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Exploring Business Opportunities in Africa; Alumni Grapple with Plastic Waste Problem – Alumni

15 Dec 2023

Exploring Business Opportunities in Africa; Alumni Grapple with Plastic Waste Problem

By: Margie Kelley

Topics: Relationships-HBS ClubsRelationships-Networks


Webinar illuminates broad array of business opportunities across Africa

On December 5th, the HBS African-American Alumni Association (HBSAAA) hosted ‘Doing Business in Africa: From Opportunity to Action’, a webinar panel of HBS alumni who shared their first-hand insights into Africa’s business and economic landscape.

Close to 100 alumni from several HBS clubs logged on for the conversation, which touched upon a wide range of issues including investing, private equity and venture capital, the outsized impact entrepreneurs can have on the ground, the continent’s significant demographic implications for the future and the promising scope of emerging markets.

“Africa’s evolution is not much talked about—outside the circles that closely watch the continent—but it has massive implications for the world,” says HBSAAA board member Christopher Williams (MBA 2002), explaining why the club organized the webinar. “Over the next 20 years, it will become the most populous continent, and with the largest youth population that would be 100% digital native. They are smart, highly motivated and, with technology, they are gaining a world-class education at very high rates. The continent is also attracting attention from China, Europe, and the US for its immense mineral resources, human capital and consumer opportunity. While opportunities abound in all sectors, more support is needed on the ground: investment, models to refine, accelerate and scale enterprise, education and infrastructure opportunities, and expertise on governance practices. These present opportunities for HBS alumni. The HBSAAA board saw the need to educate our membership and the community about them.”

The panel featured Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli (MBA 1999), cofounder and chair of Sahel Consulting, as well as Ace Foods, which sells African spices. She is also the founder of African Food Changemakers and an expert on African agriculture and nutrition, entrepreneurship, social innovation and youth development; Runa Alam (MBA 1985), a cofounding partner and CEO of Development Partners International (DPI), a leading pan-African private equity firm based in London with over $3.1 B under management; and Victor Williams (MBA 1998), CEO of NBA Africa, which is transforming Africa’s profile in the world of global sports. He is the former head of corporate and investment banking, Africa Regions, for Standard Bank Group. (You can read more about Williams’s work with NBA Africa in this recent article from the HBS Alumni Bulletin.)

The panel was moderated by Naana Winful Fynn (MBA 2004), a former investment banker with Goldman Sachs, and currently the West Africa Regional Director for Norfund, a Norwegian investment fund for developing countries which has committed 60 percent of its portfolio to sub-Saharan Africa.

Fynn asked the panelists why they’re investing and building businesses in Africa; why they believe companies, investors and entrepreneurs should see Africa as a place of opportunity, despite negative stereotypes of Africa; and how they tailored their strategies for the unique challenges presented by uneven modernization across the 54 countries, government bureaucracy, and infrastructure gaps.

“Going to the US for my education, I came face to face with the image of Africa as a hungry child,” says Ndidi Nwuneli. “That’s a single story, and it’s dangerous.” Nwuneli says she cofounded Sahel Consulting to tap into Africa’s agricultural excellence. “We saw that we could feed the continent and the world. Africa has some of the best food in the world—it’s the best kept secret,” she says. “I’ve spent the last 15 years in Africa really trying to not only unlock the agricultural and food potential on the continent, but also to enable our enterprises to scale.”

Sahel Consulting provides strategy consulting support, market linkages, policy advisory and implementation for international development organizations, and private sector companies.

Nwuneli’s nonprofit, African Food Changemakers currently enables entrepreneurs in 29 African countries to scale, providing training and support, getting their products on global shelves, and telling positive stories about African food. “We’re raising the profile of our food because we believe it is excellent, and the world needs to embrace and celebrate it,” says Nwuneli.

Runa Alam, from DPI, says many pension funds, sovereign funds, endowments and other investment funds from all over the world are investing in private equity in Africa. “Why? Because they’re getting returns,” she says. “We’ve shown that you can merge impact work with investing without sacrificing returns. But you can’t just arrive and set up. Africa is 54 separate and distinct countries. You need time to understand them on the ground. At DPI, we’ve had 24 years. We started our fund at zero, and we’re now worth $3.1 Billion. We’ve had a hand in creating more than 150 millionaires, a few billionaires, and hundreds of thousands of jobs. The continent offers huge opportunities in whatever direction you want to go—fintech, private equity, real estate, climate—there are great opportunities for them here. There’s still much to do, but our impact is outsized here.”

