"If you don't participate we become consumers of other people's ideas" -- these words from HRH King Kgosi Leruo Molotlegi, King of the Royal Bafokeng Nation, echoed strongly throughout the Sheraton's ballroom where the cream of African potential, hope and change-making strength were seated for the three-day African Leadership Network (ALN) conference.
More than three hundred African leaders and emerging leaders flew to the Addis Ababa, for the second annual gathering of the African Leadership Network (ALN). Armed with business cards, the crowd moved energetically back and forth between speaking sessions and coffee breaks from early morning to late afternoon.
The main goal of the conference was to inspire everyone to get on the bandwagon that will be "powering prosperity" across the African continent. The two host organisers, Fred Swaniker of Ghana, and Acha Leke of Cameroon, want to mobilize progress from within Africa, expounding the belief that "only with our own resources can Africans finally stand on their own feet."
I was there representing Sandbox Network, a potential partner with Fred Swaniker's African Leadership Academy in South Africa. (Check CNN video "Elite boarding school aims to create Africa's future leaders") This event was all about the networks, as James Mwangi of Equity Bank, winner of the special prize for "values of bold and responsible leadership" said in his thank you speech: "Your influence is scaled through networks."
Throughout the conference, on stage and in private, people echoed the feeling that the network is more of an African Business Network rather than leadership network: currently 89 percent of members come from the private sector. Diversity from within Africa is also needed as the network grows with only a few members from North and Francophone Africa participating. Women are also underrepresented at just 28 percent in attendance this year. While there are some great plans in the pipeline to address these shortcomings, with regional events to be held in Cairo, Dakar, Abidjan, it remains to be seen how this will be reflected in active membership and influence.
After holding the annual gathering in Addis Ababa two years in a row, the location for the annual gathering in 2012 will be in Accra, Ghana -- it's time to share the love across Africa.
As a setting for Africa's dramatic stage entrance, Ethiopia doesn't have to try hard to win your attention and engagement. Some highlights outside the Sheraton conference location include the gala dinner at the historic palace of Emperor Haile Selassie and the lunch out in the bush two hours away at Kuriftu Lodge.
While conferences like the Summit Series strive to go casual, in Addis, attendance meant full suit and polished black shoes. I didn't get that memo, and my jeans and wrinkled shirt received a dubious reception. But this is still Africa, so there was laughter, borrowing of a suit from a random guy, crashing on his floor in my sleeping bag one night, and liberal use of the hotel sauna. Suits or no suits, Miami cruise ship or Ethiopian five-star hotel, these guys knew how to have fun.
What was the impact of the get together? There was a vision to get multilateral support for some single idea that could empower African prosperity. The organizers plan to track all the new ventures and cooperation that will take place in the future that were catalyzed by the conference. Finally, there was a sense of hope and participation in something existing outside of the African Union, for which a general distaste was palpable.
Fred and Acha are taking steps to deliver on their vision of balancing business and non-business participants. Next year the aim is for 30 percent of its members to be non-business leaders. For this to happen more money needs to be raised to fund these fellowships since becoming a member isn't cheap and the only people who can afford it are the business leaders of the continent.
Coming up for the ALN is a retreat in Zanzibar and a learning trip to China. Plus African Leadership Ventures (ALV), a new initiative supporting entrepreneurial projects from the network's members with early stage funding ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 USD.
My very personal take-away from this event is that Africa is a success story. I'm back in Nairobi, and feel a hunger to reach out to this new network of movers and shakers. It's always questionable what tangible value will continue to be felt after the initial excitement of a conference. Africa will not be judged on what has come before it in the Western world. The frameworks do not necessarily apply, so I for one am keeping an open mind to what comes next.