As deadlines began to loom you could be forgiven for thinking that students would crawl into their holes, praying for inspiration as the dim light of laptop screens and notification redundant phones continued to offer no help for either a social life or academic future. And surely, even if students were to come out of their flats and halls, they would doubtless be going to some kind of drinking event, something to drown their sorrows. Yet, I remain willing to be surprised by this University, as my entrance into the annual St Andrews Africa Summit proved that not all Students are deciding to shirk the world for yet another bowl of cold supernoodles. The room was bustling with event goers, all talking excitedly as they awaited the start of the conference.
This year’s theme, ‘Identity and Empowerment: An African Evolution’, was epitomised by the first speaker, Dr Mamphela Ramphele. She discussed how her exposure to the realities of apartheid in South Africa caused her to pursue involvement in the struggle for racial equality in the continent. Her current role in the World Bank as managing director for human development put her in a unique position to offer insight on what Africa really needs if it is to grow. I saw how Africa is well and truly capable of empowering itself, if only outside restrictions and stereotypes are no longer applied.
Providing a pragmatic edge to proceedings was Tim Zajontz, who as co-founder and chairperson of the Germany-based, non-profit Freundeskris Uganda e.v., was able to draw upon his knowledge to inform the audience about the influence of transport infrastructure in Africa. His talk varied about the empowerment associated with large rail and road links, both in terms of encouraging large corporations to invest in Africa, and the socio-economic empowerment associated with helping small African businesses. Quick to keep a balanced opinion however, Mr Zajontz also commented on the issues related to the vast amounts of debt racked up by countries in choosing to develop their infrastructure, issues that cause some African nations to spend vast quantities of their GDP on loan interest. The impact of some project on informal industries was also shown to be relevant, as the pace with which countries are being pressured to develop in regards to transport can bulldoze existing small industries, giving the upper hand to larger corporations.
It was interesting to note the contrast between Mr Zajontz’s talk, which referred to entrepreneurs in Africa, and the talk given by Jean Bosco Nzeyimana, who is himself an African Entrepreneur. His story of empowerment was a personal one, where the borrowing of two eggs led to him becoming the founder of Habona Ltd. An affordable and sustainable biofuel producer in Rwanda. As I listened to Mr Nzeyimana it was interesting to note how humble he was regarding his success. The empowerment he gained for himself and has given to so many areas in one of the poorest areas of Rwanda is told by him as the simple decision to act on a problem in his community. He saw that they struggled with firewood as their main supply of fuel, so he set up an alternative. In 2014 he was recognised internationally as Rwanda’s top young entrepreneur, a prize he proved well-earned in his speech, as he proved that empowerment in Africa can be as simple as seeing a problem and trying to solve it.
Lastly we were spoken to by Samba Gadjigo, the renowned Senegalese Director of ‘SEMBELE!’. After discussions of economic empowerment, it was interesting to note how Mr Gadjigo had undertaken risks to try and break the western monopoly on expression in film. As an arts student, I was roused by the concept of someone making it their life’s work to bring a form of expression to those who had not had the privilege of it before. It is interesting to reflect that barriers to empowerment in Africa lie not only in the form of poverty or famine, but in the less measurable world of expression that is the right of all human beings. Visitors were left thinking at the start of the speech that they had gained a handle on what the theme they were being presented with was, only to have an entire new dimension of the debate introduced to them.
After the talks we were given a break before the Q and A, where committee and audience members alike were able to ask a range of questions about empowerment and identity both in the lives of the speakers, and in the wider world. One particular audience member even sparked debate by questioning whether some accountability for problems in Africa should not be taken up by the corrupt governments that exist in some African states, an idea that re-invigorated the discussion.
A few minutes later I found myself outside once again, pulling up by jacket as I read a note online about something called ‘The Beast from the East’. ‘Probably nothing’ I thought, and prepared to walk back. SAASUM have, once again, managed to put on one of St Andrews’ most informative events, providing diversity of opinion, and strength of knowledge in debate. As I have already told one committee member I’ll spend next year eying my calendar, looking forward to what they offer in 2019.