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African Business Leaders Discuss Ways to Encourage Investment - 2004-06-24


Economic experts from the African Union told a business conference in Nairobi Thursday that the image of the African continent and the self-confidence of its people must improve to attract and keep investment from the private sector.

The head of the Kenyan office of the New Partnership for Africa's Development, or NEPAD, told businesspeople Thursday national and international investors won't put their money into Africa if they believe the continent is ravaged by wars, disease, corruption and other problems.

The official, Pete Ondeng, criticized the international media for pumping out bad news about the continent, leading investors to think there is a high risk of doing business in Africa.

But, Mr. Ondeng says even more damaging is the poor self-image and morale among many Africans, which he says leads them to be pessimistic and unproductive.

"The big battle that we face in Africa is the battle right here, between our two ears," he said. "How we see ourselves, what we think of ourselves, what we think of our future, what we believe will be the outcome of our efforts, will go a long ways in determining how we approach what we do, it will determine how we invest, it will determine how we take pride or how we approach whatever it is that we're doing."

Mr. Ondeng says how Africans see themselves has a direct bearing on how the rest of the world sees Africa.

He spoke at the opening of a two-day conference encouraging East African businesses to invest in NEPAD projects. NEPAD is the development initiative of the African Union, in which the continent's leaders have agreed to take steps to develop their countries and the continent as a whole.

These measures include restoring peace and stability, stamping out corruption, getting rid of poverty and ensuring good governance.

Part of the initiative involves accelerating economic growth. Organizers of this conference say investment from the private sector, in Africa and abroad, is crucial for this to happen.

The executive deputy chairman of NEPAD's electronic commission, Henry Chasia, says businesses may have to be patient about making profits in the beginning when investing in NEPAD's programs.

As an example, he referred to the NEPAD e-Schools Initiative, a program in which 600,000 primary and secondary schools across Africa will eventually be hooked up to the internet. The one-year pilot project, to begin in October, will involve six schools in each of 16 African countries.

Mr. Chasia says businesses should initially come into the project offering free or very inexpensive equipment and services, and gradually raise their prices as the project expands.

"Nobody thinks of schools as places where you can make a profit," he said. "So somebody needs to explain to them how it turns out that you can make a profit in actually supplying schools. They need to invest in the marketing. Some of the things they need to do, for example, is, to say, well, let's have a pricing structure that perhaps begins with zero charge, [and] increase it step by step."

Mr. Chasia says if companies get in on the project early, they will make profits later on.

Microsoft is one of the companies investing in the NEPAD e-Schools Initiative. Microsoft's East Africa marketing manager, Denning Oluoch, explains his company's involvement.

"Our incentive is basically long-term," he said. "We are focussing on making sure that we lay the groundwork and the framework and the foundation right now so that, later on, we can see what we can benefit out of this."

Mr. Oluoch says governments and communities often lack resources, especially in the technology field. He says businesses can provide those resources in the short term to reap long-term benefits.

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