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The Africa Debate: Africa’s role in a changing global order

On Thursday 6th June we, together with Adrian Mayer, Head of Charles Russell Speechlys’ Africa practice and Victoria Younghusband, Corporate Partner, had the pleasure of attending the tenth anniversary edition of Invest Africa’s flagship event, The Africa Debate. Hosted in London’s Guildhall, the event gathered a fantastic array of those involved in the African investment ecosystem for a recap on recent trends and a degree of horizon-gazing in respect of what might be coming down the track.

Invest Africa (in its current and previous forms) has been gathering leaders from the business and investment community for over six decades now and its pedigree for attracting the best and brightest operating on the continent was on full display at the debate. With a packed roster of excellent speakers, the event provided fertile ground for thought-provoking discussions on a wide range of contemporary issues.    

Whilst the strength of the event lay in part in the variety of its participants and the multiplicity of views represented, a few key themes were repeated throughout the sessions, which are worth recapping. 

The changing nature of African economies was a persistent theme, with one repeated message being the need to move away from exporting raw materials in favour of exporting intermediate and finished goods instead. Fantastic examples of success were quoted, including by Gagan Gupta, Co-Founder of the Arise Group, who spoke about the transition from exporting raw cotton to garments and the positive economic impact of this shift. 

Idris Elba, putting aside his trademark trench coat and instead donning his investor/entrepreneur hat, spoke passionately about the opportunity afforded the continent by its youthful population, a point that was picked up and repeated by others in later sessions. The demography of Africa creates opportunities that might not be available to other economies facing the challenges linked with aging populations. This opportunity, however, was delivered with the strong caveat that it remains an opportunity and not a certainty, with speakers keen to stress that capitalising on it requires policymakers and business leaders to create an environment that can nurture and develop young talent. 

The concept of “leapfrogging” was also repeated several times, both in respect of the clean energy transition and in the technological transition to new ways of working. Various participants spoke of the ability of African economies, which are not burdened by the degree of legacy power systems or reliant on the early tech architecture that many Western nations carry, to instead adopt the most up-to-date systems and ways of working. In one of the most thought-provoking discussions of the day, focusing on the opportunities and risks presented by AI, representatives from Google, Meta Holdings, Cassava Technologies and InstaDeep set out a compelling vision of how AI can, if properly harnessed, provide young African entrepreneurs with an excellent platform from which to forge new paths in the digital economy and in doing so achieve exponential growth. 

Overall, whilst political and economic headwinds were acknowledged, both locally and on the global stage, the resounding message from those operating “on the ground” was one of cautious optimism, with opportunities very much available for those businesses and economies that choose to take them. 

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