UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


Africa summit examines opportunity and strategy in this new business frontier


Increased stability and more transparency in Africa’s emerging markets is inspiring confidence in regional governments, and international investment and technology are flowing there as a result, said the opening keynote speaker for the 2011 Business Across Borders Summit, “Africa: The New Business Frontier,” Nov. 3-4, 2011, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Africa is not just the next frontier but also a hub for game-changing innovation that could change the world,” said Biju Mohandas, director of Acumen Fund in East Africa. Acumen has invested more than $17 million in new ventures in African markets.

M-Pesa, for instance, is one of many new ventures leveraging the explosive growth of cell phone use in Kenya, Mohandas said. M-Pesa enables money transfers using mobile devices. It is changing the face of Kenyan finance. Now, the World Bank has asked the company’s founders to adapt and expand the technology for use in other countries.

“The most exciting thing is that [this new environment] is unleashing the spirit of Africa’s entrepreneurs,” Mohandas said. “Homespun innovation is resulting.”

Summit features experts on the ground

The Business Across Borders Africa summit was organized by MBA Leadership Fellows of the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, who teamed with UNC Kenan-Flagler Africa Business Alliance to organize the event. The UNC Center for International Business Education and Research provides financial and programmatic support for the program.

BAB summits aim to expose students to experts who are doing business on the ground successfully in markets around the world. Students selected Africa for the 2011 summit because of UNC Kenan-Flagler’s focus on expanding school programs there and because of the growing numbers of African students interested in expanding connections with their home countries.

UNC Kenan-Flagler Dean James Dean told participants at the opening keynote that emerging markets in Africa offer opportunities to both learn and contribute. Kenan Institute Director John D. Kasarda added that emerging markets are of interest to the institute because they are learning laboratories that provide opportunities to apply leading-edge knowledge in ways that drive innovation.

The Africa summit featured three keynote addresses and four panels covering topics of interest to students and global business leaders: investing, entrepreneurship, infrastructure and health care.

“There is a lot of growth in Africa and this summit is part of our effort to increase exposure to opportunities for doing business there,” said Katherine O’Herron, the MBA Leadership Fellow who coordinated the event. “We’re also trying to forge a connection between theory learned in the classroom and applied practices to give people a working knowledge of how to move forward with business in Africa.”

Africa Business Alliance President Sam Imende said personal reasons prompted him to help organize the summit.

“I grew up in Kenya and there has been tremendous growth and change there over the past decade,” Imende said. “As countries like the United States look for new frontiers for global expansion, they’re seeing Africa as an attractive opportunity. And as Africa stabilizes, there is a large market potential there.”

Students, faculty, business people gain insights

The summit attracted a diverse mix of students, faculty and staff from across the UNC campus as well as business professionals from the Research Triangle Region and neighboring states.

Mathilde Verdier, a former UNC student who was a social entrepreneur in Ethiopia for four years, said the summit provided both knowledge and the opportunity to network with others interested business development in African markets.

“This event is connecting a lot of dots. Many of the people here today are working all over Africa, and I love hearing about what they’re doing and getting ideas for new opportunities,” said Verdier.

“This is a new conversation happening,” she added. “People are interested in new kinds of challenges, in innovation and in changing the perception of Africans and their desire to drive economic growth.”

First-year Kenan-Flagler MBA student Joshua Gentine spent time in Africa working on starting a hospital and was interested in getting an insider’s understanding of what makes Africa tick and how to manage challenges there.

“Africa is a dynamic environment with a lot of opportunities, but you have to understand how to work in that environment,” Gentine said. The summit was a rich resource for gaining that understanding.

“There are very few opportunities like this for a first-year MBA student to take advantage of,” he said. “That the Kenan Institute does this sort of program is amazing.”

UNC sophomore Kathleen Hayes, a business and journalism major, saw first-hand how the lack of business development hindered societal growth in Africa when she worked there as an English teacher. 

“I learned to appreciate the role of bigger businesses in helping society,” Hayes said. The summit presented a broader perspective in international business, she said. “Campus is kind of a bubble, so it’s important to expose yourself to different perspectives from different societies.”

Brent Lane, director of the Kenan Institute’s Carolina Center for Competitive Economies, attended the summit because he is working on a project in Africa.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to meet colleagues and discuss matters related to Africa,” Lane said. “It’s an unusual gathering. Africa has been a neglected area for business schools in the past and this focus reveals the wonderful resource of human capital available that many people aren’t aware of.”

Henry Lancaster, principal lobbyist with Lancaster, Craig and Associates in Raleigh, said he attended the summit because of a personal interest in the topic of development on the African continent.

“Africa is the last frontier on the planet for human development,” Lancaster said.

“There is a lot of activity going on there but primarily with large corporations. I’m interested in development on a smaller scale, he said. “I’m also interested in whether what’s being done is meeting the real needs of the people there. It’s one thing to extract natural resources and leave. It’s another to help a country grow economically so its people can thrive and improve their lives and benefit from what’s going on.”

For more information on UNC Kenan-Flagler’s activities in Africa, contact UNC Kenan-Flagler assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship Lisa Jones Christensen, who leads the school’s Africa strategy, at lisa_jc@unc.edu.

For more information on the Business Across Borders program, visit the Web site or contact Lingmei Howell, director of outreach for the Kenan Institute, who directs the MBA Leadership Fellows program.