Sunday, February 27, 2011
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
I thought this had been well-exposed during the high-profile story by Christian Purefoy on CNN last August, but in all the blog posts and related comments about this as well as the lesser-known move some time ago by Bono's feel-good couture brand Edun to move its production from Africa to China, there seemed to be a lack of awareness that making garments in sub-Saharan Africa is not purely theoretical.
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Moderator: Elisabeth Koll, Associate Professor, Harvard Business School.
Gavin McGillivray, Director, UK DFID
Amadou Wadda, Senior Vice President, Infrastructure, Africa Finance Corporation
The afternoon panel offerings at the Harvard Africa Conference featured a number of compelling options, and as in the morning, it was a tough choice. I ended up attending the Infrastructure-track panel: The $1.0 Trillion Africa Infrastructure Opportunity. For who can pass up a $1 trillion opportunity?!
This was a large panel, a mixed representation of donor funded agencies and private sector executives. This seasoned contingent fostered a fascinating and at times oppositional conversation--especially given the presence of Alain Ebobisse, senior official of the IFC, and to his left, Gavin McGillivray of UK's DFID, rubbing elbows with the forthright Chuka Mordi, of CBO Capital Partners always polite, but at times dismissive in his frankness on what he sees as fellow panelists' failed models, which drew audible gasps and rounds of nervous laughter from the audience. Such was the case when Mr Mordi jocularly asserted that:
'Multilaterial donor agencies are part of the problem…but not in a bad way…Fundamentally, they mean well, but they are a charity.'
That left more several of his co-panelists looking perplexed--but he was not alone. Mr. McGillivray had started out by narrowly defining the effectiveness of donor agencies and governments, with his initial remarks that:
'Governments are generally bad at spotting opportunity. What can the donor community do? Not much. There are three areas where donors might be able to help: governance, regulations, and planning, and regional projects.'
It seemed left to Mr. Ebibose, to defend the multilaterals' position. He handled this delicately, and proved neither afraid to admit the shortcomings of agencies such as his own World Bank Group, nor to defend a meaningful space for them--dovetailing with Mr. McGillivray's thinking.
Mr. Ebibose was also not reticent to point to a lack of capacity in the private sector, not least being: "there are not enough private developers of infrastructure in Africa," and therefore in turn a real need for groups like the IFC, which come in not only with cash, but with expertise.
Mr. McGillivray readily concurred with this particular lack of talent in both multilateral aid agencies and governments--and pointed out that this is where the IFC has leant meaningful assistance to governments, which has yielded positive results and should be expanded.
Mr. Rouse had several very insightful comments here, too:
Some African governments are just suspicious of the private sector. There are places which have the private sector ethos where we can operate, others not. Kenya is great, he said, but next door Tanzania is not.
A number of unpleasant issues--the elephants in the room of infrastructure investment in Africa--were addressed by members of the panel: the challenges of making a long term play in a high risk region; competition from the Chinese; and the often-times unworkable reality of Public Private Partnership models, especially in an environment of corporate and governmental corruption.
One of Mr. Wadda's most insightful comments was his insight into states' lack of capacity in negotiating effectively in PPP transactions. This leads to breaches of contract terms, reneging on contractual obligations, even cancellation of contracts. This has set a bad track-record for PPPs, discouraged future ventures, further eroded the ability of states to attract investor interest, and caused capital's appetite for such arrangements to flag, and given the entire model a poor reputation.
This was a fascinating revelation. Unfairness does not necessarily result in carpetbagging investors raking in huge profits by taking advantage of inexperienced public counterparts, but instead risks transactional collapse, and in turn a further wariness for such risky, long-term, capital- and capacity- intensive ventures in challenging frontiers.
Mr. Mordi expanded on this--repeating that one cannot separate the financial from the political--and that corruption pervades both arenas. Early on, he put it simply: "you cannot do a deal if the company or the country is run by gangsters." If lack of capacity is a weakness, corruption is the parasite that bleeds infrastructure projects to a premature death. This, he said at the start, was the primary challenge: governance. It is impossible to have a short term outlook when looking at infrastructure, and you need competence for implementation--even if corruption isn't crippling the venture, bad management surely will.
Later on in the question period, Mr. Mordi returned to this issue:
Nigerian banks have a systematic problem: a simple one of corruption, nothing else. Five years ago they didn't have the funds to do big investments, and they still don't have the scale, really, but are getting there. The banks are not going to put out money for longer than the government itself, and are for the time being, sticking to government debt because its safest form of liquidity.
