Business Insider speaks to Amir Ben Yahmed, President of the Africa CEO Forum, as it heads into its 7th year

Amir Ben Yahmed, President, Africa CEO Forum
  • The Africa CEO Forum was born 7 years ago with a simple goal to connect African business leaders and promote economic integration.
  • 80% of participants identify promising business opportunities during the event, Amir Ben Yahmed, President, Africa CEO Forum, says.
  • Only 5% of CEOs are women and only 29% of senior roles in organisations are held by women and Yahmed believes this is both "unfair" and "defies logic".

7 years ago, the Africa CEO Forum was born. It set out to solve a simple but erstwhile overlooked problem -- African CEOs were not connected enough, most didn’t know each other.

Businesses thrive within networks. No one gets to the top and stays there in isolation, especially on a continent in dire need of more collaborations within and across industries. This is one of the motives for the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.

“African CEOs needed a place to gather and network. A place to exchange best practices and to learn from each other. A place where they would promote economic integration and intra-regional investments together,” Amir Ben Yahmed, the president of the Africa CEO Forum, tells Business Insider Sub-Saharan Africa.

“There was also a need for greater dialogue between public and private sector decision makers. No such advocacy platform existed before. Since its maiden edition, the forum, which is now the sole flagbearer for private sector-led growth, has helped shape the African economic agenda,” he adds.

Speaking about the impact of the forum on leadership and business in Africa, Yahmed says, “We found that 80% of our participants identify promising business opportunities during the event. This is a striking figure. Over the years, many major business deals were initiated or signed on the occasion of the CEO Forum. The latest one being the cocoa agreement between the presidents of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. These also significantly help shape the future of the continent.”

In Africa, only 5% of CEOs are women and only 29% of senior roles in organisations are held by women. Women are being left behind in top positions and Yahmed believes this situation is both “unfair” and “defies logic”.

“Numerous studies show the economic and intellectual benefits of a strong female presence on executive boards. If we look at the issue of board representation more closely, the first explanation to this situation is that most nominations for board membership are done via an informal process, that relies on networks traditionally reserved for men and thus automatically excluding women,” he says.

Adding that “a second explanation lies in the disconnect between female decision-makers (potentially eligible for executive boards) and companies wishing to increase the number of women on their boards. African women who are qualified and aspire to sit on boards (and they are many) are only too rarely invited to do so.”

According to him, “For women to take their place in the African private sector sustainably and irreversibly, we must have the courage to start at the top. Company boards, which are essential to good governance and to accelerating corporate social responsibility programmes, must assume the role of pushing gender issues to the forefront, acting from within to change the thinking of the continent’s economic elites.”

Yahmed says the Africa CEO Forum is committed to furthering female leadership. “In its most recent edition, it made increasing women’s representation on company boards a priority. This effort results from a thought process involving more than forty African and international companies. This engagement, which we believe is at the heart of the development and modernization of the African private sector, is based on 3 main pillars,” he says.

“The first one, advocating for members of the African private sector to embrace the systematic establishment of national codes of company governance, including mandatory transparency in matters of gender diversity. The second, with our Women on Board initiative, launching a platform for putting ‘board-ready’ African female decision-makers in touch with companies wishing to increase the number of women on their boards. This year we will also feature a gender chart that will be signed by participating companies to foster gender parity in African businesses. Finally, the second Africa CEO Forum Women in Business Leadership Meeting, which will take place from 17th to 18th June 2019 in Paris, is designed to strengthen their professional connections on the continent and worldwide,” he adds.

Family businesses have always played a key role in Africa’s economy. Founded for the most part two or three decades ago, the continent’s family firms have developed in line with the dynamics of African economic growth. They have now reached a new stage in their development and are facing new challenges.

In this context, the 2019 CEO Forum will launch the Family Business Initiative. It will convene the founders, CEOs and successors of family-owned companies for high-level panels, workshops and networking sessions.

There are several, Yahmed says. “The first one is to represent all parts of Africa. Bringing together Anglophone, Francophone and Portuguese speaking African top CEOs, as we do every year, is a real tour de force.

“The second one is remaining relevant and consistent in terms of content for our participants. Every year we have to find innovative ways to address their challenges and strategic priorities. Africa is changing fast, so do African business leaders’ expectations and demands, so that adaptability is a key success factor for us.

“The last one is logistical. As the event grows fast, we have to find every year a new location and host country aligned with our international standards and values.”

The 2019 Africa CEO Forum holds from March 25 to 26, 2019, and is themed ‘Open Africa: from continental treaties to business realities’.

Yahmed says that this year, the forum and its participants have a shared objective -- “Using regional integration to drive private sector growth and create more African champions.”

There will be 40 panel discussions, case studies, testimonies, public-private workshops and thematic working groups, to facilitate this agenda, while exploring the other major challenges for the development of Africa’s private sector, such as women leaders’ access to the boardroom, the growth potential of Africa’s tourism industry, banking penetration in the digital age, regional agribusiness markets, and the governance of family firms.

Other highlights at the event include:

  • The deal rooms, conceived in partnership with Asoko Insights, which is a dedicated platform to connect investors with promising African businesses seeking growth funds
  • the “Gender leader award”, a prize showcasing our growing commitment to promoting female leadership on the continent.
  • the “Disrupter of the year award”, which will be granted to the CEO of a young company in the field of new technology.
  • The “CEO Network” which will be unveiled soon.
  • Our new “family business initiative” which will address the twofold challenge of perpetuation and growth.

The Africa CEO Forum holds on March 25-26, 2019. Get more information about it here.

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