On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to attend the Africa Trade and Investment Global Summit (ATIGS). It was a three day conference jam packed with valuable information and ample opportunity to network. It’s the first of it’s kind of the organizers plan to move it to a different country every 2 years, so getting to catch it right here in Washington, D.C. was a real treat.
This year’s ATIGS theme was “Driving Trade, Unleashing Investment and Enhancing Economic Development: the Gateway to African Markets” and had a plethora of speakers, panels, exhibits and other engaging content. To be perfectly honest, it was all a bit overwhelming and could have probably been a week-long conference – but I’m sure the logistics for that would be out of control.
I think that idea of overwhelm and so much to cover/talk about perfectly sums up the general gist of doing business in Africa – the possibilities are endless, it can be a bit overwhelming to know where to start, but if one knows where to look and dives in prepared, the rewards are limitless. And that was essentially the approach I took to attending this conference.
I was there with the Young African Professional (YAP) network for just Tuesday. After looking at the program and seeing all the interesting and concurrent sessions, I decided to star and widdle down the ones I absolutely must attend. I was able to narrow it to three sessions and the opening panel – thus giving me time to also work on client projects between sessions.
So after attending the opening speakers, “The Future is Female: Investing in Women, the Gateway to Disrupting Africa’s Economic Development,” “African Fashion & Beauty Business,” and “Bridging the Diaspora and Africa” and just generally soaking in the atmosphere of the event, here are my 5 key takeaways from the ATIGS.
1. Africa is open for business
Ali Bunow Korane, Governor of Garissa County, Kenya proudly proclaimed at the end of his speech “Africa is open for business.” He further clarified that “any investor who is waiting for Africa to be like America, there won’t be any business opportunities left for you by that time. People are already investing now. Turn African challenges into investment opportunities. The time is now.”
What powerful words, and a good time to be reminded that Africa has some of the fastest growing economies in the world. During this session, we also learned about measures that different blocs are putting in place to promote trade across their borders. With all these advances and encouragements, I just hope we are also making it easier for local talent to build up businesses and not just removing the barriers for multinational corporations. I also hope we are putting in stipulations for those corporations to hire and train local talent.
2. Education is Key
Whether it’s convincing people that your beauty products are worth their price, or teaching young boys and girls about respecting women and girls – educating African communities is also key to moving forward.
During the African Fashion and Beauty Business, panelists Maisie Dunbar from Liberia, and Akinyi Odongo from Kenya, both talked about how they have to educate their markets on why their products are so “expensive.” It turns out wanting to pay for ‘local’ things at a cheap price, but being willing to “splurge” on imported goods is not just an ailment in Nigeria.
Many people don’t understand the price tags of Maisie’s or Akinyi’s high end products. Rather than compromise their quality or try to sell to the West, the two women chose instead to educate their target markets on the quality of their products and the importance of buying local. From the looks of it, that educational business approach is working quite well.
Educating people on such products, is about a change in mindset: to stop viewing local products as being equivalent to cheap products and convincing people that they deserve nothing less than the best.
Education is also key when teaching those in the West about consuming African products. I asked the panel a question about whether or not promoting “Afrocentric” attire, while it helps put African fashion center stage, does it have he adverse effect of reinforcing the narrative that sub-saharan Africa is a monolith? Does it put the cultural differences on the back burner in preference of an Afrocentric culture that can be used to promote clothing and other goods?
Anika, who was also on the panel, took the question and agreed that it can certainly seem like that on the surface, but rather what’s best is to use the “Afrocentric” attire as an invitation and first step. And once they are interested, you are then able to educate them about the cultural differences of Kente vs. Aso Oke and how different patterns tell different stories.
In the “Future is Female” session with Chiddy Ukonne, Pauline Muchina, PhD,talked about the importance of not just using NGOs to “help” African women, but rather giving them the resources and education they need to invest in business, themselves and their communities.
3. African aunties and uncles will forever be African aunties and uncles
Have to throw in a little humor for you in this! Essentially, a few other young women and I noticed that after sessions, when we tried to go chat with a speaker, older African men and women felt completely fine pushing us aside, talking over us, etc. to get to the speaker first.
