Friday April 26th and Saturday April 27th, 2019 may not represent much to most people, but these two days were among the most significant in the MBA journey of the organising team for the 2019 Business in Africa Conference. They represented the culmination of six months worth of effort, and a truly rewarding and transformational experience. With a successful conference now behind us, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the key takeaways of the conference as well as my experience helping to organise it.
The annual Business in Africa Conference is organised by MBA students who have a passion for Africa at Cambridge Judge Business School. This is the 8th consecutive year that the conference was held at CJBS, and I am honoured to be a part of the team that was responsible for organising it. This conference is one of the largest annual conferences held at CJBS and attracts business leaders, students and professionals with an interest in business in Africa as well as other emerging markets. I had the pleasure to work alongside my MBA class mates Thabo Lenneiye and Steeve Tchatchuing, as well as with Rivha Kamara from the MFin programme in planning this event.
The conference opened with a gala dinner at Queens’ College on Friday April 26th. The magical Old Hall provided the perfect ambiance for an evening of networking and great conversations with a diverse group of people with an interest in or genuine curiosity about the future of Africa. It is not everyday that one gets to dine in a majestic venue that was constructed in the 15th century (even if you’re studying at Cambridge!). Our key note speaker for the evening was Mr. Jimoh Ibrahim, who offered some interesting insights into the opportunities and challenges for growth in Africa. The gala dinner provided an inspiring start to the conference, providing a platform for participants to get to know each other before the conference the next day.
A gusty and rainy morning greeted us on Saturday April 27th, but it did not dampen our spirits as we got ready to welcome hundreds of delegates into CJBS for the conference. An extra buzz of excitement and laughter filled the venue as gown-clad graduates from last year’s MBA class, who were having their graduation photo taken that morning, swarmed around the building. This brief, exciting glimpse into the future did not distract us as we finalised some last-minute logistics to ensure a smooth entry for our delegates and speakers.
The conference was opened by Professor Christoph Loch, the director of Cambridge Judge Business School, who highlighted some thought-provoking trends that should be discussed as we delved deeper into discussing growth in Africa. He was followed by our first keynote speaker for the day Mr. Moeletsi Mbeki. Mr. Mbeki talked about some of the main challenges to growth in Africa and encouraged the young people in the audience to use the opportunity that a good education provides them to think of solutions to some of these challenges in order to help unlock Africa’s potential.
We sought to make the conference as interactive as possible, giving the audience plenty of opportunities to ask questions and contribute to the discussion after each keynote speech, as well as during each of our 4 panel sessions. The energy in the room was sustained throughout the day by our brilliant master of ceremonies Hunter Sims, an MBA classmate of ours.
Our first panel session was called “The Africa Infrastructure Imperative”. With speakers ranging from a variety of sectors including private equity, development finance, investment banking, and consulting, this panel delved into some of the challenges and opportunities to develop conducive infrastructure in Africa.
Our second panel session, “Responsible Investment – A Good Business Model”, discussed how entrepreneurs have addressed social and environmental issues, while creating profitable businesses in Africa, stimulating economic growth on the continent. Once again, the variety of industries our panelists came from showed the incredible breadth of sectors that can benefit from responsible investing.
The lunch break provided delegates and speakers an opportunity to mingle and make new connections. The smiles on the faces of the participants was heartwarming to the organising team as we approached the halfway point of the conference.
Our second keynote speaker for the day was Mr. Ayo Adepoju, who talked about the changing landscape of banking in Africa, and the impact of technology on the financial sector. He emphasised a strong belief in the immense opportunities in Africa as it is on a trajectory of world leading growth across multiple sectors. He encouraged the younger Africans in the audience to use their vision, passion and talent to take advantage of the opportunities to bring impactful economic, environmental and social transformation to Africa.
This provided a great transition into our next panel session, “Financing Growth Through Disruption”. Our speakers brought a variety of insights into the exciting world of alternative finance in Africa. We had the special privilege of having two panelists that were the original creators of the world-renowned M-Pesa payments platform. They provided some valuable insights into the thought process behind M-Pesa and the opportunities in the mobile payments space in Africa going forward.
Our final panel session, “The Digital Continent” focussed on Africa’s rapidly growing technology sector. Our panelists discussed some of the innovative applications of technology in Africa as well as the challenges and opportunities that come with Africa’s tech revolution. They talked about the immense impact that technology businesses can have by using platform-based business models to provide a variety of services to the fastest growing population on the planet.
At the end of the day, we had the honour of inviting Dr. Namukale Chintu, an alumna of Cambridge Judge Business School, and one of the original founders of the Cambridge Africa Business Network to deliver the closing remarks at the conference. She reflected on how, from humble beginnings, the Cambridge Africa Business Network has grown from strength to strength. She delivered an inspiring closing speech, full of optimism and motivation for those of us in the audience on the verge of embarking on the next step in our careers.
When we embarked upon the journey to organise this conference at the start of the academic year, we could not have imagined the variety of challenges that were coming our way. However, each challenge provided us with a valuable learning opportunity, and an opportunity to apply the very skills we came to business school to enhance. Nevertheless, we did not achieve this success on our own. The conference would not have been possible without the help of many of our classmates who sacrificed their time and offered their support by volunteering in a variety of roles including web-design, content design, marketing, social media, registration, hosts and logistics. To them we would like to say a big thank you.
Looking back over the last few months, I’m pleased to say that organising the Business in Africa Conference was a fantastic experience that I am grateful to have been part of. It has definitely been one of the highlights of my MBA journey at Cambridge!
You can find more information about the conference and the Cambridge Africa Business Network here: www.cambridgeabn.org