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Euvin Naidoo on bringing light to Africa

A note for everyone: I’ve gotten a number of requests to reuse content from this site about the TED conference. The answer is a blanket “yes”. Everything I write is available under Creative Commons atrribution license. That means that as long as you give me credit and preferably link back to here, you’re welcome to use my words whatever way you’d like.

Rokia Traoré welcomes the assembled crowd to the first session of TED Global 2007, “The Africa You Don’t Know,” with a beautiful Malian song. I’m thrilled to see Chris Anderson joined on stage by my friend Emeka Okafor, the remarkable Nigerian entrepreneur, thinker and blogger who’s put together this program. Emeka is clearly nervous to be on stage, co-hosting with Chris… but he deserves the honor given the amazing work he’s done.

Euvin Naidoo, the VP of Standard Bank in South Africa, welcomes us home to Africa. He invites the crowd to shout out the worst we’ve heard about Africa: corruption, famine, AIDS, slave trade. “But this is about Africa, the story we’ve not heard.”

Africa is on a turnaround, in terms of how it manages its public image and how it manages its destiny. Naidoo’s background is in turnarounds, beginning his work with McKinsey in South Africa. As a graduate student in the US, he wrote a case study on turnaround, focusing on Nelson Mandela – this became part of a book called “Confidence”, written by Rosabeth Moss Kanter. Naidoo has tremendous pride that an African story was used as an example of turnaround for US corporations.

Naidoo uses the NASA map of the earth at night to show us the contrast between the brightly lit North America and Africa, which literally looks like the Dark Continent. He quotes a geographer: “The only thing dark about Africa is our ignorance of it.”

One major source of our ignorance about Africa is the tendency to forget that the continent is 53 separate countries. “To say ‘invest in Africa’ is meaningless.” You can make money and lose money in Africa. But it’s worth noting that companies like Bain Capital are coming into South Africa and purchasing retail companies – that’s a bet on the emergence of the middle class. Nigeria must be taken seriously – it’s going to be one of the ten largest economies in the world by 2020, and we’re already seeing Nigerian companies capable of raising money through Eurobonds, securities with no government backing.And Nigeria currently produces as much oil as Venezuela or Kuwait. There are 135 million people in Nigeria, and 700 ATMs – that’s an opportunity, for serving tens of millions of unbanked people.

Naidoo is also bullish on Egypt, which had the world’s best performing stock exchange in 2005. He tells us about a $2.8 billion industrial park run by Singaporeans, designed to host textile and petrochemical manufacturing. Many African nations – now 16 – have soverign credit ratings. Some of these ratings aren’t very good… but they allow international investors to choose between African and non-African nations, comparing Nigeria to Ukraine, for instance.

Why is CNBC building a 24 hour news channel broadcasting nothing but African news? They believe there’s business to follow in Africa, and they want to shine a light on it. Naidoo urges us to take part in shining that light alongside them.