Thoughts on Africa from the UK

I was recently invited to speak at an African business event at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School. The conference drew together a mix of business leaders and students to discuss the theme: ‘Breaking myths about success’.

It felt strange talking about Africa in rainy Cambridge, but the day proved to be thought-provoking and fruitful. Below are some observations from the conference.

Fast track your career by working in Africa?

Can you accelerate your career by working in Africa? Matt Lilley, CEO for Africa of UK-based insurance company Prudential, seems to think so.

In his presentation he said many Prudential staff have “raced up the career ladder” by working for the company’s operations in Asia. He said those taking up assignments in Africa will have a head start in some of the key economies of the future.

Prudential has reaped great rewards by investing early in Southeast Asia, and is now planning to do the same in Africa. Last year it bought a life insurance business in Ghana, and the company has plans to also expand to other countries across the continent.

“In rapidly growing markets, opportunities come up quicker, and you get more responsibility faster,” said Lilley.

I got the feeling that the reason Prudential sponsored the conference was to recruit some of the MBAs in attendance for its African operations.

Discussion about ‘Africa rising’ is moving on

Much of the current rhetoric about Africa’s progress, from a continent of war and poverty to an exciting business destination, is dominated by generalisations and a few catchphrases I’m sure most of you have heard.

  • Africa is home to six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies over the past decade
  • The continent has a growing middle class
  • 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land is in Africa

The list goes on.

While I acknowledge the need to present information in digestible bits, what is really happening on a continent of 50-plus diverse countries cannot be summarised by a few soundbites.

It was therefore refreshing that many of the conference participants delved deeper into the subtleties of doing business on the continent, rather than rehashing the same tired clichés.

Nigerian banking and telecoms tycoon Hakeem Belo-Osagie said Africa’s current growth and improved image are partly because of two factors – less involvement by African governments in business and fresh foreign investor interest due to the economic troubles in the west. He said the continent should consider itself lucky that these two events happened around the same time.

Africa’s demographics of over a billion people with a median age of around 20 years is often said to be one of the main trends that will drive economic growth. Belo-Osagie however downplayed the role of demographics in Africa’s recent progress, saying the continent has had favourable demographics for the past 20 years.

He said he finds it fascinating that what was once described as an over-population problem is now seen as an attractive, untapped market.

Belo-Osagie warned that an “over-enthusiasm without careful analysis” from foreigners investing in Africa can lead to problems down the line, highlighting the need for a more hard-nosed discussion about the continent’s business opportunities.

Capitalise on the new interest in Africa

There was a tangible buzz and optimism about the possibilities in Africa among conference delegates. Granted, those in attendance were more interested in Africa than your average person in the UK (they did after all sacrifice their Saturday to sit in lecture halls). However, I seriously doubt one would find the same enthusiasm at a similar event focused on Europe.

This excitement continued the next day as I was walking into Topshop to buy something for my wife. One of the shop assistants noticed my Cambridge Africa Business Network bag from the previous day. He immediately asked me about my connection to the continent. When he found out that I actually live here, he thought it was “so cool” and started telling me about his family in Sierra Leone.

African-based business people need to capitalise on the changing perceptions of the continent. International companies are looking more favourably at Africa, and I cannot help but think that this presents numerous opportunities for strategic partnerships.

I will leave you with an inspiring quote that Hakeem Belo-Osagie delivered at the conference.

“Do not aspire to live dull and boring lives. Do not aspire to do what you are supposed to do and what you are supposed to enjoy. Be mad and be bold.”

Jaco Maritz is publisher of How we made it in Africa. Follow him on twitter.