August 22, 2014

Pan-African Conference Highlights Positive Outlook for Africa

Pan-African Conference Highlights Positive Outlook for Africa
Opening speaker Emira Woods (right), with conference co-director Shirley Palesa Moihloe (C'16). Photo by Bishoppe Kamusinga
December 5, 2013

One billion people. An economy valued at US$2 trillion. A burgeoning middle class. Mobile phone ownership among 78 percent of the population. Twenty percent of government budgets spent on education . . .

No, these figures aren’t referring to China. Or India. They’re describing Africa—or rather, the 54 diverse countries that make up Africa. The data, highlighted in the October issue of the Harvard Business Review, underscores the timely nature of Principia College’s fourteenth annual Pan-African Conference, “Africa Rising.”

The conference topic was chosen by a nine-member student board, which included students from Kenya, South Africa, and Uganda, as well as the U.S. and Brazil. According to board member Bishoppe Kamusinga, a sophomore, “The topic seeks to show the growth and innovation in Africa. Frankly, I am tired of the negative focus on Africa [when] there is actually so much good happening right now.”

At the conference itself, held November 8 and 9, the presenters and panelists did not ignore the challenges Africa faces in terms of conflict, governance, and equitable economic growth. But they emphasized and made a convincing case that Africa is on the rise. Opening speaker Emira Woods, from the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington, DC, engaged the audience from the first moment of her talk—starting out with hugs among the audience members and noting that, as in centuries past, Africa is still a vital source of resources that are fueling the world economy today.

Woods grew up in Liberia before coming to the U.S. as a high school student, and she worked in the area of community and social development before focusing on her current area of U.S.–Africa policy and relations. With its increasingly youthful demographic and the spread of education and communication technology, “Africa is a continent on the move—and it is young people who are going to lead that move, that change . . . ,” she observed, before fielding questions from the audience about the arts, the role of women, and democratization.

On Saturday morning, participants heard a lively and inspiring presentation by South African media entrepreneur Stanley Denga, who has applied his skills in film and advertising in various African countries. Denga sees vast potential to be commercially successful while also operating a business with a conscience that can help educate, train, and inform communities.

A midday panel discussion featured longtime aid and development specialist, David Orth-Moore (whose daughter Cassidy is a sophomore), retired State Department representative Sharon Carper (C’70, whose son Abi is a senior), and Dr. Karen Haire, a former international enrichment student at the College and an Africanist scholar. The three panelists spoke of their personal encounters with the rich culture and community spirit around the continent, while also pointing out some of the challenges to progress that exist.

Noting that the economies of one-third of African countries are growing at over 6 percent per year (substantially higher than those of Europe, North America, or Asia), closing speaker Kurt Shillinger echoed the realistic yet positive tone of the two days. “While war and woe are not yet gone, hope and possibility abound,” he said, adding, “This generation has an unprecedented opportunity to participate in a new dialogue about Africa and to contribute to its progress.”

Looking back at the weekend, conference co-director and sophomore Annika Fredrikson was pleased. “We accomplished what we set out to achieve in terms of changing perspectives, highlighting the positive, and educating the delegates,” she commented. “The conference as a whole definitely gave me and all the other attendees new things to think about. The potential in Africa really is huge!”