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