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Brrr…its cold for African optimists in the Alps this year

Africa rising – two words that have sustained our continent in its quest for investment. But with market volatility, slow growth and falling commodity prices – could our feel good story now be in jeopardy?

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I recall from my first venture to the World Economic Forum in Davos, in 2014, the brightly colored scarves hanging from the necks of political leaders and captains of industry as they spoke on television. These scarves were in the colors of the national flags of two of Africa’s powerhouse economies – Nigeria and South Africa.

They performed two functions – much needed warmth and a sign that Africa was firmly on the international stage.  Africa was open for business; that was the message that rang clearly and loudly from the peaks of the snow-capped mountains.

Fast forward to January 2016; where the beautiful ski resort, nestled in the Alps, once more played host to more than 2,500 delegates from around the world as global markets saw a rickety start to the year.

China was changing its growth model and posted a slowdown in GDP. The United States increased interest rates in December 2015, despite its marginal economic growth. Then there was the slump in commodity prices, with oil reaching 12 year lows. Gold, platinum, iron ore and copper were also weaker. Emerging and frontier markets bore the brunt with no end in sight.

How was Africa going to see increased investment in its economies when it was in the eye of a perfect storm? Well that’s where charity begins at home. This seen in the launch of a new deal on energy, focused on power, potential and partnership to secure universal access to electricity on the continent by 2025.

“More than a century after Edison invented the light bulb, half of Africa is still in the dark,” said Akinwumi Ayodeji Adesina, President of the African Development Bank and FORBES AFRICA Person of the Year in 2013.

This new move to power up the continent was in line with the theme for this year’s gathering – the fourth  industrial revolution, which focused on robotics, artificial intelligence and how electricity can grow economies.

“We talk about the fourth industrial revolution, but it all starts with the need for electricity, which is like blood in the system. If we don’t have it, we can’t live,” says Adesina.

To help keep Africa on the world economic map, strong delegations came from a number of states. Several African leaders were in Davos:  Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, Hailemariam Dessalegn, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Nigeria’s  Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma – despite several questions about his low profile at the Forum.

Members of the private sector too were there to allay fears that Africa may no longer be rising.

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 says.

Feeling the same was Nicky Newton-King, CEO of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, the largest bourse on the continent that has won awards for the way it runs.

“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.

Fellow members of the private sector with a strong focus on the continent, add that they too are concerned, but not shaken, by the headlines.

“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.

Ralph Mupita, CEO of Old Mutual Emerging Markets says: “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.”

While the challenges are clear. Africa is still on the agenda for many – albeit with reservations. Power, partnerships, and certain regulatory frameworks are the sturdy lifeboats we need to ride out the economic storm.

And whilst many do agree that the short to medium term will be worrisome our future is not dim… perhaps we need to cast our eyes slightly further out on the horizon. After all Rome wasn’t built in day; neither will Africa be.

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