The narrative surrounding Africa in global discourse is often dishearteningly skewed towards the need for external aid and intervention, with insufficient acknowledgment of the continent’s vast reservoirs of self-reliance, untapped potential, and inherent opportunities. A recent event, however, presented a potent counterpoint to this skewed perspective. Held at Georgetown University in May, the 8th edition of the Georgetown Africa Business Conference provided a platform for a more balanced dialogue. The conference, themed “The Future is Africa: Harnessing Opportunities for A Prosperous Continent”, presented an array of views highlighting the broad spectrum of economic possibilities that Africa presents.
Three distinguished keynote speakers graced the conference with their insights. Bobby Pittman, the founding partner at Kupanda Capital, addressed the issues and potential embedded in Africa’s burgeoning creative and entertainment industry. Antoinette Sayeh, another keynote speaker, concentrated her address on the revolutionary impact of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) on Africa’s economic development. However, it was Travis Adkins, the President and CEO of the U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF), who drew significant attention with his impassioned call to action, urging the African diaspora to invest in Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs), which he characterized as the linchpin of Africa’s economy.
Adkins’ keynote speech was particularly noteworthy for the depth of understanding and insight it revealed. As the leader of the USADF, an organization that has dedicated over forty years to Africa’s economic independence, he spoke from a wealth of experience. He delineated the unique advantages that the USADF’s focus on Africa, its direct investments in African entrepreneurs, and its workforce composed entirely of African nationals afforded the organization over other U.S. agencies.
In his address, Adkins didn’t shy away from historical realities, acknowledging the persistent global scramble for Africa’s resources. Despite its vast resources and its population of innovative individuals, Africa has been unjustly portrayed in a narrative dominated by poverty and conflict. Adkins advocated for a paradigm shift towards recognizing the significant potential inherent in Africa’s women and youth. As a majority demographic, women and youth are central to Africa’s economy, its legal and political sectors, and form a substantial part of the SME sector.
Adkins warned against using GDP and national rankings as the sole indicators of a nation’s progress. These metrics, he pointed out, fail to capture intra-country disparities and can often gloss over serious issues such as political instability, conflict, and mass migrations. This nuanced perspective is particularly relevant to Africa, considering the risks that economic migrants are often willing to take in their search for better opportunities.
SMEs occupied a central position in Adkins’ discussion. He laid out five reasons for their crucial role in Africa’s economic fabric: their capacity for employment generation, their ability to stimulate innovation, their contribution to poverty reduction, their significant role in economic growth, and their potential to boost exports.
However, the road to success for SMEs is fraught with obstacles. Adkins identified limited access to finance, deficient infrastructure, and restricted market access, particularly for rural SMEs, as major hurdles. He also pointed to limited business skills and a challenging regulatory and policy environment as significant impediments. Yet, Adkins assured that these are challenges that the USADF is actively addressing through direct investment in SMEs and the provision of technical assistance. Moreover, the USADF emphasizes the development of off-grid energy solutions, fosters market connections, and is committed to capacity building through vocational training for local businesses.
Adkins further pointed to climate change as an impending challenge. He recounted sobering experiences from a trip to San Louis, where rising sea levels wrought havoc on communities and livelihoods. In response, the USADF is committed to providing robust support to affected communities and developing strategies for adapting traditional livelihoods to the changing climate.
Adkins stressed that investing in human capital through education, healthcare, skill development, and public-private partnerships is crucial for securing Africa’s prosperous future. He advocated for a shift in the narrative surrounding Africa, promoting it as a partner rather than a passive recipient of aid. He highlighted the fact that remittances from the African diaspora exceed foreign direct investment and development assistance, arguing this illustrates Africa’s capacity for self-reliance. Adkins stated that the USADF’s promotion of cross-border trade and infrastructure development seeks to leverage this potential, fostering regional, continental, and international collaborations.
As a strong advocate for cross-border trade and infrastructure development, USADF supports regional and continental collaborations and facilitates the export of African goods to international markets. A testament to the success of this approach is the increasing presence of African SMEs in major retail stores such as Walmart, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Target, and Yes Market. Backed by USADF investments, these enterprises are meeting international standards and transforming the narrative of Africa’s economic potential on the global stage.
Concluding his address, Adkins issued a rallying call to the conference attendees, inviting them to participate in shaping Africa’s promising future. He underscored the importance of a collective belief in the capacity of the African people and the continent’s rich potential, asserting that even the smallest contributions can catalyze significant impacts. This invitation extends not just to those of the African diaspora, but to all who recognize Africa’s potential and wish to be a part of its blossoming future.
The Future is indeed Africa, and it is time that the world recognizes this, not merely as a future recipient of assistance, but as a partner brimming with potential and opportunities. The recognition of this reality, paired with the right investments and collaborations, has the power to yield a prosperous Africa and a brighter future for us all.