Arnold Ekpe has three decades of experience in African banks and big ideas about how to alter the continent’s economic landscape. But at 62 he seems ready to pass the baton to those looking to improve the African economy, and he’s more than willing to provoke them.
As the final keynote speaker at the 2015 MIT Africa Innovate Conference April 4 at the MIT Media Lab, the former CEO of Ecobank and current chairman of AtlasMara told a room full of young, ambitious students to consider getting “proper jobs” and not returning to Africa. The biggest need in Africa, he said, is access to banking for the estimated one billion people who don’t have it. The continent also needs to attract big banks capable of financing major infrastructure projects, Ekpe said.
“Many of you say you want to be entrepreneurs and I ask the question ‘Why do you want to be an entrepreneur?’ I have not yet received a convincing answer,” Ekpe said. “I think it’s a fad. It’s ‘nice’ to be an entrepreneur. It’s ‘nice’ to innovate. No, it’s not. It’s actually very difficult.”
Ekpe also had advice for those who want to “change Africa:” “Whether you’re in Alaska or Siberia, you’re still African. You don’t have to go back to Africa to change Africa. And you don’t have to feel guilty.” He urged the student audience members to join global companies and pursue senior executive positions. There they could bring their perspectives and experience to businesses that lack African leadership or representation.
“You’ll do more for Africa, and [for] deploying resources to Africa, than if you’re a successful entrepreneur,” he said.
Ekpe proposed several ideas for fostering growth in Africa. He suggested the creation of an African union passport that would allow free movement and trade across the continent, as well as a monetary union for freer currency exchange.
Africa’s largest need by far, Ekpe said, is for banks capable of financing large infrastructure projects to improve access to power, water, communications, and roads. The lack of major banks in most African countries, excluding South Africa, Nigeria, Morocco, and Egypt, forces governments to seek foreign aid and adopt short-term solutions, he said. “No country has ever been developed by foreign aid,” he said.
Design challenges and a business plan competition
Ekpe challenged audience members to be agents of change. Technology has the potential to solve problems of financial exclusion, he said, and much innovation can occur from as far away as Cambridge.
One such innovator is David Sengeh, an MIT Media Lab PhD candidate and co-founder of Global Minimum Inc.
Global Minimum works to empower young people through “tinkering laboratories” and design challenges in Sierra Leone, Kenya, and South Africa. In one challenge, a young inventor from Sierra Leone created his own lighted reading glasses so he could continue working after the power went out at night. He has since developed a solar-powered backpack and is working on solar robotics.
Sengeh cited the same lack of infrastructure Ekpe addressed, calling it an obstacle to the young people in the region. “The kids need access to information and access to power,” he said. “It’s about time we give it to them.”
The MIT Africa Innovate Conference is organized by the MIT Africa Business Club. It opened with a business plan competition, attracting 25 entrants judged on potential impact in Africa, scalability, visibility, and caliber of the team.
The $4,000 grand prize went to the Practical Education Network, an MIT-born startup that equips teachers to perform learning activities using local materials. The $2,000 runner-up was MDaaS, which seeks to make hospital equipment more affordable and accessible in Nigeria through a leasing program. The $1,000 audience choice prize went to MatatuMoney, a transportation fleet management app that directs minibus drivers to pockets of demand and enables riders to find the best ride and route.