Conference Africa is now big business

The business of organising conferences is growing ferociously; today, there is an Africa-oriented event taking place practically every day across the continent and beyond. These vary in size, style and content but what is undeniable is that there seems to be an insatiable appetite to chew the cud over all issues African. African Business looks at one of the continent’s latest and most rapidly expanding industries.

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As the publishers of several pan-African magazines, we are frequently approached to participate in these conferences. The logic goes that media houses have the audience, the knowledge and the clientele, three key ingredients to putting together a successful event.

From our side, and as many media groups worldwide do, organising events is another method of leveraging on our strengths and diversifying our activities and revenue streams.

In terms of size, prestige and clout, the undoubted leader in this field is the World Economic Forum (WEF). The motto of the organisation is simple: to contribute to improving the state of the world, but implications are profound. WEF’s flagship annual event, traditionally held in the Swiss city of Davos, is one of the global discussion highlights and invariably attracts the cream of the world’s political and business leaders. African representation is becoming an increasingly important plank in the composition of the delegations. No less than eight African heads of state participated in this year’s event.

But for the private sector, which makes up the larger part of participants, entry is severely circumscribed to control numbers and to ensure that those who do turn up have something worthwhile to contribute.

To qualify, your business has to be of a certain size, your representative must have a required degree of seniority and lastly, you must be prepared to pay the $20,000 delegate fee.

Today, the Forum has grown to such an extent that there is as much happening outside the congress centre (parties, receptions and business meetings) as there is inside, where the panel discussions and keynote addresses take place. One executive at a consultancy had secured 100 meetings over the five days, or 20 back-to-back meetings per day!

WEF’s regional event in Africa, attracts over 1,000 delegates made up of policy makers, businessmen and civil society (academia, not for profit organisations, etc.). The last event in Cape Town had 16 heads of state or government attend. WEF Africa has become a key feature in the African calendar, even if the make-up is still dominated by South Africans and Nigerians. This year’s event will be held in Abuja, Nigeria, in May. The WEF, though, is much more than just a conference. Its research hubs, for example, produce a number of reports, including the much-used Competitiveness Report, and it has a number of committees examining, in depth, several vital issues ranging from climate change, to agriculture and to the blue economy.

WEF also oversees a number of communities such as the Young Global Leader and Global Changemakers. These represent the younger generation who are driving change in their local communities or destined to be future leaders. The organisation’s radar for budding talent is impressive – South African billionaire Patrice Motsepe was identified many years ago, as was the current President of Mexico, Enrico Peña Nieto.

Among those who are making a big name for themselves in the African events space is the Moroccan Richard Attias. He was the former chairman of PublicisLive and learnt his trade overseeing the production of WEF events, which were contracted out to Publicis, the global media and communications outfit. After selling his stake in 2008, he set up his own venture and until recently, organised the New York Times’ larger events, as well as a number of key events for clients in the Gulf.

A close friendship with the Gabonese President, Ali Bongo, who wanted international exposure, led Attias & Associates to organise the New York Forum which has become another gathering of African and international business leaders and policy makers.
Attias’ events are famous for their flawless organisation and production. Even if the content is not as focused as that of the WEF, he still manages to attract some of the world’s most eminent speakers and commentators.

His pro-business approach has clearly delivered and it has brought investments to the host country and put it ‘on the map’. His latest two events, an investment forum to highlight opportunities in Equatorial Guinea and an infrastructure forum in Brazzaville did just that. There was a strong business focus. Although Attias does not come cheap (the figures for his fees are believed to be between €5m and €10m for turnkey solutions) the return on investment seemed positive for his clients with numerous MOUs signed between investors from all corners of the globe and ministers and presidents of both countries. There was a sense of purpose and a desire to drive investment.

The African Development Bank is also playing a key role in writing the African narrative. The institution has grown in both stature and size since its current president, Donald Kaberuka, took over. He has undoubtedly given the bank a larger prominence internationally, and the bank is today considered as the voice on African affairs. He is positioning the bank as the co-host and supporter of signature events on key issues African. His partnership on the CEO Forum is now extending to other sectors such as healthcare. The high-level seminars that take place at the annual meetings of the bank are also increasingly playing a more important role.

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