Cold. Expensive. Concerning. These words have been the top three words I have used to describe our most recent visit to the 47th edition of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
The beautiful snow laden ski-town, nestled in the Alps, played host to over 2,500 delegates from across the globe. Present were heads of state, political leaders, business executives, members of civil society and the like, who braved sub-zero temperatures to explore the theme for this year – the 4th Industrial Revolution and its impact on economies.
But this year, the conversation on robotics and artificial intelligence was over-shadowed by a myriad of concerns – the global market environment and its negative impact on the “Africa rising narrative” and of course the minimal attendance of women at the meeting.
Where are the women?
Over the last few decades, the participation of women at the forum has improved, albeit at a slow pace. This year, only 18% of contributors were women, a slight improvement from the 17% attendees in 2015. But are our voices being heard? Yes. Several panel discussions and side events were held at the meeting to truly understand the economic impact of empowering the fairer sex.
Bea Perez, Global Chief Sustainability officer at Coca-Cola, reminded us why corporates like the soft drink manufacturer continue their focus and investment in women.
“We know women drive the economy. When they participate, they also give 96 cents of the dollar they earn back to strengthen their communities,” said Perez.
Also in attendance at the forum was a woman who holds the purse strings to Africa’s largest economy – Kemi Adeosun, Nigeria’s Finance Minister. So too, was Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors.
They join Davos veterans Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, and Christine Lagarde, IMF head, among over 500 outstanding female leaders from every part of public life.
Global market concerns
The global market environment got off to a rickety start in 2016. The world’s attention remains fixed on the change in growth models in China – away from infrastructure to a consumption-led economy, the United States, which has managed to show signs of marginal strength in its economy and begun to raise interest rates in December 2015, and the commodity price cycle. With the price of oil at 12-year lows and the prices of base metal commodities like gold, platinum, iron ore and copper significantly weaker, emerging markets are bearing the brunt of these pressures.
Such pressure was evidently felt in our exchange rate. With one Swiss Franc (CHF) at R16.74 at the time of our visit, a simple meal of a burger and coke set me back CHF21.50 or around R370 – enough money to provide a meal for a family of four back home.
Despite the market volatility, Oscar Onyema, CEO of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, remains confident that Africa plays home to equity markets which continue to see interest from investors, regardless of the global market conditions. “We just have to ride the cycles,” he said.
These sentiments were echoed by Nicky Newton-King, CEO of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.
“We have got to understand that there is a new normal out there, low growth in an uncertain global world, good investment opportunities will come, but we still have a chance to compete with our global peers,” said Newton-King.
Give us hope!
With all the negative sentiment, one would think this would deter investors. While the leaders of these global companies continue to monitor the headlines, they are concerned but not discouraged by the current economic cycle.
“I think it depends really on your time profile for your investments, I think there’s a growing interest from people who have a five to ten year view of what they want to be investing in to actually go to Africa,” said Geoffrey White, CEO of Agility Africa.
“We are long-term investors, with our roots in Africa – South Africa to be exact. Despite the challenges at a macro level, we see the needs of the consumer and we are providing them with the service, we will roll out capital prudently,” added Ralph Mupita, CEO of Old Mutual Emerging Markets.
While the challenges are clear, Africa is still on the agenda.
And, perhaps, as the conversation continues to evolve and the participation of women increases, the message about our continent from Davos will be warm, inclusive and exciting.
– The writer is a financial journalist and senior anchor with CNBC Africa.