The next Africa is the one in transition (Aubrey Hruby, co-author of the award-winning book, The Next Africa)
I had a brief moment with Aubrey Hruby, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council Center for Africa, co-founder of Africa Expert Network (AXN), and co-author of the award-winning book, The Next Africa. I met her three weeks ago when she was here in Addis Ababa for Wharton Club of Africa’s Executive Investment Summit & CEO Forum 2016.
Aubrey Hruby is a successful investment advisor who consults investors and companies doing business in Africa. She has consulted extensively in more than 20 African markets, including Ethiopia. Aubrey also served as the Managing Director of the Whitaker Group, where she helped facilitate over $2 billion in investment and capital flows to Africa.
As you have been working with a lot of entrepreneur, what do you think is the distinctive qualities of an entrepreneur?
I think, by nature entrepreneurs have to be problem solvers. Because, especially in the African continent – Ethiopia and other countries, there is always challenges; they have to solve daily problems. And often their idea for a company comes from a problem they’re having. So they see some problem around them that is annoying or is something that’s been bothering them. And so they come up with a solution to that problem and then sometimes that is the nature of their business itself. So it is this constant problem solving that I think is one of the defining natures of a good entrepreneur. I also think there is a creativity that they have in order to be willing to create a whole new business. And a Persistent, because it’s difficult to be an entrepreneur – many people will tell you “no”; many people will tell you it’s not a good idea; many people, even your parents, will tell you that it’s not a stable job or something of that sort. So you have to be persistent to push-pass all those obstacles.
Last Year a Book you co-authored (with Jake Bright) entitled “The Next Africa” was published. Will the next Africa be much different than the current one? And in what sense?
The theme of The Next Africa is that African countries in general are going through a pretty rapid growth cycle, including Ethiopia. Ethiopia sustains a double digit growth for the last ten years. And that growth is not always linear nor smooth. Meaning, sometimes it’s like taking two steps forward and one back. And the idea of The Next Africa is that it’s not the old one that people have in their minds about famine in Ethiopia, or about wars everywhere, or about very very poor people and that kind of things. Instead, the next Africa is the one in transition. It’s not the last one because if you think about a technology analogy it’s like Africa 2.0. And some of the things that are changing are that, for example, we used to always talk about the brain-drain – the smart educated group leaving African countries to go to Europe or the US. Now, while some of that still happens, many are returning to start businesses. Even here in Ethiopia, there are many Ethiopians who have returned from US or from Canada to start businesses here. So you’re starting to see repatriate entrepreneurs. Also you see the rise of business. In many countries government was the only way to make money and to be influential. But now, you have business men who are becoming very influential and who are becoming role models to the youth.
Do you think you are successful?
I’m not very much one who focuses on achievements of the past; I always focus on my ambition for the future. I think I have had many successes I’m proud of. But they have never been just my own, I have been working with other people. I have been working with African companies, African leaders. I have been working with US companies and US policymakers. So I don’t think any of my successes are really all mine own. But I also have a much larger vision of continuing to help companies and investors find good projects across African markets. And I think we are still in very early days. When it comes to the US, the interest is still very small – it’s growing, but it’s small. And if you look at, for example, Private Equity for African markets, we were excited to raise about four Billions US Dollars for Private Equity in Africa last year. But that is less than 1% of Global Private Equity. So it’s still very small, and there is much to do. So I don’t think I will rest and feel that I had all these successes and now it’s time to slow down – I think it’s time to speed up.
The AgriProFocus Network supports the agribusiness sector by promoting farmer entrepreneurship and focusing also on the smallholder. Various international initiatives and national policies also choose to enable the smallholder farmers. You, on the other hand, are engaging with larger companies supporting large-scale investments. Which approach do you think has a better chance of achieving economic success for African countries?
I am not sure it’s an either/or question; I think you have the kind of do both. I do struggle to some extent sometimes with the very focus on smallholder farmers. Because sometimes we call them farmers, but they are not really business people. Farming is an idea of having business in agriculture. Sometimes they are just subsistence growers, and I have worked in many countries where they have had struggles. For example, they help the smallholders increase their yields, and then they find that they grow less. Because they don’t feel like they need to grow as much. Because they are not thinking about it from a business mentality. So I do think we need to work with smallholder farmers to make sure that they are truly in the farming business. When they see increase yield, they sell more and they get more money, rather than grow less. So I think you have to do both, and I think there is some innovative ways to do both. But I don’t think the future of agriculture in Africa is always going to be dominated by smallholder farmers. I think if you look at the progression of development in other regions of the world – whether in the US, Europe, Latin America, Asia – as economies move more to manufacturing, people leave the agricultural sector. And I think that is normal because it becomes more mechanized, more commercial, et cetera. So we should assist the smallholders today, but I don’t think we should always see a future where dominated by smallholder farmers.
In the world, we can see different approaches of foreign investment policies in relation to investing in developing countries. The Westerns tend to require the host States to uphold some values of democracy, gender equality, human rights and so on. On the other hand, there are also countries like China who choose to leave those issues to the government and people of the country they are investing on. Which one do you think works best for the development of the hosting country?
I think there are different approaches as exactly as you outlined. There are countries who are taking a much more Western approach to development – meaning very open, liberal press, focus on democracy. And there are countries like Ethiopia that is taking a much more Asian State-led growth approach. I think both ways can alleviate poverty. It’s just a question of cultural preference, and it’s kind of like a race. If you look at Ethiopia and Kenya, they are neighbors and yet they take very different development philosophies. My opinion? We will see which one works, and maybe they will both work for their own individual societies – I’m not sure. For me, I care the people have jobs, and the people have economic rights so then they can use their jobs to buy education for their children, insure health care, et cetera. So, whichever model can deliver jobs on a large scale rapidly, I think it is good.
You have seen our online platform and I tried to explain some of our offline activities in each respective country networks. What can you say about AgriProFocus in general?
I don’t know all the details but it seems to me that there is some significant value in connecting people in different value chains. Because they will be able to learn best practices from each other; they will learn who is doing what, and get this kind of market place intelligence and competitive intelligence; and so they may learn this farm is doing this with honey and they have better yield because they’re meeting. I think that is the strong value. I am a big believer in the power of network. I am involved in many professional networks; I am a co-founder of the Africa Expert Network (AXN). So I believe that networks and connecting people is how you do business. Read more