Bay Area professionals congregated for the inaugural event in Asante Africa Foundation’s Thought Leadership Series to watch a group of passionate individuals discuss the intersection of philanthropy and investment and the opportunities they present in Africa. The event was a success by any standard; influential investors, CEOs and authors came together to debate the merits and opportunities presented by African markets. Hosted Kevin Ichhpurani of SAP, who provided an overview of SAP’s investment in Africa, the program featured two keynote speakers and a panel of participants from a variety of backgrounds moderated by Mark Yolton, Cisco VP of Digital.
The night’s first speaker, Dayo Olopade, gave an uplifting account of her move to Nairobi, where she journeyed as a reporter to tell a true story of opportunity and life on the ground in Africa. It was fascinating to hear the story of The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules, and Making Change in Modern Africa from the author herself, who was able to offer such a fascinating, entertaining, and enlightening image of the capabilities of local entrepreneurs.
Our second keynote speaker, Jake Bright, Whitehead Fellow of the Foreign Policy Association, furthered this message. A former white house staffer, Jake described a different but mutually reinforcing approach he and his colleagues took during the research for the upcoming book The Next Africa: An Emerging Continent becomes a Global Powerhouse. Jake detailed the rise of the ‘Silicon Savannah’ and the importance of defining Africa on its own terms, rather than projecting an external picture of the future of Africa.
The panel discussion, led by Mark Yolton, featured Eghosa Omoigui, who founded EchoVC after 10 years as a lead investor at Intel; Zia Yusuf, CEO of Streetline and former VP at SAP; Tarisai Garande of the African Technology Foundation; and Gathii Kanyi, Kenya Country Manager for Asante Africa Foundation.
Mark led a spirited discussion, which engaged each panelist in their experience of the intersection of philanthropy and investment. Gathii noted that the inefficiencies of philanthropy stem from poor implementation, and are not inherent to the concept. It was widely agreed that the biggest mistake made by philanthropists is to presume Africa’s problems and solutions. Clearly a middle ground empowering Africa’s change agents to solve their own problems offers a ground up solution, but there was philosophical disagreement about where that impetus should come from.
Zia argued against any blending of investment and philanthropy, suggesting that to combine the initiatives only diluted the efficacy of both. However, this delineation was not to denounce one effort in favor of the other. His point, which garnered support from Eghosa, stated that the positive externalities of investing should BE the benefits philanthropists and NGOs seek, but the demarcation should focus on the fact that investment requires a return. Without it, investment cannot succeed in its fundamental goal: to create growth and profit. By simply investing in Africa — and the ubiquity of opportunity was a sentiment echoed by each and every speaker — one can spawn the technologies and infrastructure to create further opportunity.
Our overriding takeaway was that while philanthropy and investment may be different ends, the consequences are inextricably tied. The question is no longer IF there is growth opportunity, but HOW to accelerate and protect the opportunities. There will be failure, but the landscape suggests there will be far more success. By supporting philanthropists doing things the right way, we can create investment opportunities that can in turn create more themselves. Clearly a well-trained workforce will be critical to realizing those opportunities, which leaves us more inspired than ever for the work we do.
While no unanimous verdict was reached on the most effective approach to African development, there is an undeniable buzz in the air about the opportunity. The “cut and paste” model will not work from country to country, but savvy investors and philanthropists will recognize the opportunities in their context and partner with locals to solve the right problems and achieve specific goals. The best piece of advice I heard all night came from Tarisai:
“Visit Africa. Alter your perspective. Collaborate with those on the ground.” I think many perspectives were altered tonight, and despite a difference of opinions in the room, everyone was there for the same reason: they share a passion for Africa’s prosperity, and know that with or without us, Africa’s success story is being written.
More photos from the evening can be viewed or downloaded from our Flickr album. Please visit our website for more information about our work, or if you’re interested in visiting Africa for a new perspective.
– Nick James