Monday, February 21, 2011

Report from Harvard Business School Africa Business Conference. Post #1: New Themes

This past weekend was the 13th annual Africa Business Conference at Harvard Business School-- the world's largest student-run event focussed on Africa, and one of the biggest annual events in the US for African investment. Not only does HBS enjoy an active Africa Business Club and robust African alumni, but the conference increasingly yields a wide net of quality students and professionals. The overall theme was of the conference, Your African Legacy: Defining the Contribution of the Next Generation--demonstrated in both the remarks of the speakers and the eagerness of the students--manifested an evolution in the ways that business in Africa is developing and being understood.

Cleverly, the HBS conference organizes its panels in "tracks" which is very helpful in aligning the day's events along themes--each of the day's three panel sessions had one panel under each track. This year the themes were: the Business of Infrastructure; Entrepreneurship: Starting and Funding and Business; Healthcare; Moving Up the Value Chain; and Opportunities for Technology. In these headings alone, with their emphasis on tech-savvy enterprise-development over big-play investment banking, its possible to detect a shift in tone from the story lines about Africa from even a year ago.

And what a year its been for African business--some would say the most intense media attention that Africa has ever received from the global business community. While attention on Africa has burgeoned over the past decade, the past year was particularly intense. with McKinsey's much-talked-about "Lions on the Move" report, (which was the subject at the conference of an afternoon presentation session), to the paradigm-shifting plays like the Wal-Mart move for Massmart and KFC's aggressive expansion plans--put Africa above the fold of the business section in 2010.

Yet this not a rest-on-laurels atmosphere, and the HBS conference attendees, from seasoned veterans of African business to native-African MBA candidates, are collectively and individually forging ahead. Africa is not due to arrive, or in the process of arriving. The message is clear: Africa is here, and in ways big and small, the tone and content of the Harvard conference reflected this new reality.

I've separated my reports from the day into two further posts, covering each panel session that I attended. First report from the morning's Private Equity Panel.

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