Africa-Ireland Economic Forum at UCD Smurfit

One of the unexpected benefits of the Smurfit MBA programme is the vast amount of extramural activities that are constantly happening at the business school, and that MBA students receive invitations to. One such invitation arrived in my inbox last week and pricked my interest – The Africa-Ireland Economic Forum. Coming from South Africa and being involved in business through out Africa, I was interested to see what the conference would address and so signed myself up.

Arriving in my short sleeve shirt and light trousers, and seeing the other 200 delegates in their suits, ties and suave African dress, I immediately realized that I had misread the size and calibre of this forum. Following a few deep breaths, and some semi-successful mingling, I identified most delegates as either being involved in Irish business or representing an African embassy. The stature of the conference was further enforced by the first address being that of the Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs, followed closely by the Irish vice-president himself.

The introductory speeches were followed by highly informative talks and panel discussions with companies involved in business in Africa. I could resonate with the opportunities and challenges experienced by the panel delegates and found some of their comments truly insightful. Reading the programme material and listening to the panel discussions, I felt somewhat embarrassed as to the education I was receiving as to the significant developments in counties back on my continent. Following the information overload received in the morning session, I was relieved to reach the lunch break and get the opportunity of speaking with some of the other delegates.

My lunch partner was a Kenyan businessman who has been running the marketing and distribution side of their agricultural-produce business in Dublin for the past 8 years. It was fascinating to hear about the developments in Kenyan agriculture and the significant inroads this produce had made in the Irish and UK markets. We were then joined by engineering consultant who expanded on the work his company was doing in water infrastructure projects in Africa.

The lunch break ended too quickly for my liking but I was looking forward to the next session where delegates were broken into specific ‘interest groupings’ and panel discussions were to be held on a smaller scale. I was torn between the topic groups of ‘Education and IT’ and ‘Infrastructure Projects’ and eventually followed my engineering consultant friend to the infrastructure discussion.

The ‘interest group’ setting was a lot less formal, to my relief, and allowed discussion to flow across the room. Our forum focussed on interaction between African country representatives and Irish businesses involved or looking to get involved in infrastructure projects in Africa. Real life examples of challengers and opportunities faced by businesses operating in Africa were brought to light and debated across the floor. Businesses seemed to gain much from the sharing of similar experiences, and valuable insight and understanding was provided by the African delegates. By the end of the session, it seemed all participants had at least gained a better understand of the realities of operating businesses in African business and more importantly had a name and a face to discuss future opportunities with. I for one had gained valuable insight that I would take back home with me.

As I reflected on the day, I was quite amazed to think that I had come half way around the world to gain some of the most valuable insights into business back at home. I am glad to already be reaping from my sowing into the Smurfit MBA.

– Neil Krige, FT MBA 2013