Build Africa – and the world will come
I’m still rubbing my eyes in disbelief at an extraordinary event last week – the Build Africa Forum – held in Congo Brazzaville. Not only was the location out of the ordinary – who goes to Brazzaville as part of their day job? – but the cast of characters just blew me away. The Forum was the brainchild of events supremo, Richard Attias, held under the aegis of the President of the Republic of Congo himself, His Excellency Denis Sassou N’Guesso. What’s more the invitation list of top notch business leaders, economists and senior government ministers was jaw-dropping. And they didn’t just turn up for an hour or two and then disappear. Brazzaville’s Palais de Congres was humming with the creme de la creme for a full two days. Networking, as I’d never seen it before.
A quick word on the premise of the Build Africa Forum and then a few personal highlights. The premise was straightforward. Africa needs a shed-load of infrastructure investment – roads, ports, power stations, water-treatment plants, universities – to release the productive potential of her people and resources. There may be fifty plus African nations, but the yawning infrastructure gap holds true for all of them. In the case of Congo-Brazzaville, the government has decided that investing in infrastructure is the foundation stone to economic growth. And so airports, ports, roads, bridges are springing out of the ground in a bid to connect the rest of Africa and the wider world to the massive market and resource-store that is the Democratic Republic of Congo across the river. The question is will this gamble on investment provide lasting benefit to the people of Congo?
I’m not even going to begin to try and answer that question, ill-equipped as I am to be a commentator on African matters. Here, instead, are some personal highlights of the Forum, starting with the Opening Ceremony, in which I had the great good fortune to be interviewing the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Lamidu Sanusi. Of course his reputation for probity and professional competence went before him, but what I hadn’t expected was just how fiercely articulate and charismatic the Governor would be in person. He didn’t bat an eyelid when I asked him to stand at the front of the stage, the better to engage with the audience, who were bursting with questions. And though Governor Sanusi declined to mention politics as his ultimate ambition, the buzz in the hall later suggested that we had glimpsed Nigeria’s next leader in waiting.
As it turned out Nigeria came up time and again in conversations as the African country international investors were most fascinated by. So I wasn’t altogether surprised when both rock star economist Nouriel Roubini and entrepreneur, Rob Hersov, both confessed on stage that having done a whirlwind tour of West African states, Nigeria was the country they were most surprised by – pleasantly surprised. On a personal note, it was humbling to be on stage with such a fierce intelligence as Roubini’s. And I also had the pleasure of long conversations with another rock star economist, Prof Xavier Sala i Martin from Columbia University, whose work on global poverty will make him the next Hans Rosling…mark my words!
Apart from Nigeria, my other big takeaway was Brazil. We all know about the China-Africa story of the past decade, what I hadn’t realised was how seriously Brazilians – business, investors, the government – take Africa. But dining with Otavio Azevedo, President of Brazil’s massive diversified conglomerate, Andrade Guttierez, dispelled my doubts. Mr Azevedo sparkled on the panel discussion about Infrastructure and Job Creation, as did South African entrepreneur, Robert Gumede, whose passionate plea for legislation requiring local labour content in infrastructure projects went down a storm with the audience. I’m not sure everyone on the panel concurred though.
Also a small journalistic point of satisfaction. When prodded a bit by me on the number of projects the IFC gets involved in, IFC VP Jean Philippe Prosper put up a robust defence – we have to focus on a few key projects, it is about providing a ‘demonstrator effect’ to give other investors comfort to follow suit…Later in the Palais de Congres, I overheard a couple of investors discussing that point about the ‘demonstrator effect’. So it seems we had the audience’s attention.
Finally, I was struck by the paucity of women at the Forum. Apart from Renaissance Capital’s insightful Isabella da Costa Mendes, and Bombardier’s Suad Elmallem who conducted a first-rate panel discussion on Aviation, there weren’t very many high profile women on stage. Is this an infrastructure thing? Something to work on for the second Build Africa Forum in two years’ time. Meantime, how do you think the African infrastructure story will change in the next couple of years? Please join the discussion on my blog.
And here are the videos of each session at the Build Africa Forum: http://www.buildafricaforum.com/en/videos/2014