Recognizing Business Leaders Changing Africa for the Better

The private sector of Africa is an increasingly powerful force for change

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In this Sunday Oct. 18, 2009 file photo a view of the Johannesburg Skyline, South Africa.

Stephen Hayes is president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.

This week, my own organization, the Corporate Council on Africa, gave a long overdue dinner in honor of African private sector leadership. It is a sector not many know, and one that many assume doesn’t exist.  The truth is quite different from perception. There are brilliant business leaders in Africa not only who are among the most successful entrepreneurs in the world, but who are giving to others as they build their own empires. The change taking place in Africa may not be so easily seen in political systems, but is being driven in many ways by the private sector of Africa, an increasingly powerful force for change. Excerpts from my remarks follow:

We in America still have a long way to go in understanding and certainly acknowledging the changes underway in Africa today. There is the development of a far more vibrant private sector than has existed before. Yet we continue to view Africa as a destination for our aid missions and too often still encourage a top-down approach to change, and one directed from the outside looking in.  In so doing, we are missing the reality of what is happening in Africa today.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Given The Current Deficit Crisis, Should Foreign Aid Be Cut?]

Change is never easy for any of us, and it is even harder for institutions filled with long-standing approaches to international relations, development, and tradition.  We are in a world today where it is far easier for tech wizards to influence the masses than it is for leaders to change the directions of the large Ships of State.

Yet, the world is changing as it has never done before. Technology, for better or worse, is sweeping the old order aside, sometimes leaving chaos in its wake, but also allowing new fields of play and opportunity that did not exist under the old orders. The hurricanes of discontent roar over our lands, influenced by new kinds of political climate changes. One  cannot control these changes anymore than one can control the directions of the winds.

Many of these changes, good or bad, are not coming from governments, but from the private sector and from individuals and groups of individuals. It is the private sector that is providing the new jobs and the new opportunities and the race is not whether we can maintain the old order of nations, but whether we can provide sufficient economic opportunity for a growing population whose aspirations are being fed by the technological revolution happening daily throughout the world.  The private sector must be a primary player in meeting those aspirations.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

The alternative is oppression, violence and continuing chaos.

So it is with this in mind that we celebrate four lives who are making a difference, not only for their families, or even their countries but throughout Africa. In quiet acts in the daily management of their businesses and their lives they are providing jobs and new opportunities for thousands of others, and in so doing they are changing the their own nations.

In these four men are people who don’t necessarily start the day seeing themselves as men set to change the world. They go about their job just as any of us do. Yet in their visions great things are possible. 

We have a man who has made an airline company one of the most successful airlines in Africa.  It is an example of public-private cooperation, and it is an example of change, not necessarily rapid, but inexorable change. It is one of the first African modern airlines to set direct routes to the United States, and it was also the first airline in Africa to buy one of the world’s newest and most modern jets. Tewolde Gebremariam is a man who is building bridges in the sky between Africa and America and between Africa and the rest of the world.

Geoff Rothschild of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange is a man who not only manages various relationships for the oldest stock exchange in Africa, but works with many other entities outside his portfolio to make a difference for many. He is a major guiding light for the NEPAD Business Foundation, a private sector organization designed to support the development vision of the African Union.  He also works with many other entities, some of which you will hear about tonight. Geoff is also a bridge builder and a conciliator of diverse opinions and interests.

[How U.S. Business Can Grow Its Investment in Africa's Economy.]

Tony Uhelemu is a man of vision and a man of a great many visions, who has used that vision to not only build a business empire but also to use that empire to help thousands of others, through his foundation and through the providing of jobs in the private sector.

Finally there is Admassu Tadesse who has left a very prestigious and secure position in South Africa to become head of the PTA Bank in Burundi so that he can increase investment and opportunity throughout the East African community.  Like our other three awardees, he is building different kinds of bridges in his regional community that will affect East Africa for generations to come. Mr. Tadesse also is involved in a great deal of public service beyond his immediate interests.

So tonight is an acknowledgment of positive change that is sweeping through Africa. It is also a too belated recognition of the quality of business partners and leaders available to American counterparts in our nation.  All we need to do is to open our eyes to the reality that is before, and leave the myths of Africa behind us.

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