Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria: One of Africa’s major business and financial centres. Picture: EDUCATION IMAGES/UIG VIA GETTY IMAGES
Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria: One of Africa’s major business and financial centres. Picture: EDUCATION IMAGES/UIG VIA GETTY IMAGES

In a European hotel, in rooms named after Africa’s economic hubs, business leaders from the continent close deals, network and debate about solutions to some of Africa’s economic woes.

The Africa CEO Forum was held in Geneva at the end of March to ignite a dialogue and rethink the "business model" for the continent, to remain relevant in a changing and competitive environment.

The general consensus is that the "Africa rising" narrative is still in full force but SA and Nigeria are lagging behind.

Amir Ben Yahmed, founder and president of the forum, says declining growth across Africa has renewed the urgency to come up with solutions.

"Even more alarming is the fact that the two biggest economies in Africa, Nigeria and SA, which produce 32% of the continent’s production, have been very badly affected."

For Africa’s top two, it’s been a trying year. SA’s GDP growth dropped to 0.3% in 2016 while Nigeria’s economic growth contracted by 1.51%, the first negative GDP growth since 1991.

The forum began with the launch of the African CEO barometer to measure confidence and expectations in Africa’s private sector, based on replies from more than 1,000 CEOs.

The barometer showed that 61% believed their activities were negatively affected by the global economic downturn in the past few months. The two biggest demands were to improve the business climate (83%) and to fight fraud and corruption (65%).

The barometer also picked up on new trends in emerging countries. Senegal and Morocco were not affected by the decline, while Nigeria and Cameroon remained optimistic in spite of being affected. Kenya and the DRC were not affected by the downturn, but CEOs were pessimistic about their future.

The Africa CEO Forum attempts to challenge the narrative and tries to create solutions from within the continent. While the forum could have been nothing more than a networking event over decadent fondue and Swiss chocolate, it’s been successful in rounding up the best from across the continent and sparking debate.

Pierre Guislain, Africa Development Bank vice-president of private sector, infrastructure & industrialisation, challenged governments to fully embrace, motivate and unleash the potential of the private sector to boost Africa’s economic growth.

A renewed call was also made for the private sector to find common ground with government. With presidents from Ghana and Senegal present, the engagement bridged the gap between public and private.

Ghanaian president Nana Akufo-Addo and Senegalese president Macky Sall looked at how subregions can work more closely together with the rise in demand for economic nationalism and protectionism.

Akufo-Addo argued that too much of Africa’s development has been centred on events outside the continent’s borders and there was a need to focus more on the African context.

"Ghana needs to go beyond aid and charity and depend on its own resources and thinking," he said.

The two leaders agreed that a free trade zone across Africa was the key to development. Intra-continental trade in Africa is the lowest on the globe, according to the World Trade Organisation, with trade between African countries at 18%, against 52% for Asia and 69% for Europe.

The forum started and ended on its core message — innovation is Africa’s strength.

The success stories are characterised by innovative African entrepreneurs contributing to creating a new model that may have been inspired by the creation of others, but rather adapts them to local realities.

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