This was one of the more technical moments of the session. Several panelists expressed a desire to move away from local currency transactions, and there was a bit of detailed accounting banter about this.
Lekki Toll Road, Lagos.
There were a few references to specific projects, with frequent mention of Lagos's Lekki Toll Road, with its 15 year tenure, by far the longest of any infrastructure deal in Nigeria; future phases of the massive Inga Hydropower in the DR Congo, and talk of the potential for smaller-scale hydropower in Guinea. Mr Rouse asserted that 200-300mw local stations were the solution to Africa's power problems, revealing it as a strategy, but giving no specific examples.
From this lively, revealing debate, it clear that Africa's problems in developing infrastructure are not just a lack of capacity of the physical plant itself, but the operators, investors, and the local, national and international partners who support these deals. Until investment is not made just in hardware, but in improving the talent pool of government stakeholders, infrastructure proposals destined to remain on the drawing board, a failure not of feasibility and financials but of inability and fraud.
Monday, February 21, 2011
Report from the Harvard Business School Africa Business Conference: Post # 2: 5 Take-aways from the Private Equity Panel
Impact investing is one of my 'pet herrings'. I believe it has good aspirations, but could have negative implications: for Impact investors, if the track record is just a 2% return, or even just a return of principal capital, than [Equity Investors focused on Africa] are not going to have a business; we need to be able to make risk-adjusted, commercially-competitive returns, or else [African investments] will be stuck getting the crumbs off other people's plates. In coming to markets, there is a place for social good, but we need to remain focused on financial returns, if we are going to track capital.
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.
Friday, February 18, 2011
For anyone who might be closer to Monrovia, California than Monrovia, Liberia between now and late July, I cannot more highly recommend the exhibit Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley on view now at the Fowler Museum at the University of California at Los Angeles. It may be the best exhibit on African art that I have ever had the opportunity to view. Beyond the medium-sized exhibit's incredible assemblage of exquisite masterpieces from dozens of the world's finest collections, the curation itself, with its sleek graphic design, its enlightening text, and especially its multimedia aides, provides an enthralling insight to the history and uses of the beautiful objects displayed in this tremendous show.
The art itself is magnificent. Each display is full of handsome, finely crafted objects from the multicultural Benue River area of Central-Southeastern Nigeria. The exhibit is well-organized to relate the geographic organization of the cultural area, and succinctly conveys the ethnographic hierarchy of the region. The text also commendably discuss both pre-Colonial history as well as frequently referencing how colonial and post-colonial events not only governed the art's creation, but also how the nascent art market itself influenced the production and emergence of the works onto the international stage, as well as its anthropological understanding. This includes frank references of the effects of the Biafran conflict and the questionable provenance into which Benue art in general, and even works in the galleries, came to leave Nigeria.
The exhibit presents a comprehensive range of the several types of work that meaningful juxtaposition is achievable, showing a range of variation across villages, periods, and zones. There is just enough art to take it all in, and the strength each piece compels lingering throughout the chambers, but visitors won't be overwhelmed.
Most of the figures and objects are carved from dark wood, and many of the masks are presented complete with flowing curtains of vegetal strands. The freedom to examine these objects at such close range reveals the beauty of West Africa's native plant fibers and timber, particularly in the large display of massive vertical masks, which must have caused the felling of thick-trunked trees. There are also several magnificent metal works in bronze, and beautiful ceramic pieces.
In many of these works, with the help of accompanying placards, these multivalent morphology of these exotic forms can be discerned and more fully enjoyed. Many of the pieces are not only hybrid representations of man, beast or chimera, but also were worn as a ceremonial mask or headdress. The boundary between anthropomorphic elements and animal features, fused with the ornamental agency of a religious costume, manifest the liminal frontier between worlds that their spirits occupy.
Beyond the gorgeous works on display, with their powerful, otherworldly forms and fine craftsmanship, what makes an already excellent show truly captivating are the two screening areas, which show about 15 minutes of video each, ranging from 8mm reels from the 1960s, to handheld videos from 2010. Brilliantly, the Fowler has posted these online as well.
Although they do nothing more remarkable than straightforwardly present short clips of the masquerades in ceremonial use in Benue Valley villages, these loops are strikingly profound. The displayed pieces, crowned atop full ceremonial garb, become animated apparitions, performing a haunted choreography.
These fantastical forms come to life, gyrating and jittering, mingling among festive crowds, facing off as if to battle, whirling, jerking, and collapsing. "Stunning" is a regrettably overused word these days, but these films take the already mesmerizing works of the gallery and evince the spectral dimensions of their spiritual symbolism. In witnessing the rituals of faith performed and transmitted to wary villagers or nervous adolescents, the viewer, in the company of the surrounding art work of the darkened gallery, is initiated into their belief system.
