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In a keynote speech at the Africa Business Conference, Thabo Mbeki, the former president of the Republic of South Africa, said Africans need to take an active role in moving the continent forward.

In a keynote speech at the Africa Business Conference, Thabo Mbeki, the former president of the Republic of South Africa, said Africans need to take an active role in moving the continent forward.

Africa’s golden age

At the 2011 Kellogg Africa Business Conference, speakers focus on seizing the continent’s wealth of opportunity

By Sara Langen

4/8/2011 - Michael Wallach ’06 believes that one of the greatest barriers to Africa’s growth is the lack of awareness of the opportunities on the continent.

At the 2011 Kellogg Africa Business Conference, Wallach cited a study of investors in which 60 percent of the respondents said they weren’t aware of general partnerships that invested in Africa.

“That, to me, strikes of opportunity,” said Wallach, the Sachs Capital Group director of strategic investments, during the panel discussion “Financing Africa’s Growth: Who Holds the Key?”

More than 267 alumni, students and business professionals attended the sold-out April 2 event, in which speakers and panelists explored the theme “Africa’s Golden Age: Seizing Opportunities in an Exciting New Era.”

With discretionary income growing for emerging middle classes in countries such as Nigeria, the opportunity to invest in businesses that provide products and services to that population are immense, Wallach said.

“What are they going to be spending that money on?” he asked. “They’re going to want a better life for their children. They’re going to invest in education and life insurance to ensure the next generation has a good life. They are going to want clean water and higher quality food. You look at these opportunities across the continent. They are tremendous.”

The panel, led by moderator and University of Illinois Professor Benét DeBerry-Spence, also included Jonathan Bloom, deputy vice president of Millennium Challenge Corp.; Ayo Olajiga ’04, chief representative officer for Nigeria at the First Rand Bank of South Africa; and Christian Wessels, partner at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants. Olajiga said the telecommunications explosion has laid a foundation for banks to introduce mobile banking to African markets, which often lack physical access to banks.

The banking issue was tackled again in the afternoon keynote panel, “The C-Suite Dialogues: Top Executives Discuss Doing Business in Africa.” Fewer than 20 percent of Africans have bank accounts, while more people have cell phones, said panel moderator Steven Rogers, the Gordon and Llura Gund Family Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurship.

As the continent continues to advance, people need the stability of financial services, said panelist Bernadine Okeke, executive vice president of First Bank of Nigeria.

“They need proper wealth management,” she added.

Another area ripe for growth opportunities is agriculture, said keynote speaker Thabo Mbeki, the former president of the Republic of South Africa. He said Africans need to take an active role in moving the continent forward, in addition to encouraging foreign investment.

“It is vital that as Africans we do more to generate the required capital,” he said. “I don’t think that is an opportunity that anyone should miss.”

Other conference highlights included a welcome address by Dean Sally Blount ’92 and a closing keynote address by Elikem Kuenyehia ’03, managing partner with Oxford and Beaumont in Ghana. Additional panel discussions focused on the role of emerging markets in reshaping Africa’s economies and making an impact through entrepreneurship and innovation.