tapping africa’s potential

As promised here’s a brief note on the conference on Africa at Stanford.

Most of the speakers (esp. Fred Lwaniker of the Africa Leadership Academy and former HP CEO Carly Fiorina) reiterated Achebe’s take that the trouble with Africa is simply and squarely a problem of leadership. There is hope though. People like Lamido Sanusi, Nigeria’s central bank governor and the current central banker of the year. Mr. Sanusi has played a major role in cleaning up the Nigerian banking sector in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

Chris Udry of Yale talked about the all important agricultural sector in Africa. Over 60% of Africans depend on agriculture for their livelihood. The sector has however been largely ignored on the Continent over the last three decades. In personal conversations with Chris he pointed out that this is illustrated by the number of Agricultural Economics PhDs graduating these days. His takeaway point was that African agriculture can be strengthened by having strong land tenure systems, adoption of fertilizer and other farm implements and by availing finance to farmers. All these efforts will, however, require consolidation of farming. Mechanization on a small scale is expensive. Plus no bank will finance a farmer with one acre and two cows.

The third and last broad theme of the conference addressed the investment opportunities in Africa. Business leaders from fields as diverse as ICT, consulting, finance and social entrepreneurship talked about the high margins and potential for return on investment. Most importantly, these business leaders noted that the challenges to investment and growth in the region can be overcome. MTN is operating a successful mobile operation in Nigeria despite the country’s power woes. Finance is thriving in Kenya despite high levels of corruption. For the most part the high margins more than make up for these high operating costs.

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