HBS Africa Business Conference – Disruption was Promised and Served

Guest Post from Nduka Nwankwo: 
I was admittedly excited when I learned of the theme for Harvard Business School’s Africa Business Conference (HBS ABC) this year. It was the first time I had seen “disruption” being celebrated on this scale. Growing up in Nigeria, I was often called a trouble-maker, jaga jaga, scatter scatter, master of disruption— so when I saw Harvard was celebrating this, I took it as a special celebration for people like me; For Africans Like Me Who Considered Disruption When the Status Quo Wasn’t Enough. So I came to Boston ready for disruption and disruption was served. Here are 3 lessons that either altered my mode of thinking or dislodged the current status of Affairs in Africa.

“We Need a Consolidation of Entrepreneurship in Africa”— Sam Alemayehu
First of all, Sam’s energy is disruptive, so much so that when our room’s microphone was not working, he disrupted the mic with his booming voice and his message was loud and clear. We need a consolidation of entrepreneurship in Africa. While there seems to be a trend of empowering entrepreneurs and promoting entrepreneurship as the way out— Sam pointed out the notion of inefficient entrepreneurship with many entrepreneurs  operating in silos  without thinking of the potential benefits of consolidation or the economies of scale that can be achieved thereof.  
The Importance of Intentionality – Chi Achebe
Chi Achebe (Founder of ResPot) made a number of amazing points regarding developing custom made solutions to solve Africa’s unique problems. The underlying message of her points, which were also verbalized, was the importance of intentionality. Too often, founders come up with an idea and a vision of what problem they want to solve and in what ways they want to go about it. Many of these innocent and pure ideas get adulterated by investors who want the entrepreneurs to go in a different direction, usually so they can make revenue faster or perhaps make more revenue. While business is governed by the laws of capitalism and investors need to make back their investment (and hopefully profit), it was refreshing to hear an entrepreneur and founder talk about the importance of staying true to one’s vision and mission but most importantly staying true to the needs of the African people. I have often argued that Africa’s problems are vast, intricate and not always quickly profitable; so I appreciated hearing an entrepreneur emphasize the importance of being intentional in the problem we’re trying to solve.
Creating Products with the African Customer in Mind
A McKinsey report exclaims that the single largest business opportunity in Africa will be its rising consumer market. As these consumers gain more disposable income and sophistication, they will begin to reject products that simply take a western product and ship it to African markets. These consumers will want products that were created with them in mind— and the difference is clear, when this is the case. According to McKinsey, Africa’s consumer-facing industries are expected to grow by $400 billion by 2020—in six years’ time. One of the overarching points made throughout multiple panels at HBC ABC was the importance of developing locally relevant, quality products. This notion of local relevance doesn’t start when the product is produced and being marketed— it starts in the product development phase; success in the future belongs to the entrepreneurs who develop products for the African consumer. These products need to be created with an understanding of what African customers consider quality and will cater directly to the consumer’s lifestyle and daily needs. The second layer to creating for the African customer in mind is to invest in understanding local buying behaviours. Though we discuss Africa as a whole, entrepreneurs must understand that different segments of the African market possess different buying behaviours and must cater to each unique segment. Take it one step further, design with the African consumer in mind, then customize to the local product preferences and buying behaviours.
Nduka Nwankwo
Nduka Nwankwo works as a buy-side investment analyst where he focuses on structured debt securities. He is passionate about the economic empowerment of women, early educational opportunities and social impact investing. Nduka received a B.A. in Economics from Pepperdine University and lives in San Francisco. You can follow him on twitter @Ndukaku.

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