The videos allow the viewer to go back and forth between contemplating the powerful but dormant objects on display, and then return to the screening areas and photos to see the masquerades alive with their complete regalia and in their original milieux. Thoughtfully, the exhibit also provides maps, locating the specific villages in which the clips were filmed. In this and other ways, the curation successfully executes its determination to provide an understanding of the exchanges, translations, and adaptations within and among this anthropological territory.
As immediate as the unique formal and material aspects of the works are, the complexity of the multiple meanings, purposes, and traditions of art--at other times and contexts thoughtlessly unexplored in the presentation and appreciation of "primitive art" --is thoroughly foregrounded as a contextual supplement to the exhibition. In this way the Fowler's exhibit, its rooms arranged with lovely objects, can, after an hour-long visit, graduate an audience not only more knowledgeable of a particular heritage of African art, but also infused with its spirits.
The back of the postcard is embossed "DUCOR PALACE HOTEL" which is confusing because the Neil Prince memorial website credits him with designing the Ducor in 1962 as part of his worlwide portfolio of properties for Intercontinental Hotels, which was at the time the hospitality arm of Pan American Airways, which was obviously very focussed on Monrovia. But I looked back closely at an earlier M2M post on Pan Am's 1963 World Guide, which recommends the "brand new Ducor Hotel" --so it seems the property was originally called the Ducor Palace, then called the Intercontinental, then back to the Ducor Palace.
Below is a picture I took in 2008, showing how wooded the top of Snapper Hill is now, by contrast.
9-11-64"This is a fabulous place--beautiful country-- Temp average 70degrees- Rainy season now -- 6 more weeks, then Liberians tell me it get hotto-- everything has an O on the end of words. Ha!"
Thursday, February 10, 2011
Continuing with the Ducor Hotel theme this week, celebrating the announcement that the hotel's refurbishment will commence imminently, here are a few Monrovia photographs-postcards, which I'm guessing here taken around 1965 at the latest, with the Ducor looming over Broad and Ashmun Street. I love these photos; they really give a sense of how modern the whole city must have appeared in that golden era decades ago, and how ultramodern the sleek, luxurious Ducor appeared, hovering over the entire city.
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Saturday, February 5, 2011
Thursday, February 3, 2011
The news is dominated by Egypt, so much so that hardly anyone is talking about Tunisia, which just revolted two weeks ago. There is so much that has already been said and written, and so much that will be debated, analyzed, and put forth in the future, and so much still developing, that I would know where to begin . Furthermore, this isn't a foreign affairs blog, and I'm not an expert in international relations or Egypt, which are not really the topics of this blog.
However, I am something of an expert on Twitter, and this is being called the Twitter Revolution(s), even social media only helped lubricate any already-overboiling engine of discontent. But the ways in which Twitter is changing and even democratizing our globe and global communication is on display in interesting ways these last few weeks. It was interesting to see veteran New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Nicolas Kristof being mocked for his tweets about Egypt on Monday:
A more startling example of the Twitter Revolution: Queen Rania of Jordan, with her 1.43 million followers. She is a monarch. Her husband King Abdullah was not elected and is the head of state over a country where police brutality, unjustified detention and torture are shockingly common. But she is also a global philanthropy celebrity, despite the problems of her home realm, where between 14% and 30% of Jordanians live in poverty. Look at her Twitter profile, "mum and wife with really cool day job." Oh, its also so light and fun, isn't it?
But, in the middle of January, the Queen sent out a compassionate, au courant tweet about Tunisia:
Suddenly, the twin poles holding up Queen Rania's tent are being ruthlessly collapsed on Twitter. People are being openly rude to her majesty, the Queen.
This is a different situation than international development bloggers wittily sniping at Nick Kristof's tweets, or the lightning-strike outrage at Kenneth Cole's thoughtless, crass self-promotional controversy, in which its plausible to imagine the ploy was calculated in an any-publicity-is-good-publicity maneuver.
Queen Rania's case is different. She is the target of all this activity, completely unable to recast, engage, or co-opt these events. She isn't the champion of the poor, she is the symbol of their angst. That "really cool day job"? Would that be living a life of luxury while around a third of your subjects live in inescapable misery? The next few days and week will continue to amaze the world as the people of the Middle East take control of their destiny. Queen Rania has been mostly silent on Twitter since the 15th, whereas her husband has sacked his cabinet. Let's see if that's enough to satisfy her tweeps, or even an older following: the people.