AFRICA IS NOW: The Opportunity for Mid-Sized US Companies

June 22, 2015

By: Ikbel Achour, Benjamin Bader, Ross Shelleman, Lisa G. Thomas, Shalini Unnikrishnan, and Kuliva Wilburn

Africa has rapidly gained attention as the next investment hotspot and is being called “the final frontier.” A decade ago, the worldwide boom in investing in emerging markets initially benefited Africa along with other regions, but today many African countries stand out on their own as highly attractive investment opportunities. The African continent is home to seven of the top 10 fastest-growing economies in the world, and foreign direct investment is rapidly increasing.

European and Chinese companies of all sizes recognized the African opportunity early on and have a head start. Today, American companies are increasingly discussing Africa as a business destination, yet many have not taken the leap. According to Josh Becker, cofounder and CEO of Impele Consulting Group, “We are seeing tremendous growth in interest in Africa [from the US], but not the same growth in action. Companies take their notebooks but not their checkbooks.”

As growth slows in more developed markets, geographic diversification is a logical next step for businesses of all sizes. Many African markets offer attractive opportunities for mid-sized companies, and as an early mover, a company stands to secure the most suitable options as well as the best talent, partnerships, and incentives.

While significant risks remain, we challenge those shying away from investing in Africa to consider the following arguments. First, many of the perceived risks are myths. Second, careful analysis will demonstrate that Africa is not a monolith, and an informed investor can find the right fit. Finally, this is not a journey that a mid-sized company has to take alone. Resources and expertise are increasingly available.

This paper offers a framework that we call the PAL Principles—Be Prepared, Be Adaptive, and Be Local— created from discussions with experts to assist midsized US companies in developing and implementing a winning strategy for expanding to Africa.

Mid-sized US companies should not ignore Africa’s transformation into a highly attractive business destination. To capitalize on the burgeoning opportunities, the time to act is now.


About the Authors

Ikbel Achour

Director of Precision Health, University of Arizona; VP Development, Tunisian American Young Professionals Organization

Ikbel Achour works to translate cutting-edge science into patient care. As director of precision health at the University of Arizona, she leads and manages the research and development team in translational research and computational biology at Lussier’s Group. She focuses on developing precision medicine-based technologies, integrating genomic data with patient medical records to predict and improve clinical outcomes as well as repositioning and rescuing drugs. As funding chair of Women In Bio (WIB), Achour works with both the academic and business communities of Illinois and beyond to promote career development and entrepreneurship. In addition, as vice president of development for the Tunisian American Young Professionals Organization and a part of the Tunisian diaspora in the United States, she is deploying initiatives to promote economic opportunities for investment and partnership with US companies in North Africa, particularly Tunisia. In the last four years, she has also actively participated in “Tunisia, a Democratic Startup” initiatives to empower individuals and businesses. Achour earned her PhD in immunology (immunogenetics) from the Institute Pasteur-University Paris VII and her BE in biotechnology and bioindustry from the National Institute of Applied Science and Technology in Tunisia.

Benjamin Bader

Managing Director, Jones Lang LaSalle

Benjamin Bader leads the transaction advisory services group for Jones Lang LaSalle. In his 17-year tenure at the firm, he has had extensive experience managing global relationships and has executed transactions on five continents. He has twice been recognized with the firm’s LaSalle Club Award, won the 2008 JLL Collaboration Award, and has twice earned CoStar’s “Power Broker” Award. Prior to joining JLL, he worked at China Enterprises, Inc., an import-export company trading Chinese goods with US and European customers, which included three years living and working in Qingdao, China. He was a summer associate at Andersen Consulting’s China Strategy Group. Bader serves on the board of directors of the British-American Business Council of Chicago, is a licensed broker in Illinois, and holds a Six Sigma Green Belt certification. He earned a BA in international studies from Vassar College and an International MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

Ross Shelleman

President and Chief Executive Officer, Target Data

Ross Shelleman serves as president and CEO of Target Data, a marketing analytics and services company. Prior to founding Target Data, Shelleman held various senior business development positions across a multitude of industries, including technology, health care, and managed services. He also cofounded Australian Portable Storage, a holding company that owns and operates moving and storage franchises throughout Australia. In addition, he serves as chairman of Arco Capital Partners, an investment holding company that makes angel investments and leads small private equity transactions. He also serves on the advisory board of Flow Equity, a holding company that operates a series of poultry farms in Ethiopia. Shelleman is a member of the Economic Club of Chicago. He earned a BA in English from Franklin and Marshall College.

Lisa G. Thomas

Director of Investments – Asia, Equator Capital Partners LLC

Lisa G. Thomas is the director of investments-Asia for Equator Capital Partners LLC (ECP), a fund management company that manages private equity funds that invest in economies throughout Africa and Asia to promote sustainable economic, social, and environmental development through private sector investments. She is responsible for sourcing and managing attractive investment opportunities that fit the company’s social mission. Prior to joining Equator Capital, Thomas was vice president of capacity building and operations for CapitalPlus Exchange, ECP’s capacity-building partner. In this role, she was responsible for developing the infrastructure of socially oriented financial institutions in Asia and Africa to meet profitability and impact goals. She has also worked in investment banking, research, and consulting in New York and Chicago. Thomas serves on the board of Khushhali Bank Limited, the largest microfinance bank in Pakistan, as well as on the advisory board of VestedWorld, a US-based online investment platform connecting investors to opportunities in emerging markets. She is also an advisor for start-up companies in Impact Engine’s 16-week accelerator program based at 1871, Chicago’s entrepreneurial hub for digital startups. Thomas earned an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in 2006 and a BS in business administration (finance concentration) with honors from the University of Oregon in 2000.

Shalini Unnikrishnan

Principal, Boston Consulting Group

Shalini Unnikrishnan is a core member of Boston Consulting Group’s (BCG) health care and social impact practices. In health care, she advises clients in the biopharmaceutical, medical technology, and payer areas on a broad range of strategic issues. Unnikrishnan serves as BCG Chicago’s office node and works globally across public education, global health, and economic development teams. Unnikrishnan has also worked for former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s nonprofit Africa Governance Initiative, first as a private sector development adviser to Rwanda’s largest government agency, Rwanda Development Board, in 2009 and 2010. Then in 2012 she was a special adviser to President Joyce Banda in Malawi and the head of Blair’s Malawi team. In these roles Unnikrishnan was based within the government and worked alongside the core members of the president’s team. Unnikrishnan earned a BA in economics and sociology from Davidson College in North Carolina, an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and an MA in international relations from the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

Kuliva Wilburn

Senior Consultant, Health Management Associates

Kuliva Wilburn is a strategic planner with extensive experience in the philanthropic sector, building cross-sector partnerships and analyzing health policy. Prior to joining Health Management Associates, Wilburn served as the senior program officer for health at the Chicago Community Trust. She provided oversight for the foundation’s health grant-making portfolio of more than $11 million, representing health-care policy, advocacy, and system integration in the arenas of improved access, reform implementation, and obesity prevention. Previously, Wilburn oversaw planning and development for a federally qualified healthcare network. She managed an $8 million portfolio of community health grants from private and public institutions, led community assessment processes, and facilitated strategic planning, fundraising, and program development. Wilburn’s previous work and academic background in biotechnology have afforded her opportunities to work with NASA as well as several large pharmaceutical companies. She also has many years of experience consulting on and researching community health initiatives. Ms. Wilburn received a BS degree in biochemistry from Drexel University and an MPH degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is currently a student in the doctoral program in the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health.
AFRICA IS NOW: The Opportunity for Mid-Sized US Companies