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Africa Business Conference at Harvard Promotes Dialogue on Entrepreneurship

By Selam Daniel

Entrepreneurs and other participants discussed the business climate in Africa at the 2001 Africa Business Conference, entitled “Creating, Growing, and Running the African Company.”

The conference was held at the Harvard Business School from March 23-24.

“I gained a tremendous amount of useful information and useful contact for financing, via private equity or venture capital funds, entrepreneurial ventures in Africa,” said conference participant Hakeem O. Sanusi G. “I also gained further enlightenment to help me develop plans for the business that I want to deploy in Africa,” Sanusi added.

The conference attracted people of all nationalities, successful businesspeople in Africa, and aspiring entrepreneurs, including many MIT students.

The two-day event included keynotes by Noah Samara, founder and chief executive officer of WorldSpace Corporation, and the Honorable Professor Turner Timinipre Isoun, Minister of the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Science and Technology and a former MIT visiting scientist.

Other activities included a career fair, panels, workshops, and a concert by the Afro-pean band, Les Nubians.

African businesses face challenges

Ndidi Okonkwo, a recent graduate of the Harvard Business School and Executive Director of the FATE Foundation, highlighted the unique challenges that entrepreneurs face when running an African business.

Most African governments have not created a very conducive environment for emerging entrepreneurs, he said. Also, Okonkwo said that obstacles to importing into most African countries hinders manufacturing efforts.

Okonkwo also cited weak infrastructure and communication as extra hurdles keeping offices from running at maximum efficiency. In addition, Africa faces a lack of management capacity -- difficulty of finding good people willing to go to Africa and work. Other problems facing entrepreneurs interested in African business include access to accurate and timely data; aspiring entrepreneurs are forced to do their own market research.

Many speakers, panelists, and participants of the conference offered advice on dealing with these issues.

Panelist William Jimerson ’92, who is an entrepreneur in Africa, said “ ‘risk’ is the million dollar word when it comes to talking about business in Africa. You have to present a business plan which identifies the risks and a plan to offset them, otherwise you won’t get the interest of many investors.”

Other successful businesspeople noted that although business in Africa is unique in its challenges, it is often more rewarding because of the inherent social obligations that any African business carries.

Many participants cited networking opportunities as a primary reason for attending the conference. “It’s important for Africans and those interested in Africa to get together and use each other as resources, to learn and share -- to build up that network. The whole point is to go back home,” said Mark Ardayfio SM ’98.

Networking opportunities were also noted by other MIT participants. Oreoluwa A. Adeyemi ’00 cited networking as his main purpose for participating in the conference. “It’s a great opportunity to meet people doing business in Africa. It’s useful to know who’s working on what and to identify the different problems in the developing countries,” Adeyemi said.

MIT plans similar initiatives

The MIT Africa Internet Technology Initiative is hosting a conference entitled “Bridging the Digital Divide: The Role of Students” at MIT on April 6. Attendees may register online at <http://web.mit.edu/mit-africa/AITI/conference>.

A seminar series at MIT focused on issues facing entrepreneurial ventures in Africa is in the brainstorming stages. Victor K. Mallet ’02 and other students are discussing the idea with various faculty members and seeking the appropriate faculty sponsor for this seminar, which they hope to launch by this fall.