FORUM: Africa

Unreasonable Africa - Could business help to build a more prosperous and resilient Africa?

‘Through entrepreneurship, we can create real economic value for ourselves and for our shareholders, whilst also helping to solve some of the greatest challenges that face the continent today’

Ladi Delano, founder and Managing Partner, Grace Lake Partners

Words: John Coutts

Despite the continent's vast human potential and natural wealth, many African nations remain weighed down by corruption, poverty and social injustice. Why is this? And what role could businesses play in transforming the fortunes and resilience of the continent?

These were among the questions explored by speakers at the Oxford Business Forum Africa 2016, hosted by Saïd Business School and the Oxford Business Network for Africa in March. The event - provocatively headlined Unreasonable Africa - brought leaders from major companies, start-ups, government and civil society from across Africa together with thought leaders, students and alumni from the University of Oxford.

In her keynote speech, Dolika Banda, Regional Director for Africa, Commonwealth Development Corporation, outlined the frustrations she encountered on returning to live in Zambia after years working away from the country.

She described how even routine tasks - such as getting a new passport or driving licence - can be implausibly difficult. 'Nothing works unless you scream, shout, cry, pull rank or bribe. Those are the choices you have in almost everything you do on a daily basis,' observed Banda.

Those choices are emblematic of the dilemma facing millions of Africans every day. Do you fight the system? Or just pay up? Confronting injustice starts with saying "No"? when things are clearly wrong, said Banda. 'I screamed, I shouted, I cried. But I refused to pull rank and I refused to bribe.'

‘The majority of our countries lack a leadership that has a vision, a strategy and a care for their people’

The root cause of many of the problems facing Africa can be laid squarely at the door of leadership, said Banda. 'I cannot speak for all of our countries, but I can speak the truth and say that the majority of our countries lack a leadership that has a vision, a strategy and a care for their people.'

The idea that those who are privileged have an obligation to help those who are not has been abandoned, she said. And she was scathing about the leadership of her native Zambia. 'I cannot sit by and let my country be led by people who say the right things, but are incredibly successful at doing the wrong things.'

Banda, though, is optimistic. Individual resilience and a willingness to be "unreasonable"? in a positive way, she said, hold the key to a brighter future. 'The moment I said to myself, "I'm not going to tolerate this, I'm going to make it work"?, my mindset changed and I started to find more people who felt the same way,' she said. 'This is beginning to define the vision of leadership: the private self becoming part of the public good.'

Entrepreneurs for change

The role of business in promoting social change - and tackling youth unemployment in particular - was emphasised by Nigerian entrepreneur Ladi Delano, Saïd Business School alumnus, founder and Managing Partner of investment firm Grace Lake Partners.

‘We have a duty to respond and rise to the challenge of reducing youth unemployment’

'Youth unemployment poses a threat to all of our businesses,' said Delano. "I believe that we have a duty to respond and rise to the challenge of reducing youth unemployment as it will not only benefit our businesses, but also our people.'

Half the population of sub-Saharan Africa is under 25 years of age. Yet the continent's demographic advantage is being wasted through high levels of youth unemployment.

Delano explained how he restructured his businesses to stimulate youth employment, citing the work of Porter and Kramer on shared value as a key inspiration. 'We now ensure that all our investments are focused exclusively in labour-intensive sectors such as agriculture, mining and retail.'

An example of this is Grace Lake Partners' current work in the pharmaceutical retail sector in Nigeria. The company is in the process of opening ten stores this year with plans to increase the total to 30 in 2017. The aim is to provide access to affordable and authenticated drugs, as well as trained pharmacists - vital in a country where the pharmacy is the primary source of medical advice for many.

'We haven't stopped there,' said Delano. 'We've also founded an academy that specialises in adult education for our support staff and neighbourhood youth. With our support, 80% of the graduating class in 2015 have been admitted to universities across the country.'

Education changes lives. One of the academy's alumni arrived in Lagos as a refugee after fleeing the north-east of Nigeria, much of which is under the control of the extremist group Boko Haram. 'He worked here for a year and a half as a security guard, went through classes and now he's studying up at university,' said Delano. As well as providing opportunities for young people, initiatives of this sort play a wider part in combating the costs and risks associated with high youth unemployment, including crime and political unrest.

'Through entrepreneurship, we can create real economic value for ourselves and for our shareholders, whilst also helping to solve some of the greatest challenges that face the continent today,' said Delano.

At a time of mounting political and economic uncertainty, it's a message that has implications not only for Africa but also for the world beyond.

OBA in Africa

Launched in September 2015, the Oxford Business Alumni Johannesburg Chapter is the School's first alumni chapter in Africa and it's looking to recruit more members.

If you're interested in joining or just want to know more about what's going on, please get in touch by emailing: Johannesburg.Chapter@oba.co.uk