Last week, Kigali was all business. The talk was business. The manner was business. And real business was done. The world’s top people from business, politics, finance, international development organizations, and many others were in Kigali for the World Economic Forum on Africa meeting to talk about business for the continent.
They talked about opportunities and what to do to take them, about costs and profits and projections for the future of the continent. They even agreed on annual stock-taking, starting with the next meeting in South Africa next year.
There was a marked shift from the past when all that one heard about Africa was its huge potential. That sort of signaled a state of dormancy, of something waiting to be acted upon. And it was, mainly by outsiders. Now the owners are saying they want to be the actors.
Discussions were informed by dollars and cents realism you associate with business people. But those of us who like a rosy picture and spirit-lifting narratives, who would certainly die if the word optimism suddenly fell out of use, were not forgotten.
Everyone – well, not exactly, the humanitarian brigade are still pessimistic – was full of hope that Africa is rising.
They at any rate showed the desire to make it rise. So we can still live with the narrative of Africa rising without feeling guilty that we are living an illusion.
A number of things about how Africa can advance ran through all the discussions. There are not ground-shaking inventions, but common-sense things we have always known.
One of them was integration. I have never heard a more persuasive case for regional economic integration.
Whether the topic was financial inclusion or capital markets, infrastructure or agriculture, manufacturing or ICT, integration was an imperative.
Nearly every example was about something the East African Community is doing. We must be doing lots of things right. As an East African, hearing that was heart-warming.
We are, of course, used to hearing politicians making a passionate case for it. But most think it is the exaggeration of this class who are paid to make the world look better or worse than it really is depending on what they want from us.
The other was technology. It is stating the obvious to say that the person with the better technology will always have the edge in most things. It is equally obvious that whoever can use the technology that has already been created and apply it to their conditions can move a long way to being competitive. That’s why there is all this attraction of the fourth industrial revolution. In whatever technological age, the effect has been to transform production relations and people’s lives. And the key words have always been innovation and application, or as is the case these days, adaptation.
An important tool in this transformation is education – the sort that is aligned to real life problems and that will foster innovation. For most African countries, this means a complete change of the education system in place today.
Implementing all these things means greater investment. Governments recognize that. The business people understand that. Both come together to find ways of raising that all important investment capital. The best way they all agree is through partnerships. That’s a word you hear a lot in business and development discourse.
The meeting has ended and all the important people have gone back home. Rwandans can look back on a successful event. Hopefully we were able to attract serious interest. I don’t do any business, or maybe I do, with words – telling and listening – and I can say I heard many say they will come back to visit and bring others with them. Such were the strong impression and attractions of Rwanda.
But even if there were no immediate interest, the guests took away something else – the way we do things, itself a valuable export. We don’t have patent rights to how we do things, of course, and everyone is free to borrow. If they are gracious, they will remember and even mention that they learnt something from here.
The big lesson for all of us is that Africans are playing their role in moving Africa forward, with other partners of course. In Kigali, a sense of urgency and optimism could be felt.