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U.S.-Africa Business Summit Day 3: “Africa is not a portfolio market.”

This is the Africa Business Fellowship’s (ABF) third and final blog post from the Corporate Council on Africa's 10th Biennial U.S.-Africa Business Summit in Addis Ababa.

The closing plenary was advertised as “African Industrial Revolution” but it was more about the entrepreneurship experiences of panelists across the continent. I appreciated these case studies more than the usual presentation of facts and figures. These entrepreneurs have been doing the hard work and mostly without widespread recognition.

Mossadeck Bally built the Azalai Hotels brand from the purchase of one former state-owned hotel in Bamako. Azalai Hotels now has properties in five African countries, with plans for an additional five more. This growth did not come without challenges. Bally shared with the audience how he once waited three years for a building permit and has had to provide much of the hotel's water and infrastructure himself. He urged the diaspora to contribute to Africa's human capital development.  

"I had no business running a business," said Rahama Wright, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Mali. A Ghanian-American, she only learned about shea butter and its value chain while volunteering. She was inspired to create Shea Yeleen, a beauty products company that creates gives shea farmers access to international markets. Ten years after its founding, Shea Yeleen is now in Whole Foods.

Dr. Toni Luck spoke on behalf of Petrolin Group founder Samuel Dossou-Aworet. The company began 24 years ago, when Petrolin Group brought together several small scale oil producers in Gabon. They are now building a pipeline extending through three West African countries. Dr. Luck, formerly at Exxon Mobil, spoke to the need for corporate social responsibility and asked the business communities to become more political active through business chambers and organizations.

“Africa transformation will not be driven by FDI but by Africa itself and its entrepreneurs,” proclaimed Zemedeneh Negatu of Ernst & Young Ethiopia. He spoke to Francophone Africa’s lag behind Anglophone Africa in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship. Fellow panelist Mossadeck Bally echoed these sentiments. Zemedeneh reiterated that the continent is not the place for a quick return on investment.

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There are plenty of conferences in Africa and about Africa. While the conference circuit serves as a reunion of sorts of familiar faces, I must say that the Corporate Council on Africa provided an unparalleled forum for the private sector to connect across continents and borders. I’m glad CCA hosted their event on the continent (again, for only the second time) and I look forward to the next gathering.

Looking back on the past three days, I can’t help but wonder if this new U.S.-Africa push is a defensive play spurred by China’s engagement. It is well documented that the United States has fallen behind China in terms of FDI on the continent. The U.S is primarily associated with aid and stern directives to the continent’s lifetime leaders. In spite of this, some American private sector players have been on the continent for quite some time. John Deere, the agricultural machinery manufacturing company, bought their first stake in an African company in 1935. They’ve had an official presence on the continent for over fifty years. Coca-Cola has been in Africa since 1928. Many American companies such as KFC, Domino’s, and Starbucks are making their push into the continent. I hope the next conferences will see more evidence of the reverse being true as well, Aprelle Duany perhaps?

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Adedana Ashebir is the African Leadership Network Program Director of the Africa Business Fellowship. She is based in Nairobi. 

 

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U.S.-Africa Business Summit Day 1: "Ethiopia is open for business."

This is the Africa Business Fellowship’s (ABF) daily blog from the 10th Biennial Corporate Council on Africa’s U.S.-Africa Business Summit in Addis Ababa.

The Corporate Council on Africa is the leading organization in the United States that promotes trade and investment on the African continent. For only the second time, the Council is hosting their Summit in Africa- in Ethiopia, one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

This conference is a milestone in many ways. The 10th Summit is the first time the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry have collaborated on a conference and this is the largest event of its kind that brings the United States' and Africa's private sector together. The conference attracted 1200 registrants, a huge jump from previous years, perhaps the largest harbinger of increased interest in U.S.-Africa business collaboration.

There was a brief nod to other countries involved in investment in Africa. Symbion Power CEO Paul Hinks welcomed delegates from Turkey and China declaring that all countries have a shared interest in investment in the continent. The latter is the currently the largest source of FDI in Ethiopia and is expected to increase their investment, perhaps up to four-fold in the next year according to a senior Ethiopian official I spoke with.

While it is a U.S.-Africa Summit, Ethiopia is using the forum as an opportunity to showcase its potential. At the Doing Business in Ethiopia panel, a distinguished group, including the Director General of Ethiopian Investment Commission Fitsum Arega, the Ethiopian Foreign Minister Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and Ernst & Young Ethiopia Managing Director Zemedeneh Negatu painted a promising picture of the country’s growth: increased life expectancy, expanded access to primary and secondary education, declining poverty rates, and the various opportunities in the power, tourism, and agriculture sectors.

Black Rhino Group’s Brian Herlihy presented the firm’s experience investing in Ethiopia - USD1.3 billion into a petrol pipeline between Ethiopia and Djibouti. He shared an anecdote about contacting Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn about the project. The Black Rhino team was hesitant to reach out to the Ethiopian leader noting his busy schedule but was surprised by the Prime Minister’s willingness and response, “What is a country but a collection of projects?”

As an Ethiopian-American, the Japan International Cooperation Agency’s (JICA) “Creativity In Motion” campaign was perhaps the highlight of the panel. When the video premiered last year, I was filled with pride, THIS was the branding I and many others had waited for. JICA is helping Ethiopian products reach a niche market in Japan including iPhone covers, clothing, and quality leather products. 

“Ethiopia confounds every expectation,” said Noah Samara of Yazmi in his keynote address, quoting a travel writer’s take on the country.  With the facts and figures presented today, expectations are sure to be high.

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Adedana Ashebir is the African Leadership Network Program Director of the Africa Business Fellowship. She is based in Nairobi. Follow the U.S.-Africa Business Summit using #AfricaBizSummit.