The excitement of a new beginning: The first MIT Sloan Africa Business Conference

The first ever MIT Sloan Africa Business Conference began and ended with a bang. Conference attendees had an exciting energy surrounding them at the event. Walking out of the elevator onto the 6th floor of the MIT Media Center, where the conference was being held, you could easily sense the enthusiasm of business professionals, entrepreneurs, professors, and students discussing ways to put Africa on the world business map using innovation as the key driver.

There is certainly a vibrant wave of emerging business opportunities coming out of Africa that indicates the significant role it’s going to play in the global economy. This was the theme of the morning’s keynote address by Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, managing director at the World Bank. According to her keynote, “Africa is now the new frontier, an important growth pole for the economic recovery and an attractive business destination for capital. The perception gap is closing and there are serious investors who are seriously interested in Africa. It is now Africa’s time!”

Other contributing factors cited by Dr. Okonjo-Iweala for the current economic growth in Africa included an increase in GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa, which was 4.7% in 2010, growing domestic demand, and an increase in commodity prices.

The overarching message coming out of the conference was that in order for Africa to seize this opportunity and further drive economic growth and development, it must do so through innovation. As Dr. Okonjo-Iweala said, it is innovation that will sustain growth, which resonated well with the audience. In order for Africa to prosper, we need to continue to solidify our own identity on the global front, taking the lessons learned from industrialized nations and using innovation as a driver to move the continent forward.

The second keynote speaker, his Excellency Amani Abeid Karume, former president of Zanzibar, shared that sentiment. He said, “Business equals innovation, innovation equals growth, growth equals opportunity, and opportunity equals a country that’s on the move, whose citizens are fulfilling their potential.” He emphasized that “Africa needs to develop its own unique technologies specifically suited to local challenges. Technologies that are valuable to natural resources, agriculture, and mineral exports.”

The conference welcomed about 280 attendees, including business people from all over the world. Panel discussions at the conference covered areas such as energy, telecommunications, finance, entrepreneurship, and media and technology. The panelists focused on topics like renewable energy, innovating beyond voice, reaching the unbanked, made-in-Africa products, bridging the IT gap, and reshaping Africa’s media and entertainment industry. There also was a business plan competition showcasing some innovative projects and the MIT Media Center presented current projects focusing on emerging economies.

Overall, the conference was a success and it has set the tone for great things to come in future Africa Business Conferences here at MIT. Thanks to the conference organizers for putting together a great event. And a special thanks to conference and media sponsors, alums, and guests for making the event a successful and a memorable one. The message was clear that Africa needs to invest in innovation to help it reach its goals. This is an initiative that will take everyone’s efforts, including policy makers, the private sector, business professionals, academia, and students. Most importantly, this effort must start today.

The MIT Sloan Africa Business Club site can be accessed here

Access conference videos here

Emmanuel Badoo, and Emmanuel A Magani, MBAs, Class of 2011, were on the conference organizing team

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