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Africa Conferences Must Evolve: How many times can we sit and reimagine, reignite, and rethink Africa?

How many times can we sit and reimagine, reignite, and rethink Africa? As we enter a school year and the conference cycle begins anew, let us think critically about our purpose and what we can

How many times can we sit and reimagine, reignite, and rethink Africa? As we enter a school year and the conference cycle begins anew, let us think critically about our purpose and what we can achieve. Take a look at this list of recent Africa conferences. What do you notice?

HBS 2014: Africa Accelerates: Equipping a Vibrant African Economy
HBS 2013: Redefining Africa: The Emergence of a New African Story (15th)
YAAPD 2013: Re-imagining Africa: A closer look at Autonomy, Identity and Perspective
HADC 2012: Rethinking Development in Africa
Columbia 2014: A Continent Ascends: Emergent Perspectives from the Frontier
Columbia 2013: Africa Ignited: Exploring Ideas, Shaping Outcomes
Columbia 2012: Africa Reclaiming Africa: Changing the Rules of Engagement
NYU 2014: The Africa Gold Rush: Realities of Africa’s Economic growth and Potential
NYU 2012: Redefining Africa: Innovative Business & Frontier Investments in Emerging Africa
Wharton 2013: Succeeding in Africa: Translating Opportunities into Growth
Wharton 2012: In the Trenches: Exploring Catalysts Driving Africa’s Growth
Unfortunately the past few years of the Africa conference circuit have been dedicated time and time again to the reignited, reclaimed, reimagined, redefined, and rethought Africa. Another popular title- “The Africa We Want.” I submit it is time we reimagine and rethink what we can do together in the span of two to three days. We simply cannot afford to hold the same panels repackaged in different titles on multiple campuses in a six-month span every year. Conferences must evolve from a revolving door for renowned keynote speakers to laser-focused arenas for action.
The list above is just the beginning- there are other Africa-related conferences at other schools, and some universities actually host more than one Africa conference within weeks of each other. I am not against conferences in totality but if themes and titles are any indication, we’re beginning to repeat ourselves.
Do we really need another panel on how great mobile payments are in Kenya? We’ve discussed this enough and plus, the info is on Wikipedia. Do we really need another panel about the promises and pitfalls of oil and gas development? Doubtful. Now, if a panel became a brainstorm session on how to hold oil and gas companies and governments accountable to their word re: environmental damage and community development, that is something else entirely. Sitting in an Ivy League classroom talking about the promises and pitfalls of oil and gas exploration is not going to cut it anymore. At some point, we have to stop listening to experts and give ourselves the platform do the work ourselves.

 

We could probably organize a conference about how to improve conferences but here is a list of ideas instead. This is by no means a definitive list: I hope this is the beginning of a conversation. Spoiler alert: These ideas will require some organization and collaboration among campus leaders but let’s consider it good practice for addressing the challenges the continent faces.
• Get sector specific: Instead of planning various panels on different sectors, universities should coordinate and select a discipline to focus on. For example, journalism and social media at Harvard, public health at Yale, energy at Columbia, technology at Wharton, corporate social responsibility at NYU, etc. Topics can (and should) rotate yearly among universities as interest shifts and the student leadership changes. With this format, those interested in specific fields can make meaningful connections with speakers and fellow attendees. Separating themes wouldn’t eliminate an inter-disciplinary approach. Other sectors can be addressed as it relates to the main topic chosen.
• Encourage Skillshares: It is great to hear from speakers that have accomplished much in their fields but conferences should also be spaces that empower and unlock the potential of attendees. What skills do conference goers already possess that they can share with others? Coding, grant writing, business development, social media fluency- the possibilities are endless.
• Organize hackathons: Some attendees might have ventures they are working on and need help thinking through ideas or scaling up. Conferences gather anywhere from 200 to 1000 participants and are thus a perfect venue to hear constructive suggestions.
Incubator and consultancy MansaColabs and startup accelerator Tiphub recently collaborated to organize the DCTechAfrique Hackathon in Washington DC. Inter-disciplinary teams helped diaspora-led Ghanaian education start-up RevisionPrep identify opportunities and challenges in market size and think through curriculum materials, user-experience and data collection needs. Imagine if this could be replicated at a conference scale. Surely there are other innovators that could benefit.
• Provide greater access to venture capital: Conference sponsor lists are a who’s who of banking institutions, consulting films, and multinational corporations: IBM, Unilever, McKinsey, BCG, Bain, PWC, GE, etc. Planning conferences is not cheap, but some of these resources should be re-directed to pitch competitions. Harvard has done some VC pitches in the past but once again, at a larger scale we could truly support homegrown ideas and solutions. Between hackathons and funding, we could spotlight and support the great work that young Africans are already doing.
• Promote dialogue with students at African universities: For all the talk about Africa, there is rarely communication about these issues with our peers on the continent. We cannot afford to have conversations independently of those currently living there. I acknowledge that the time difference might make it difficult but having at least one event that is livestreamed is definitely possible. Social Media Week Lagos proved that.
I respect the work conference leaders have done thus far. I’ve planned my fair share of campus events and I’ve participated in Africa-related conferences as an attendee and a speaker. Conferences are great opportunities for learning and networking, but the tried and true format of the past few years must enter a new phase. As we enter a school year and the conference cycle begins anew, let us think critically about our purpose at these elite institutions and what we can achieve.
We’ve come a long way since Harvard Business School’s first Africa conference in 1999. The topic then? “Reversing the Brain Drain.” Just think what passionate and informed attendees could accomplish if we re-imagined conferences beyond re-imagining. To meet this potential, conferences must evolve. The challenges are simply too great for the status quo.
Adedana Ashebir is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C. area. She is the creator of the #AfricaSees hashtag, a digital response to lazy headlines in the Western media’s Africa reporting. The hashtag is a spoof of the January 2014 Associated Press headline “Africa Sees Violent, Deadly Start to 2014” that discussed only five countries, or roughly 10% of the continent. You can follow Adedana on Twitter @AdedanaAbroad.

Adedana Ashebir is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C. area. She is the creator of the #AfricaSees hashtag, a digital response to lazy headlines in the Western media’s Africa reporting. The hashtag is a spoof of the January 2014 Associated Press headline “Africa Sees Violent, Deadly Start to 2014” that discussed only five countries, or roughly 10% of the continent. You can follow Adedana on Twitter @AdedanaAbroad.
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