This is something I’ve talked about in the Vices Holding Nigeria back – but essentially, a lot of older Nigerians don’t feel the need to extend the respect they demand from the younger generation. I didn’t talk to any African men around my age, so I’m not sure if it was just because we were petite young women, but pushing people aside or speaking over them is never acceptable behavior in a professional setting. Let’s save that for the village and our living rooms.
4. If you want something take it yourself
I noticed the attempt to brush me aside, as mentioned above, but I consistently stood my ground until I was finished conversing with a speaker. This is a mindset that we must have going into business anywhere in the world, but particularly in African markets – because people will try to push you aside or exclude.
As women, we can’t wait to keep convincing men of our worthiness and humanity.
I was inspired by Akinyi Odongo, founder and creative director of a high end fashion house in Kenya, because she didn’t wait for high end fashion lines to come to Kenya – no, she decided to start one herself using the vast wealth – but human and natural – available in Kenya and in the different African countries where she runs production. The moderator tried to drill her about if and how she was trying to expand to Western markets, and she stood her ground in insisting that Kenya and surrounding markets were her customers. If Western buyers are interested in her stuff, they can come, but for now, she was already in her focus market.
Similarly, Chiddy Ukonne encouraged all the women in the room of her “Future is Female” session, that they shouldn’t wait for the men to give them a seat at the table, instead bring a folding chair. And I’ll take it one step further and say, we can also just go make our own table. As women, we can’t wait to keep convincing men of our worthiness and humanity – we have to go out and just take what we want for ourselves, which is why it’s essential that we support each other in those endeavors.
5. We have to tell our own stories
Finally, one of the biggest recurring themes in the sessions and throughout the day was the importance of Africans telling our own stories whether that was in the fashion business, attracting investors, or fighting sexual harassment in the workplace.
Pauline Muchina, PHD, talked about how one of the biggest barriers to women in the workplace was sexual harassment. She’s listened to countless women tell her stories of their boss raping them or being coerced into sex as the only way to advance in their career – it’s a rampant and terrible practice. She insisted that the only way to combat this is to speak up and out, despite the stigma and potential backlash – women must continue to tell their stories until this is no longer a norm. That said, it’s also important that we stop stigmatizing and shaming those brave enough to step up and share their story.
All three panelist of on the African Fashion and Beauty Business panel reiterated how important it was to tell the story of the business the fabrics, the sourcing, the designers and artisans who make it. This way, people aren’t just blindly consuming what you sell, but rather get a deeper appreciation for the products and the cultures that they come from.
Similar to that, it’s essential that Africans tell our own stories, because the stories out there on mainstream news outlets are mostly of war and poverty. The images do not paint an accurate picture of the Africa’s various booming economies, emerging markets, resilient communities and creative individuals.
In order to engage the African diaspora, attract investors and foster growth, it’s imperative that Africans at home and at abroad are telling our own stories and sharing the Africa we know and love.
Al Michael Ntsama, CEO of African Insiders, noted during the Bridging the Diaspora and Africa session that when his site puts up stories of bad or sad news from the continent, it gets infinitely more clicks that positive stories or historically enlightening pieces. Those kinds of numbers can be very discouraging – but he is using that bias against them and their video “Why you shouldn’t go to Africa,” has over a million views even though the content is actually reasons why you SHOULD go! Clever.
And I believe that despite the numbers, despite the stigma, we must always ALWAYS tell our own stories because no one will ever be able to tell it quite like us and with the goals and intentions that we have in telling them.
This sentiment was further confirmed for me when I attended the YAP book signing later that day and Politics & Prose, which featured Abdi Nor Iftin and his new book “Call Me American.” His story of escaping Somalia, being a refugee in Kenya and finally winning the green card lottery to the U.S., highlights the power of living in your truth, telling your story and sharing it with the world. It was a perfect day to wrap up a day full of uplifting and celebrating Africa and its people.
What was the last event you attended that really got you jazzed up and excited to live in your truth and share your story? Let me know below – do you even like conferences?