“Building partnerships sounds nice, but it is hard work”

Many conferences on business opportunities in Africa are held both inside and outside the continent. Last week VC4Africa joined the ‘AfricaWorks!’ event in the Netherlands. The two-day gathering attracted around 700 people working at both multinationals, NGOs, universities and governments. 

Although coming from very different backgrounds the number of partnerships between organisations from both the corporate and non-profit world is increasing. But as Christiaan Rebergen, Deputy Director General for International Cooperation at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “Building partnerships sounds nice, but it is hard work.”

During the event, organized by the Netherlands African Business Council and the Dutch African Studies Centre, lively discussions were held and the interesting mix of people made sure that different opinions were represented. The many workshops focused on, amongst others, inclusive business approaches, value chain optimization, PPPs, investing in Africa and trade regulations. “What happens if Nigeria will become more unstable? The multinationals will leave and what happens to their good intentions?”, was a question during one of the sessions. Answer: “Of course they will stay, this is a market they cannot afford to miss.”

Big opportunities

Multinational companies showed how the African continent is offering big opportunities. Mr. Berry Martin of the Rabobank, one of the biggest international Dutch banks, held a presentation about ‘Banking 4 Food ‘and how investments in for instance storage facilities can reduce the African import of grain with 50% and boost local economies.

Fashion company Vlisco, operating from the Dutch city of Helmond and very successful in West Africa, showed how they have supported local cotton farmers to improve their yield. They are now sourcing 30% of their cotton from West African countries, as opposed to importing almost all their cotton in the past. And in one of the workshops ICCO showed how they successfully support fruit farmers in Ghana to bring their fresh produce to European supermarkets.

Africa Rising?

But, as one of the speakers pointed out, the ‘Africa Rising’ theme that is mostly used by big financial institutions that are trying to convince others to invest, has been under debate. Critics argue that the growth is not benefitting the majority of the population in the fastest growing economies. And the Africa optimists have another serious competitor now: The horrific Ebola disease in West Africa.

In the plenary session on the first day, Julia Duncan-Cassell, Minister of Gender & Development of Liberia, urged for more support and funding to tackle the current crisis. And a petition urging more action against ebola was handed over to the Special Envoy on Ebola of the Netherlands government.

During the speech of researcher Stephen Ellis he ‘sobered up’ the crowd even more with his remarks on the current conflicts in Nigeria (Boko Haram), Kenya (Al Shabaab), South Sudan and the Central African Republic. When immediately after Mr. Ellis two representatives of South Sudan were trying to convince the audience to become interested in ‘Africa’s newest investment destination’, it was one of the hardest sells you can imagine.


It is interesting to see how Dutch large NGOs are increasingly using new approaches, often by participating in PPPs. This is also a result of the policies of the Dutch government where the emphasis is very much focused on partnerships and business approaches to social problems. One of the examples is the partnership between Philips and The Medical Credit Fund to improve healthcare services in Africa, which was announced at the end of the conference.

The large 2SCALE program, managed by the BoP Innovation Centre and IFDC is another good example. Their workshop on value chain optimization was well attended and they showed how large companies such as Friesland Campina Wamco are working together with small-scale farmers, government and NGOs to improve the milk production value chain.


The optimism of a few years ago about the prospects in different parts of Africa is still here. But the growth figures have been put in perspective and there seems to be a better common understanding that businesses need to work together with NGOs and governments to make a profit and improve people’s lives at the same time. Looking at the large number of visitors, and the vivid networking that took place between the workshops, it is clear that conferences like ‘AfricaWorks!’ have an important function to bring people together.

You can view some of the recordings of the speeches during the conference on the AfricaWorks! website.