Rethink Your Assumptions About Opportunity in Africa

as seen in the HBR Blog Network

by Jonathan Berman  |   HBR Blog Network September 14, 2012

“There are children starving in Africa. Eat your peas.”

Surely I am not the only person whose first impressions of Africa were shaped along these lines. Whether it was your mother excoriating you about wasting food or an advertisement for Oxfam showing malnourished babies, the earliest impression of Africa many of us have received is of deprivation.

While that’s still a reality, it is by no means the whole reality. More importantly, it is not the reality that will have the greatest impact on Africa’s future, and yours.

The more forward-looking reality is that Africa is a dawning success, a globally-important locus of innovation and sustained growth. In the decade just past, Africa’s economy grew at 5.7% annually. The IMF’s most recent projection (in which it downgraded global growth estimates by one basis point) is that Africa’s economy will continue to grow this year by 5.4%, more than twice the anticipated growth rate of Brazil. For those who wonder if that is growth off a tiny base, it is not. Africa’s formal economy is $1.9 trillion, slightly larger than India’s, and about as big as Russia’s. And, after two slow decades, it is now growing at over 5%.

So, what is Africa? The turnaround story of the new century, and a business opportunity of titanic proportions. Consultancies including McKinsey, BCG, PWC and KPMG have ably documented it. Quality journals like the Financial Times and The Economist (which fully and honorably recanted its unfortunate May 2000 description of Africa as “the hopeless continent”) now report on African growth regularly. Terrific blogs like The Africa Chronicles and How We Made It in Africa take it as a given.

Nonetheless, in my experience the vast majority of businesspeople and policy makers are either unaware of the change underway in Africa or underestimate the associated opportunity. Not long ago, I led a team interviewing thirty of the top global US investors, financial intermediaries and trade experts about Africa. We asked them how many African companies they thought had more than $100 million in annual revenue. The typical response was between 40 and 50. The correct answer is over 500 and over 150 African companies have annual revenue of $1 billion or more, according to the indispensable Africa Report.

For those wishing to see the story clearly, it may be helpful to call out some of the lenses that distort our vision of Africa today and then propose one corrective lens. Let’s start with the distortive lenses. While there are many, this is my informed, if subjective, priority of the top three.

First there’s the preconception of Africa as the embodiment of need. Our mothers, their peas and all the other major influences of childhood have a remarkably persistent impact on our adult, and even professional, perception of Africa. Those perceptions are reinforced by a news media (the above exceptions notwithstanding) that is quick to cover famines, slow to cover successes. By successes I do not mean the occasional ox farmer or microenterprise doing well, which is critical to reducing poverty but of limited interest to a business audience. I mean African business successes at scale, like the mobile banking innovator Safaricom or the world-beating new media company Naspers.

Second, the entertainment sector has built a fortune depicting Africa as a place of happy animals and miserable people. In global entertainment, the only empowered Africans are the Lion King and Idi Amin. Nelson Mandela is doing OK, but only after 27 years in jail. Africans who are not animals, despots or Nelson Mandela are portrayed as suffering under the heel of poverty, war and disease. Think of the last two movies you saw with Africans in them and you’ll see what I mean.

Finally, even when there is reporting on African success, it doesn’t stick because we are rarely exposed to the people leading that success. The data is out there, but fails to penetrate or provide real insight. For that, you need to begin to understand the people succeeding in Africa and their perspective on what it means to win.

I happen to have spoken to two of those people this week. They are quite different, but their perspectives are remarkably similar.

Sam Jonah is the CEO of Jonah Capital, the former CEO of AngloGold Ashanti, and described by Forbes as among the 20 most powerful businessmen in Africa. Born in Ghana, not far from the company’s mines, Sam led Ashanti in its successful bid to become the first African company to list on the NYSE, and today he serves on multiple boards across many of Africa’s growth sectors. I asked Sam what US companies could do better to capture the opportunities in African growth. “Be bold.” he said without hesitation. “You need the full commitment that US companies showed in Europe after WWII, in Mexico with NAFTA, and in China in the current decade. I talk to a lot of US companies ‘looking’ at Africa, testing it on the margins. That will not work. The companies that succeed here take bold, assertive action.”

Perry Cantarutti’s background could not be more different from Sam’s, but his experience bears out Sam’s counsel. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Perry went to business school in Chicago, and joined the aviation industry to “see the world and bridge peoples and cultures.” Today he leads Delta Air Line’s business in the Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Delta began direct flights from the US to Africa with two routes in 2006. Today it is flying direct to five cities, the largest presence of any US airline. “We are committed to Africa for the long term,” Perry told me recently. As an example, he recalled his company’s initial flights into Liberia, a formerly war-torn country now enjoying the growth born of peace and democratic governance. “I was a passenger on our first plane the day we landed in Monrovia (Liberia’s capital). Touching down at that airport was as safe and secure as landing in any airport in our network. To get to that day takes a different investment than we make at home — we were full partners with government in building out that airport, its infrastructure and systems. In many ways it’s the role we played in the earliest days of aviation in theUS.”

Sam’s comments and Perry’s reminded me of a lens through which I sometimes see Africa today: A continent at the dawn of its emergence, a bit like America at the dawn of the last century. The promise is as vast as any I’ve encountered in twenty years in frontier markets. So are the challenges, and the personalities of the men and women rising to meet them.

Jonathan Berman

JONATHAN BERMAN

Jonathan Berman is an author and advisor to Fortune 500 companies and investors operating in frontier markets. His views on frontier markets have appeared in the New York Times, Financial Times and Wall Street Journal’s CFO ledger. His first book, Success in Africa, will be published in 2013.

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About Alexander Gordin
An international merchant banking professional with over twenty years of business operating and advisory experience in the areas of export finance, international project finance, risk mitigation and cross-border business development. Clients include foreign governments, municipalities and state enterprises as well as Fortune 500 and small/medium enterprises. Strong entrepreneurial instincts, combined with leadership and strategic skills. Transactional and negotiations experience in over thirty five countries. Author of the highly acclaimed "Fluent in Foreign Business" book and creator of the "Fluent in OPIC", "Fluent in EXIM","Fluent In Foreign Franchising", "Fluent in FCPA",and "Fluent in USTDA" seminar/webinar series. Currently developing "Fluent In ......" seminars and publications. Co-author of the Fi3 Country Business Appeal Indices. Extensive international business development and project finance transaction experience in healthcare, aerospace, ICT, conventional and alternative energy infrastructure, distribution and hospitality industries. Experience managing international public and private corporations. Co-Founded three companies abroad. Strong Emerging and Frontier Market expertise. Published and featured in numerous publications including: The Wall Street Journal, Knowledge@Wharton, NBC.com, The Chicago Tribune, Industry Week, Industry Today, Business Finance, Wharton Magazine Blog, NY Enterprise Report, Success magazine, Kyiv Post and on a number of radio and television programs including: Voice of America, CNBC, CNNfn, and Bloomberg. Frequent speaker on strategy, cross-border finance and international business development. Executive MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. B.S. in Management of Information Systems from the Polytechnic Institute of NYU. Specialties Strategic Management Advisory, Export Finance, International Project Finance & Risk Management, Cross-border Negotiations, Structured Finance transactions, Senior Government and Corporate officials liason

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