The two themes of the all-virtual Hogan Lovells Africa Forum 2020 were growth and sustainability. In a conference notable for the innovation of the online experience, with breakouts, chat rooms, virtual booths and onscreen security, it was well managed, with relatively few technical issues, ably chaired by Andrew Skipper, the firm’s Africa lead.
Delivering short opening remarks, James Dudderidge, the UK Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Africa at the Foreign Office, said the United Kingdom would help African countries recover from Covid-19, in stressing positive relationships between UK-African economies.
Noting Africa’s potential for economic transformation, he referenced the shared values between the UK and many African countries, and shared ties, such as the support of City institutions, and common law legal systems, as well as the scope for commercial deals between UK and African businesses, particularly smaller businesses.
His opening remarks spanned big initiatives and small ones; from the UK-Africa Investment summit, to investment in digital transformation. “Partnerships", said Dudderidge, “can help African economies recover," in dwelling on the role of investment, trade, and finance in so doing.
He praised the African Finance Corporation’s work, and that of his own business sector, banking, having previously worked for Barclays in Africa; he also praised the work of the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC), in particular.
The morning keynote was led by Samaila Zubairu, president and chief executive of the AFC itself. Zubairu’s address stressed the importance of infrastructure to Africa, not just in terms of sustainable growth, but in enabling Africa to meet the challenges of the post-Covid-19 environment.
His was a compelling, but sober, analysis about the challenges and opportunities facing African economies. In the short term, he warned about the effects of Covid-19's impact on infrastructure spending, and the need to prepare for, and overcome, the challenges posed by the pandemic.
Only through careful appreciation would Africa be able to leverage opportunities, and overcome challenges, he said. The AFC, said Zubairu, had the ability to offer finance where commercial banking were less available; he illustrated, with examples, its transformative approach, and how it had delivered change.
Zubairu was positive – growth and sustainability could be achieved - but argued Africans should move away from the “business-as-usual” approach and adapt to a new reality. That meant, for example, realising, the benefits of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, (AfCFTA) to enable them to do so.
That could mean addressing supply chain issues, where global change would be needed in post-Covid world, and in the commodities sector; by processing, and managing raw resources locally, and building up local beneficiation capabilities, Africa could improve its bargaining power in commodities markets, and rely less on imports.
By placing production closer to areas of need and the supply of raw materials, Africa could both accelerate processing opportunities, create jobs and change what he said was an unfair balance of trade.
His was an approach that involved investing in a whole ecosystem. This meant taking a wholesale perspective with projects, making them more than the sum of their parts, and so reducing risk, creating synergies and securing a longer-term vision. It relied upon developers, financiers, and investors working with African businesses and the public sector to do so; collaboration being the golden thread to this ecosystem.
That led him to say, simply, “Consider investment rather than aid" in discussing working with governments, funders, investors, and DFI insurers, to ensure that each played its part.
Giving an example in Gabon, on wood processing, he illustrated how sustainable development dovetailed with economic goals and plans, where the project funded had benefited local earnings, local commodities prices, and improved growth, while ports, infrastructure, employment – had all been improved.
The first plenary session, chaired by Susan Bright, Hogan Lovells’ global managing partner for diversity & inclusion and responsible business, brought together an ensemble of industry stalwarts, including Rakesh Wahi, vice-chair of ABN Group, two CEO’s, in Andrew Alli, at Southbridge Group, and Malek Sukkar at Averda, and Baafour Asiamah-Adeji, president of Genser Energy.
The session looked at the some of the challenges that African businesses faced when trying to grow in a sustainable way. That meant contrasting approaches that didn’t work – such as overly legalistic ones – with modern practice; considering the costs of lost opportunities, for example, in not taking a sustainable opportunity. As Alli, said, "Being sustainable is a competitive advantage".
Bright moved the debate to skills smoothly, where the speakers stressed the biggest opportunity for growth in Africa lay in its people and their development. Asiamah-Adeji, for example, touched on African skills gap in trades such as plumbing, welding, carpentry, in his industry – energy, and the need to source skills.
Malek Sukkar, CEO at Averda, offered his own advice on the challenges of lockdown business practice, where, he said, reliable guidance from health bodies, like the WHO helped. Communication, for Rakesh Wahi was, equally rightly, invaluable.
Wahi said that talking to clients and customers was vital, especially in managing their response to pandemic-related business issues. His business, he said, paid smaller businesses first, and then negotiated with larger ones, noting the importance of financial management, particularly of cash reserves.Other issues of concern included managing supply chain and regulatory risks, (investing to manage the latter), and prioritising health and education needs.
What does championing Africa mean? Each had differing answers. To Sukkar, it was about leaving a sustained, and sustainable legacy in business, while for Asiamah-Adeji, it involved Africans delivering the same service as a Western developed economy might, thanks to investment. For Wahi: success meant the localisation of financial and human capital, while to Alli, it was the existence of champions to look up.
As with previous years, each plenary was book-ended by short 'Straight Talk' thought leadership discussions, with Keith Kibirango, head of Africa philanthropy for Save the Children describing the current state of disaster in Africa and the impact on the children, including an initiative tackling malnutrition in some of the world's most deprived countries.
Joining Nathan was Michael Schottler, head of the global disputes portfolio at Anglo American, and Tunde Fagbohunlu SAN, of Aluko & Oyebode and chairman of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce International Arbitration Centre.
Fagbohunlu explained how the Nigerian energy industry had been affected because of Covid-19, with legal queries around force majeure being raised, which Searle called “a blunt instrument”; while some themes - court backlogs and deadlines – were universal to all Africa, the use of arbitration was attracting more interest; Schottler saw the greater use of hybrid virtual hearings, and away from fully in-person interlocutory court or arbitral proceedings.
All three speakers noted that many companies were genuinely trying to resolve business difficulties, although inevitably, some were exploiting the situation for commercial gain. Collaboration with counterparties, said Schottler, was important, and the panel noted genuine interest in the use of mediation, alongside arbitration, as a result.
What all speakers suggested was a much bigger focus on the quality of initial in-person socially distanced contact, where truly necessary, and greater use of virtual facilities for everything in between. They also stressed the need to prepare to react early and swiftly, if the situation reoccurs, and early communication.
As Schottler noted, risk management required lawyers to think “outside the box”, having forced them out of their comfort zones – but with disruption, came the opportunity to adapt, innovate, and respond. Much as Hogan Lovells had in taking the event online.
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