The African Leadership Network conference in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, attracted 300 young Africans, the new breed of emerging leaders. Creating dreams, realising potential, and delivering change were at the heart of the discussions. As one of the conference founders put it: “Only with our own resources can Africans finally stand on their own feet”. It was one of the most inspiring events of 2011.
Without exaggeration, thisyear’s African Leadership Network (ALN) conference, which took place in Addis Ababa, was a conference like no other. It was a mix between the World Economic Forum and a TED event, a networking feast amongst inspired and enthusiastic participants.
The format was quite unique – a blend of high level talks, addresses, debates, and business pitches, all of which were interlaced with comedy, art and music. The latter was to create a more relaxed environment, keep it fresh, and unleash some “creativity”.
The Network, currently in its second edition, is the brainchild of Acha Leke and Fred Swaniker (see NA, Dec). The idea is a simple one; to get some of the most talented and influential African individuals under the age of 45 to know each other in both formal and informal settings, exchange ideas, develop friendships, and ultimately do business together.
The Network is a natural extension of the Africa Leadership Academy, also the brainchild of Leke and Swaniker, which is trying to nurture a pool of 6,000 African leaders over the next 50 years. In effect, the Network, which was also attended by a handful of young inspirational students from the academy, is an attempt to create an ecosystem of African leaders from all walks of life to help realise change.
Leke and Swaniker started the event off, as is their custom, by emphasising the importance of leadership and the responsibility which lies within this current generation if Africa is to realise its potential.
Leke is a senior director with McKinsey in Africa. He wants to be remembered for more than contributing to the delivery of client objectives, and to leave a true legacy on the continent. This is a great time to leave this legacy: if ever there was a time to be in Africa, it is today.
Swaniker stressed what he called the “power of capital”, which he divided into three categories – intellectual capital, financial capital, and social capital. The first two were present in abundance at the conference and within Africa generally.
The gap lies in the third one, so the Network has been designed to help harness it by developing relationships to deliver growth, in the same way that the founders of Apple computers, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniack, connected through an existing “IT community in California” to share dreams and ideas to start what is today the world’s biggest IT sensation, Apple Inc.
Swaniker, who has also worked at McKinsey, put it quite simply: “The aim is to come back next year and point at two or three projects and say that the ALN facilitated these. It’s already taking place”.
The two young men are all about “measurables, deliverables, and impact”. Despite the underlying ingredient of conferences being “talk shows”, the participants were chosen for their track record of action rather than talking.
The mood at the event was down-to-earth, and there was a genuine enthusiasm, energy, and openness amongst all participants, a desire to take something back. The rule of thumb is that if you can take two ideas back from an event, your presence has been worthwhile. The problem with this conference might have been that there were possibly too many ideas to take home, so that one does not know where to start.
There were several seasoned speakers from the African conference circuit, the likes of Paul Collier (professor of economics and director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University) and Donald Kaberuka (president of the African Development Bank), but there were also other less well-known but inspirational speakers who challenged preconceived ideas. The major theme of the presentations was that Africans needed to think big and think differently because “what is normal today will not be the norm of tomorrow”, and “it is for us to establish what is our normal and the norm that we wish to envision and create”.
As one speaker put it: “Change has become inevitable, and technology presents a great opportunity for the African continent, but everything we need we either dig it or grow it, so beware to look after it.”
The average age of the participants was late 30s, and largely from English-speaking Africa – and mostly men. Although women made up about 28% of the attendees, they made themselves heard, and loudly so.
If there was one apparent shortcoming, it was the fact that most of the participants were from the private sector (89%). This possibly highlights a common symptom within Africa. Politics has become less and less appealing to the young educated class. Is this because the young are disillusioned? Is it because they are disinterested? Or is it simply because they can lead a more comfortable life working in a secure job and senior position for a multinational company?
Zimbabwe’s 45-year-old deputy prime minister, Prof Arthur Mutambara, threw down the gauntlet. He called for African business leaders to be brave and take the plunge into politics, because “it is in politics that we can bring about real change”. He cut a lonely figure as one of the rare individuals from politics within the Network, and indeed the challenge is to find more young political leaders to attend the forum.
The other challenge in Africa is to make politics a sector that will attract the country’s brightest stars. Mutambara went on to stress that in Africa and the world today, the challenge was to develop regional leaders, continental leaders, and global leaders who would work not only within the national mandate but beyond it for the betterment of Africa and the world. Kaberuka reiterated this fact in his presentation, and identified “the failure of leadership in Europe” as Africa’s (and the world’s) biggest threat currently. Some countries, such as Cape Verde, rely on Europe for 97% of their exports.
The idea of sacrifice came up time and again, and the consensus was that no one could achieve greatness without some sort of sacrifice.
“To succeed beyond the realms of the imaginable and really make an impactful change, you have to take risks and you have to make the necessary sacrifices, which means leaving your comfort zone and the security which most of us have in our current work environment,” said one speaker. Another recurring theme was that one could not expect a different outcome by using the same processes, or, as one speaker put it, “the definition of madness is repeating the same thing and expecting a different result”.
Hence the need to emancipating one’s thinking, identifying what works for Africa, and what the people need, and then going about getting it – and if need be, importing the ideas that are best for the continent.
There were some interesting facts and observations, such as China’s transformative power; 3% of the world’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) went to Africa, whilst 70% of China’s FDI went to Africa! Also, while the median age of African leaders is over 70 years, in the West it is 59. And the average age of the African population is under 25.
The Network has ambitious plans. It knows its weaknesses in terms of its make-up and is addressing these by making the Network more affordable and accessible to those in the public sector, as well as reaching out to more participants from different countries. It also wants to expand its influence by holding two events a month, organising field trips to China and other places, as well as creating a venture capital fund to provide early stage funding to support entrepreneurial projects for ALN members. The Network is raising the stakes, but the stakes for Africa have always been high; and the rewards never higher.