Touching on strategy, Victor Williams at NBA Africa says growing the basketball ecosystem from the grassroots to the elite level requires an understanding of Africa’s demographics. “Africa’s youth population is growing. The median age is 19,” he says. “By 2050, more than a third of the world’s youth will be African. They’re passionate about sports, music, fashion and art, and, increasingly they are creators. Our strategy—how we tap into that demographic—is important. We need to educate young people about the game, get them to play and enjoy it. We’re building future fans and players, so we invest in that.”

The panel also shared some trends in Africa that bode well for companies and investors considering launching their businesses there. By 2050, according to Alam, Africa will have the youngest and largest workforce in the world, and half of the world’s largest cities will be in Africa. There will be a younger, tech-savvy middle class with discretionary income to spend, presenting opportunities for restaurants, universities, and other lifestyle sectors. The majority of phones in Africa are smartphones and digitalization is growing.

“Venture capital, private equity, pharma, fintech are growing so there are incredible opportunities,” says Alam.

One major asset, adds Nwuneli, is the people. “People in Africa want to be working for more than money. They want to have a mission. They bring energy, ideas, they’re hungry for growth, they’re eager and passionate and give you their best.”

The downsides, say panelists, include a lack of infrastructure in financing, low debt availability for small and medium sized businesses, high energy costs, and inefficient ports. “These present opportunities, and I believe we need our brothers and sisters in the diaspora to help us address these challenges,” says Nwuneli.

Following the webinar, the HBSAAA team says feedback from attendees was extremely positive. Christopher Williams says the club hopes to continue the conversations on business in Africa, and could include organizing an exploratory trip to the continent.

Roundtable Discussion Tackles Complexities of Plastic Waste

Plastic pollution is a global problem. Plastics and their byproducts are littering our cities, oceans, and waterways, and contributing to health problems in humans and animals. Every day, the equivalent of 2,000 garbage trucks full of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans, rivers, and lakes. Every year, millions of tons of plastic waste leaks into aquatic ecosystems. Only 9% of plastic is recycled. Without decisive action, this problem is expected to triple by 2060.

These were just a few of the sobering facts shared during the virtual roundtable discussion, titled “The Plastic Waste Problem: What Do We Do?” hosted by the HBS Women’s Association (HBSWA),which explored powerful solutions with a panel of global experts on the topic.

Moderated by HBSWA member Sherri Sklar (MBA 1989), the November 28 discussion attracted 95 attendees from the HBSWA and five other HBS alumni clubs and featured three panelists who have dedicated their careers to addressing plastic waste and its widespread impacts.

David Katz is the founder and CEO of Plastic Bank, a global network of micro-recycling markets that empower the poor to transcend poverty by getting paid to collect plastic waste in their communities. The Plastic Bank is an ecosystem that provides an opportunity for the world to collect and trade plastic waste as a currency. Its global partners include IBM, Shell Energy, SC Johnson, Aldi, Henkel and more.

Professor Manuel Maqueda is an expert on plastic pollution and the cofounder and CEO of Single-Use Plastic Elimination or Reduction (SUPER),a nonprofit enabling businesses to eliminate single-use plastics through a tiered certification program. He is also a Special Programs Instructor, teaching Applied Circular Economics and Regenerative Economics at the Sustainability Graduate Programs and at the Global Development Practice Graduate Programs, both at Harvard Extension School.

Robert Goodwin (GMP 3, 2007) is the cofounder and president of OceanCycle, a social enterprise focused on solving the ocean plastic problem by assisting businesses in making large volumes of products out of ocean-bound plastic. They work with companies to provide end-to-end solutions from plastic collection to product launch and, through their chain of custody certification, provide documented traceability so manufacturers, brands, and companies can trust the quality and the origin of the material they are using. Goodwin previously worked on ocean plastic issues as cofounder and CEO of Executives Without Borders, establishing recycling programs in Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake. His programs created over 1,500 formal and informal jobs and cleaned up more than 160 million bottles from streets and canals. (You can read more about Goodwin’s work in this article from the June issue of the HBS Alumni Bulletin.)

