I'd imagine most Americans have grown up with the image of Africa as a place in need of tremendous aid - snapshots of children with distended bellies in fruit fly infested villages. No food. No infrastructure - and certainly no thriving business world. But, last night, I witnessed a very different image of Africa. In this Africa, I saw and heard stories of business owners - just like those who likely read this site - building and growing businesses throughout their continent: A children's clothing manufacturer in Nigeria, a bank in Ghana, a flower exporter in Kenya, and an international airline in Somalia. And those are just a handful. Who knew?
Apparently, Carol Pineau. She produced "Africa: Open for Business," a documentary film funded by the World Bank premiering in the U.S. and Canada this week. The Africa-America Institute hosted a screening last night here in New York. In the film, Pineau, an American journalist, profiled 10 business owners in Somalia, Congo, Botswana, Uganda, Zambia, Lesotho, Kenya, Dakar, Ghana, and Nigeria. While the rest of the world has turned its attention to Asia and India for examples of emerging economies, it turns out there are quite a few things American business owners could gain from their African counterparts, too.
Each business profiled in the film has its challenges, but each also has experienced tremendous growth. For instance, Vodacom, a cellular phone company in Kinshasa, Congo, grew to nearly one million users in three years' time. The company's founder and chairman, Alieu Conteh, has said his company claims 49 percent of the African cellular market - and counting. Daallo Airlines, a company in Somalia, was born shortly after the Somali government collapsed. At first, the company offered a few short flights within Africa. It now serves customers traveling to Paris and London and competes with four other carriers in the market.
Pineau is quick to assert this growth is not uncharacteristic - nor without attention from the investment community. The Corporate Council on Africa reports that foreign direct investment inflows to Africa increased from $12 billion in 2002 to $15 billion in 2003.
While these companies grow, they seem to be taking pretty good care of their employees and communities while they are at it. According to Pineau, a good number of these small business employers offer free lunches, on-site healthcare, and access to vitamin supplements for HIV treatment. Clearly, there is no such thing as the perfect business climate (if there were, we'd be out of business). And the film's entrepreneurs were quite clear about the problems they face: High costs on importing equipment from abroad; frequent lapses in electricity; a lack of resources and fuzzy government regulations, and the like. But it seems Pineau is onto something. Africa may in fact be open for business - and not just for Africans.