources to its disposal than the average conference organiser.

There are still far too many conferences with no respect for their attendees. Once the sponsors have been signed-up and delegates’ registration fees have been paid, these organisers feel that they have done their job. When promoting the event they will often list numerous high profile “unconfirmed” speakers. However, few of these people actually attend the conference. Steer clear of these events – they will only be a waste of time and money.

2. Say something interesting

Speaking at a conference allows you to position your company as a leader in its field. Many speakers, however, seem content with dull presentations that tell the audience little that they don’t already know. It has become a trend for speakers at African-focused conferences to merely run through the continent’s GDP figures, while throwing in a few stats from McKinsey’s Lions on the move report – information that anybody can easily find for free on the internet.

Offer delegates something they have never heard before. Tell them about your specific challenges of doing business in Africa, and how you overcame them. Give them practical advice on how to find good staff on the continent. Or share some strategies on how to raise financing for projects in Africa. An interesting presentation is also likely to make you a hit during coffee and lunch breaks.

3. Host a side event

Communications firm Brunswick says that companies can piggyback on high-profile meetings by hosting their own side events. “Indeed, with a bevy of important stakeholders in the same place at the same time, it can be an opportunity to take engagement to the next level by hosting a private side event. A small – or not-so-small – gathering often serves to highlight recent work or to raise awareness of strategy and goals.

“On the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s 2011 annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Liberty Global, an international broadband company, invited policymakers, industry peers and media representatives to breakfast to discuss issues that will shape the future of Europe’s digital agenda.

“Side events can be an opportunity to associate a company and its expertise with highly influential people. On the fringes of the Aspen Institute meeting, AGT International, a company that develops safety and security technology, led a closed discussion on how to best detect national security threats. Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff – who was attending the Aspen conference – joined in the meeting, underlining AGT’s credibility.”