Sklar opened the discussion with a few trivia questions for the online audience about plastic waste, including a questions about whether there may come a time when there is more plastic in the ocean than fish. Then she asked the experts to weigh in.

“This brings to light the enormity of the challenge that lies ahead of us,” says Katz, from Plastic Bank. “Does it matter if there’s going to be more plastic in the ocean, by weight, than the mass of life? Or does it matter enough that even a single bottle flows into the belly of a bird, or a bottle cap kills something? There is a catastrophe unfolding, but even one bottle is too many, in my opinion.”

Maqueda added that every single piece of plastic that has ever been produced is still here on this planet, except for what has been incinerated. “That’s not good news,” he says. “Already we have twice as much plastic [by weight] as animals on the planet.”

Sklar then asked the panelists to share facts about plastic pollution that people might not know, and to talk about the work each is doing to address the problem.

Maqueda talked about “deplastifying” — a concept invented by SUPER to encourage people to stop plastic at the source. “Plastic is not a waste-management problem alone. It’s mostly a design problem,” he says. “Plastic is a material that the planet cannot digest. It fragments. It doesn’t break down, it breaks up into small pieces. So a material like that should never be used to design things that are to become garbage, such as single-use packaging. Also, the composition of plastic is secret, and has all these toxic additives. A smart society should never use it for food and drinks.”

The problem, he says, is a human health crisis as well. “If we did a blood sample of everyone one on this call, we’d find 100% of the people polluted with bisphenol (BPA), phthalates, PFAS and other endocrine-disrupting substances. Nano plastics are in rain, the air we breathe, in our food. The average human eats between 3 and 5 grams of plastic a week, equivalent of a credit card a week. It’s definitely a crisis.”

SUPER works with businesses to help them eliminate single-use plastics from procurement, and offers a certification and metrics to help clients see the impacts of those changes. “The solution is turning off the faucet,” he says.

Goodwin, whose work with OceanCycle focuses on helping companies and communities prevent plastic waste from being washed into the ocean, debunked some common assumptions about plastic recycling. “First, there is no island of plastic in the Pacific. Plastic breaks down, it makes more of a soup of plastic at many different depths. It often sinks, and it’s not as easy to deal with as people think,” he says. “And people often blame Asia for a lot of ocean plastic, but a lot of it is our waste that we send over, and Europe sends theirs, too. Unfortunately, we sort it so poorly, when it gets there they have to pick through and may get 10 or 20 percent to recycle and the rest is dumped or burned. So a lot of the ocean plastic problem is our plastic.”

To get higher rates of recycling in impoverished communities, Goodwin says plastic has to have economic value. “If you can establish a value in those plastics, people will pick it up. Paying people a living wage to collect it, sort it, and keep it clean yields very high recycling rates. And the impact for people’s lives is positive. But plastic markets vary with every country and local situations, so there’s a lot to figure out.”

For Katz, poverty is at the root of the problem. “When people have nothing, when they’re worried about their basic needs, they’re not going to be recycling” he says. “If we’re going to make a significant change, we have to address poverty. Our endeavor at Plastic Bank is to drive the conversation to solutions that use the material—plastic— as currency that helps end poverty. If we do that, it solves all the challenges behind it.”

But that will require a change in the way the world does business. “We’re going to be the only species that wasn’t able to save itself because it wasn’t profitable to do so. It’s about creating a paradigm for organizations to do what is right for all of humanity, not just shareholders.”

Recognizing the critical need to educate business leaders on the plastic problem, Sklar says five other alumni clubs co-sponsored the roundtable, including the HBS Club of Atlanta, the HBS Club of Washington DC, the HBS Club of Charlotte, the HBS Club of Toronto, and the HBS Club of New York.

“We must help business leaders rethink how they are vitally important to help change the world in its use of plastic,” Sklar says. “They can be more purposeful, to take the lead in creating and designing better packaging solutions in the first place, to help the world participate in a circular economy, and to continue to create solutions that bring people out of poverty—which has been shown to dramatically impact the health of our environment and humanity at large. Ultimately, we learned that we must change our behavior to address this crisis; and the only way to do that is to be the change we want to see in the world.”


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