By Christine Olaogun
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the 26th annual Wharton African Business forum, one of the nation’s premier conferences dedicated to exploring African business development. It was a unique chance to engage with leading African business professionals and explore developments in several African industries. With so many western educated African professionals excelling in various fields outside the continent – many of whom were sitting in that very room – it was no surprise that the first Keynote speech of the conference delivered by Thierry Tanoh, the current Minister for Energy in Cote D’Ivoire, was an appeal for the return of highly skilled African professionals in the diaspora to their native countries to contribute in their development. However, my greatest takeaway from this conference was two-fold. Firstly, that Africa’s future success would be dependent on its ability to capitalize on its inherent cultural diversity to bring new business ideas to the fore. Secondly, the transfer of skills does not always have to be one way; Western industries too, can learn a lot from African business innovations.
Tanoh’s keynote speech was brash, yet pertinent. While packing up our bags and heading back to our often resource-scarce countries may not be the most ideal option for those of us who “just got here”, it is an idea that deserves some thought. For him, a large scale return of skilled professionals would transform the African landscape and would help to combat what he repeatedly stressed as the biggest malaise plaguing the African continent – the corrupt mentality of many of its leaders. Corruption pervades the political arena in many African countries and is a major reason for the rampant misappropriation of public funds, stagnated development and consequent lack of opportunities for the working class, which has in turn led to human capital flight. The brain drain syndrome itself creates a fertile environment for corruption to flourish in the impacted countries, a vicious cycle of sorts. Consequently, Tanoh’s Garvey-ist leanings are not baseless. For him, the negative impact of brain-drain and skills flight out of Africa, can only be addressed by reverse migration back into Africa.
I found Tanoh’s argument quite compelling, but there was a proposition of much greater significance that several speakers throughout the conference honed in on – the growing desire for Africans to reimagine our nations as both modern and African, never failing to include the latter. Like many Africans, I am also envisioning a new Africa, where Africans are able to rebuild Africa in their own unique Afro-modern image. As many panelists debated during this conference, African countries need to begin looking inward for role models, rather than adopting Western mechanisms and ideals. It is time for African countries to reclaim their identities, advancing towards an Africa designed and conceptualized by its original inhabitants.
Panelists discussing the emerging tech market and the healthcare industry made incredibly captivating points as well. The discussion concerning the integration of corporate Africa and the cultures of Africa continued on during these panels. Panelists also noted that a lot can be learned from current development in emerging fintech and health care innovations on the African continent. In fintech, business wheels are being reinvented. Culture is being integrated with financial systems. African innovation is in fact trailblazing in the business arena.
Viola Lllewellyn, co-founder of Ovamba, was perhaps the most captivating speaker at the conference. She highlighted the unique fundamental humanity at the root of our African cultures, something we must use to our own advantage in these emerging markets. “Wakanda is real and it lives inside each and every one of us”, she said. It is important that we continue to embrace our culture and empower people within each and every one of our African nations, because this is something only we ourselves can do. The current innovations of African business women and men are unparalleled. Perhaps the West could learn some lessons from them too.