Africa: A Continent of Opportunities for International Associations

17th May 2023

Although you may have encountered various portrayals of Africa over the past few decades, such as - a continent in need of development, a rapidly growing economic force, a looming danger, a hub of poverty and forced migration, you name it - the reality is, as usual, more intricate. However, one fact is undeniable: the progress that Africa has achieved in recent years is remarkable. The continent is forging its own path and the potential of Africa is steadily expanding. As publishers, we aim to shed light on Africa in a series of articles, starting with this one, and emphasize why it is the upcoming continent to explore for business events.

Words Cecile Koch & Remi Deve

But why exactly turning our attention to Africa? The answer lies in two reasons: firstly, Rick Taylor from The Business Tourism Company in South Africa introduced us to the “Corridor of Africa” during an international meetings industry fair last year, which opened our eyes. Whereas previously, South Africa was the dominant African destination present at these trade shows, other African countries are now also emerging and proudly presenting themselves to international planners. This Corridor of African countries, including Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and more, demonstrates that the MICE African industry is evolving into a more sophisticated state.

Rick Taylor added: “The strategy Africa plans to pursue going forward can be summed up in the phrase ‘Concentrate and dominate’ – one step and one country at a time. As the African continent moves towards a state of maturity (predicted for 2030) and becomes the next supercontinent for business events, those countries with established Convention Bureau presence will be in a better position to sell to a thriving market. With 54 countries and a burgeoning array of institutions such as tourism boards, bureaux, universities, hotel groups, associations, and more, there is no shortage of potential in Africa. However, the challenge lies in building credentials, and this will require purpose, time, and focus.”

Compelling Africa

If Africa’s challenges are real, they’re not insurmountable. There are in fact many compelling reasons to give serious consideration to organizing or attending a conference in Africa.

Here are just a few:

Business opportunities: Africa is home to several rapidly growing economies, presenting a vast potential market for associations looking to expand. Holding a conference in Africa can provide an opportunity to meet with local associations and explore potential partnerships.

Support for sustainable development: Numerous African nations have taken noteworthy steps towards promoting sustainable development, such as allocating resources towards renewable energy, conservation initiatives, and eco-tourism. Notably, Rwanda and Tanzania have implemented a complete ban on plastic bags, and major hotel chains have pledged to adopt the Hotel Sustainability Basics. Additionally, governments are actively promoting eco-tourism, with Kenya leading the way. Organizing a conference in Africa presents a chance to highlight these sustainable practices and encourage their adoption within the event industry.

Legacy impacts: With the association business events industry in its development stage in Africa, there is the opportunity to establish meaningful legacy programmes as a key part of hosting a conference on the continent.

Professional development: Attending a conference in Africa can provide an opportunity for professional development, including networking with professionals from across the continent, attending industry-specific workshops, and gaining insight into regional business practices.

Unique cultural experiences: Africa is a continent with a rich and diverse cultural heritage, including traditional music, dance, and food. Holding a conference in Africa can provide an opportunity for attendees to experience this diversity first-hand.

Lower costs: Compared to other regions, the cost of hosting a conference in Africa is often lower, making it an attractive destination for cost-conscious event planners. Lower costs can translate to more affordable registration fees and more significant profit margins for event organizers.

African Society of Association Executives (AfSAE): Established in 2015, this organization has as its mission to build and advance the importance and effectiveness of associations in Africa.

Secondly, as publishers, we have started to get requests from international associations to get more information on the congress possibilities that African countries have to offer.  In fact, one of our own Boardroom Advisory Board Members, Ariane Brusselmans, Director, Conferences, International AIDS Society, even said to us: We just introduced a regional rotation pattern for our conferences that will enable us to be intentionally present in all regions of the world in a 5-year timespan. Africa is an important region for us as it remains the epicentre of the HIV epidemic, accounting for almost two thirds of global new HIV infections. At IAS we believe that progress happens when science, policy and activism come together, and therefore we must come to Africa to unite the global HIV response.” 

Hence, our decision to initiate a series of articles that delve into various aspects of Africa such as the economy, future projects, and the development of academic, scientific, social and cultural life on an international level, along with the infrastructure available to support them. This first article in this series provides a broad overview, followed by four articles that will focus on the specific details of the four main regions of Africa, namely Southern, Northern, Western, and Eastern Africa.

African opportunity

Africa is shaping its own destiny and can be the “African opportunity” for international associations.

