Hit or Miss? African Business Events in Hamburg, Germany
Monday, 14 April 2008
In the second half of April, Hamburg, media and port town in northern Germany, hosted two Africa business conferences, the third German African Energy Forum held by the German Africa business association Afrika Verein, and the Europe Africa Business Summit organised by the NEPAD Council. Andrea Bohnstedt has a look at how both events were received. Not usually a key destination on the Africa business circuit, Hamburg, media and port town in northern Germany, hosted two Africa business conferences within a week. The Europe Africa Business Summit (EABS) in Hamburg, Germany, from 28 to 30 April had passed without making much noise. On the first day, around two thirds of the seats in the conference hall had remained empty, and a number of announced speakers had been replaced. Noticeable was the dominance of visitors from Nigeria. The NEPAD Council organisers stated that visa problems had prevented many from traveling, including a large delegation from Cameroon, and delegates from Sierra Leone and Nigera, although an SABC news article also cited the Council’s claim that the conference had been ‘boycotted’ by unspecified lobby groups that do not want to see Africa succeed.

The latter appears unlikely – for one, it is an excuse that the NEPAD Council had used for an unsuccessful business conference in South Africa a few years ago, and many well-attended Africa business conferences have taken place in the past few years. In fact, especially post-2005, after the UK’s G8 presidency prompted their massive drive to ‘heal the scar on the conscience of the world’, there have been countless initiatives and events with a very upbeat take on African business to overcome what are often criticised as overly negative perceptions – at times to the extent of glossing over the very real challenges.

Time and place may have been an issue: Hamburg has one of fastest-growing ports in Europe and is an old merchant city, but Germany’s business and trade relations with sub-Saharan Africa are considerably more limited than the UK’s or France’s, so a general-purpose Africa business conference was always going to be a harder sell. It didn’t help that Germany’s G8 presidency – when chancellor Angela Merkel had been pressured to include Africa issues in her agenda – had already passed.

Oluniyi Robbin-Coker from the Sierra Leone Business Forum drew a mixed conclusion: “I was disappointed in the turn out …. The agenda was good in some places, even if there was a heavy preponderance of Nigeria in some places, and there were some quality speakers and some very good networking. On the whole, it was a worthwhile outing for us, and it also helped to highlight to the Sierra Leone government how much work we need to do.”

Michael Monnerjahn from the Afrika-Verein, the German Africa Business Association, recalls that the Afrika-Verein had been approached three years by the NEPAD Council who had been interested in organising the event jointly. While agreeing to this idea initially, the Germans had eventually pulled out over concerns regarding the viability of the conference plans.

That Hamburg can, however, draw a crowd for Africa business events was demonstrated by the Afrika Verein’s third German African Energy Forum in Hamburg and Hanover, held in the week before the EABS. Attended by four ministers from Angola, Mozambique, Guinea, Zambia, the event gave visitors from Africa the opportunity to learn more not just about German companies in the traditional engineering and energy sector, but also look at wind and solar energy generation, amongst other. The Africa Verein considered the event with 300 participants a success. 

What made the difference in the response to both events? The Afrika-Verein is a business association and has focused its event on a specific technical area and German engineering is valued. The EABS, in contrast, had a fairly broad and generalised agenda – ticking all the boxes in ‘Africa issues, but perhaps too broad to draw people to a destination like Hamburg.

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