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Chicago Booth - Chicago Africa Business Group

With its annual symposium, treks to African business hubs and international membership, the Chicago Africa Business Group has its finger on the pulse of the continent

By  Ifeatu Nnaobi

Thu Jul 12 2012

If you're looking for business connections and expertise in Africa, check out the Chicago Africa Business Group at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business.

The over the last couple of years the Group's officers have beefed up activities for Chicago Booth MBAs interested in Africa, and are helping members build networks and careers on the continent. Their efforts have been recognised with an award from Chicago Booth's Dean Sunil Kumar, too!

Last week we caught up with outgoing Chair Kurt Davis (full-time MBA '12) and incoming Chair Andrew Leventhal (full-time MBA ’13). Kurt was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he is working for a private equity firm and Andrew was in Nairobi, Kenya, where he is interning at a venture capital fund.

The call quality was better than a lot of three-way Skype calls we've had in the UK, so it seems Africa's telecoms infrastructure is pretty good! 

The Group’s aim is to highlight the business climate in Africa and to prepare students for careers in Africa. They provide opportunities for members to engage with companies and business leaders and provide networking opportunities. “We really focus on getting people to understand where they’re going and who they’ll be working with”, said Kurt, who worked for Kukula Capital in Zambia prior to his MBA and has experience in investing in North Africa and the Middle East too.

Andrew is currently a summer intern with TBL Mirror Funds, a firm that provides venture capital for small and medium sized enterprises in Kenya while Kurt was recently hired as a senior associate at Schulze Global Investment, the first private equity fund to operate in Ethiopia. So far, Kurt has worked on projects in agribusiness, healthcare and natural resources.

Both of the firms view beneficial development as integral to their investment strategies which is crucial considering that the six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa, and the IMF forecasts that seven of the world’s top ten fastest growing economies over the next five years will be African, specifically, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Congo, Ghana, Zambia and Nigeria.

The Group's annual Business in Africa symposium and Africa Trek are the two signature events that help members build contacts with businesses on the ground.

This year’s symposium, held in April 2012, was titled: The New African Economy: Redefining Business, Redefining Strategy. It addressed the emerging African private equity sector, local banking institutions and stock exchanges, and the key note speech was given by John Agyekum Kufuor, former president of Ghana and former Chairman of the African Union.

There's growing interest in African business from other emerging markets, particularly in Latin America and China. Investment flows between emerging markets are on the rise.  “Some of the people who join the Group might want to connect with people for careers while others are trying to build global networks even if they don’t want to work in Africa”, said Kurt. 

In March, 14 Chicago Booth MBAs were in Kenya and South Africa, and visited a range of firms including Seacom, the first company to lay underwater internet cables connecting South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Mozambique to Europe and Asia; Standard Chartered Bank, British American Asset Managers, Kenya Railways and the Nairobi Stock Exchange. It was through the trek that Andrew gained his summer internship position with TBL Mirror Funds.

It was also a chance to learn about doing business in the various countries. Kurt pointed out that “An opportunity to study at Booth can take you anywhere but the biggest challenge is to understand the country and the people”.

In his experience, for example, it’s tougher to carry out due diligence on companies in sub-Saharan Africa than in the US and Europe, so it's important to build personal relationships with the people running firms. He also mentioned that he'd taken a local minivan home from the gym that day, and that doing what local people do also helped him build relationships and knowledge.

 Andrew said that the content of his classes at Chicago Booth had been “tremendously valuable” to his job at TBL Mirror Funds. He said, “What I learned in private equity, finance and operations classes is directly linked to managing projects better... I’m doing this now and there are not a ton of people around here with that kind of knowledge”. He worked on a project that involved buying SMS text messages in bulk and selling them to companies who want to text their customers. 

So what’s next for the Group? Andrew will co-Chair the Group in the coming year, running the signature events on a larger scale. They also plan to build on this year's buzz and grow the membership from 40 to 50 people.

Chicago Booth has recognized their efforts so far: Kurt was awarded the Global Awareness Award, a leadership award presented to one graduating full-time MBA student in recognition of exceptional contributions to initiatives that enhance the Chicago Booth reputation and brand internationally. The School is working to establish itself as a brand in Africa through a series of events across the continent this month.

This year's trek will be to Nigeria, Ghana, and possibly a few French-speaking West African countries. The next symposium will take a broader look at emerging markets, with a view to cross pollinating ideas with Chicago Booth’s Emerging Markets Group and to build more connections and dialogue on investment opportunities within and across markets in Africa and Latin America.

Chicago Booth invites prospective MBAs to attend on of their information sessions taking place across cities in Africa this month. Admissions representatives and current students will be in Nairobi on July 17, Johannesburg on July 19, Lagos on July 23 and Accra on July 24, to share their experiences and to answer questions about the Booth full-time MBA programme. For more details about the tour, look here.