Spontaneous applause erupted from an audience as a speaker declared the time had arrived for African business to take the lead in developing the continent. Politicians had had their day.
The gathering in question was a forum in Johannesburg, South Africa, in recognition of Africa Day in May – with the pervasive theme being positivity about the future of the continent. Reflection on Africa’s political successes and failures was channelled into questioning how these experiences could be spun into greater economic and social freedom. “Enthusiasm” was the watchword for speakers, with an emphasis on the business world’s inherent energy and creativity being harnessed to forge a bright new world.
In place of platitudes and tired, ritual celebrations of Africa Day that reflect a less modern Africa than we see today, a sense of purpose was – perhaps surprisingly, but surely encouragingly – evident.
A corporate senior executive, a 28-year veteran of doing business across Africa, was first to raise the stark point that political leaders might have heroically delivered emancipation from colonialism and sowed seeds of democracy, but they hadn’t followed through with nearly enough economic advancement. Business imperatives are now the drivers in improving people’s lives on the continent and private enterprise must be given the space to expand and leverage that growth.
He told of vast improvements in Africa, in terms of physical development of towns and cities and of commercial environments. Levels of human confidence in business and civic affairs have grown dramatically, eliminating the need for ongoing paternal political leadership.
A leading academic echoed the sentiments and went on to emphasise the critical role of science, technology and innovation in bringing modern economic prosperity to new generations.
He lamented that the African Union, long on vision and plans, did not have any working, technocratic “economic project” guiding its mission.
A recurring theme of the forum was the role expatriates can play by returning to the continent – bringing with them their foreign-acquired skills and expertise.
A 2019 survey by Homecoming Revolution, a “brain gain” headhunting firm for Africa, showed that – contrary to popular belief – much of the “diaspora” is considering returning to its continent. Of 2,000 West, East and Southern Africans interviewed in the UK, US, Europe and Australasia, 34% were keen to return and 22% were undecided – indicating roughly one in two of many millions of emigrants are open to “coming home” and contributing to Africa’s growth and development.
An example is of a group of Moroccan academics who returned from centres of learning excellence abroad to set up the very successful International Institute for Higher Education in Rabat – asking nothing of the Moroccan government other than land on which to build their university.
This institution, focused on a faculty of engineering and one of business management, with privately-funded state-of-the-art facilities, leverages its founders’ links to academia around the world to foster international linkages and knowledge transfer in the service of both Morocco and private enterprise.
In similar vein, indigenous businesses can use available capacity and resources to develop economies across Africa’s regions – not for altruistic or hegemonic reasons, but to make money, build markets and, incidentally, raise living standards.
Despite to-be-expected complaints about nationalism, political rivalry, red tape and corruption hindering progress, this Africa Day forum had the sense of being a harbinger of change; picking up a wind of new vigour about socio-economic development. “Enthusiasm” was the big takeaway.
Pieter Steyn, director of Werksmans and chairperson of LEX Africa notes “African civil society, NGOs, business and private players are increasingly proactive in identifying and implementing projects rather than waiting for government initiatives. This recognition of “citizen power” is a key driver of the enthusiasm shown at the forum and will hopefully be viewed positively by African governments leading to more effective public–private collaboration.