This huge continent has routinely been touted to become a future economic powerhouse as its demographic dividend pays off in the next few decades. (1,4 billion in 2023 – 2,5 billion by 2050, i.e. 26% of the world population).  However, its biggest challenge will be developing its economic and social infrastructure. In comparison to the US and Europe the forecast for GDP growth in Africa is relatively positive for 2023 (3,2% on average), but inflation (10%) in some African countries can be worrisome, mainly due the rise in food prices (IMF October 2022).

Overall many African countries will continue to fare well, despite the odds. Medium-sized economies, such as Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kenya, will drive much of this growth—with predicted growth rates of 5 to 7 percent in the year ahead. On the other hand, the region’s economic powerhouses (South Africa, Nigeria, and Egypt) are expected to record slower growth.

There are several other reasons to look positively at the future in Africa. In 2002 the ‘African Union’ (AU) was founded by the 55 African countries. It developed its ‘Agenda 2063’ which indicated 15 ‘flagship projects’, identifying 15 keys to accelerate Africa’s economic growth and development. Areas that have been selected are (just to name a few): the African Continental Free Trade Area, the Integrated High Speed Train Network, the African Passport, the establishment of a Single African Air-Transport Market (SAATM) and an African Virtual and E-University to increase access to continuing education, are all good signs that things are on the rise.

In fact, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA – read AIPC’s take on it, right after this article) aims to promote economic integration and remove barriers to trade and movement of people across the continent, and though the African Union’s Agenda 2063 hasn’t yet achieved its aim of visa-free travel for all African citizens by 2023 it is a project that is still very much a stated and popular goal. 

Promising for the conference sector

This is promising for the conference sector in Africa as it offers many opportunities, but the sector also faces several challenges. These include limited infrastructure in some areas, and security concerns in some regions. 

While most African capital cities can be reached more or less directly from Europe, it isn’t always possible to travel from every African country to every other African country. In fact, in some cases the only way to travel from one country to another is by transiting via European hubs, which obviously means longer travel times, less economically priced flights, and added greenhouse gas emissions. 

Complicating matters further, cumbersome visa restrictions can sometimes make it international travel challenging for people travelling from both within the African continent and from further afield.

Having said that, Ethiopia, with its strategic location, is a significant African hub with Addis Ababa Bole International Airport being a vital gateway to the continent. Ethiopian Airlines, the country’s national carrier, has a vast network connecting the airport to 40 countries across Africa. The airport has undergone significant expansion, with modern facilities that can handle millions of passengers annually. 

This definitely shows many solutions and proposals are on the table as to how to improve and facilitate travel to and within Africa. In that regard, several countries have already taken steps to address this issue by introducing visa-free travel for citizens of other African countries. For example, Rwanda, Ghana, and Mauritius have introduced visa-free travel policies for citizens of all African countries, while others, such as Kenya and Uganda, have introduced e-visa systems to make it easier for visitors to apply for visas online. 

Africa’s population is roughly on a par with that of India or China (1,4 billion), but even though China and India have regionally devolved power in regions and states, they still have the advantage of having centralized governments and a single currency, which allow them to turn their huge populations into both domestic markets and economic manpower. Africa’s fragmented structure, largely a result of a complicated colonial history that still has repercussions today, make things more complicated.

Saying the quiet bit out loud, one challenge facing the conference sector in Africa is the perception, often distorted by media, of the continent as an unstable and unsafe region, which can deter potential delegates from attending events. However, many countries have made significant progress in addressing security concerns and improving infrastructure, like Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, making them more attractive destinations for conferences.

As of now, Vickie Muyanga, Regional Director of Sales Africa at Radisson Hotel Group, presents a positive picture of business events. “Extending beyond South Africa, trends within the MICE industry on the continent indicate a return of meetings from the government, oil and gas, healthcare and sports industries, which has also given rise to smaller events as a result. In addition, climate change and food-related meetings have seen a noticeable increase” she said.

Echoing her comment, Mungai Nfi, President of the African Society of Association Executives (AfSAE), continues: “At AFSAE we see a very exciting and promising future of Africa as a congress destination with more and more countries taking greater interest in developing their MICE industry to international standards. We have witnessed the development of requisite supporting institutional and policy frameworks in countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia and Ghana, and the building and expansion of infrastructure such as convention centres, airports, roads, and the likes. This buoyed by the coming into effect of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) that promises a more connected Africa doing business with each other- can only be the icing on the cake of the continent’s potential as a congress destination.”

In upcoming articles, we will delve into the situation of each region and provide a comprehensive overview of the MICE industry in Africa. Our focus will shift to East Africa, where we’ll take a closer look at Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya. Meanwhile, Southern Africa will encompass South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi. West Africa will feature Senegal and Ghana, and North Africa will highlight Egypt Tunisia and Morocco as key destinations.

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