Top business players, investors, academics, government leaders and even the president of Rwanda will descend upon the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School on May 18. The occasion? To talk about doing business on a continent that up until a few decades ago was largely written off as simply too risky for investment. Africa is open for business, and those at the Oxford Africa Business Conference are eager to learn about it.
As Africa stretches its economic legs, Oxford business students are sitting up and taking notes, according to Sara Leedom, 36, co-chair of the student-run Oxford Business Network for Africa (OBN Africa). “You’ve got new buying power, you’ve got new markets opening, you’ve got a lot of new opportunities throughout the 54 nations in Africa to be experimental,” she says. “The business school has really been encouraging people to think about demographic shifts and economic shifts that might take people to places across the continent of Africa, where they maybe wouldn’t have been thinking about that before.”
‘THERE ARE JUST A LOT OF OPPORTUNITIES THERE TO DO WELL AND TO DO GOOD’
Leedom and Zimbabwean Dirk Holshausen, the other OBN Africa co-chair, are determined to capture that interest and channel it into meaningful conversations about doing business on the continent. Along with a handful of other students they put on OBN Africa’s capstone event – the Oxford Africa Business Conference, which offers MBAs a chance to mingle with experts on the continent through a series of panel discussions, lectures and networking events.
MBAs are eager to get involved, Leedom says. These budding business leaders recognize that the continent offers opportunities simply unavailable anywhere else in the world. “When you’re looking at the growth rates in developed economies, and you’re looking at potential growth rates in emerging markets, this seems like sort of a no brainer,” she says. “I think there are just a lot of opportunities there to do well and to do good simultaneously.”
This year the conference organizers opted to bring in more speakers and boost attendance from 250 in 2012 to some 300 this year. They’ve also tripled the number of speakers to roughly 35 names and pulled in such heavyweights as Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Dr. Mthuli Ncube, chief economist and vice president of the African Development Bank.
LEADING FROM THE FRONTIER
This year’s theme, Leading from the Frontier, aims to address the growing interest among both students and business leaders to invest in emerging opportunities – uncharted territory for many. It also captures the innovations businesses are making to operate on the continent, Leedom says. “It’s going to places where we haven’t seen companies really stretch their limits so far.”
By design, the conference covers an ambitious agenda. Panel topics range from Capturing African Growth to Igniting Africa’s Tech Revolution. The speakers also represent a wide array of backgrounds with representatives from SABMiller, Goldman Sachs, McKinsey and Google, to name just a few. The organizers are keenly aware that growth is not just coming from Western companies – African businesses are stretching their world-wide footprints as well. To learn about Africa-outward growth, conference participants will hear from SEACOM’s John Mathwasa and Tewolde GebreMariam, the CEO of Ethiopian Airlines.