Every morning in Africa, a gazelle awakens.

He has only one thought on his mind: To run faster than the fastest lion. If he cannot, then he will be eaten.

Every morning in Africa a lion awakens. He has only one thought on his mind: To run faster than the slowest gazelle. If he cannot, he will die of hunger.

Whether a gazelle or a lion, with the rising of the sun, Africa is awakening and running, faster than it did yesterday.

Africa has been underperforming in business event arrivals for decades, recording only 3 per cent of international association meetings in 2019 and 6 per cent of international organisation and association meetings according to the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) and the Union of International Associations (UIA) respectively.

This is supported by the Events Industry Council that recorded only 5.3 per cent of global business events participants and 2.2 per cent of global direct spending in Africa in 2018.

The top-performing business event countries in Africa are South Africa, ranked 38th globally by ICCA in 2019, followed by Morocco at 57th, Rwanda at 64th, Egypt at 66th and Kenya at 69th.

Africa is 30.1 million km² in size, making up 20.3 per cent of the earth’s total land area. Its 54 countries (and one sovereign state) are home to 17.4 per cent of the world’s population, an estimated 1373 billion people in 2021 according to the latest United Nations estimates and projected to grow to 2.4 billion by 2050.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the world’s youngest population with a median age of 19.5 compared to 38 in the US, 43 in the EU and 47 in Japan. It is estimated that 20 million young people will be joining the workforce every year for the next three decades (Africa Center for Economic Transformation).

Africa’s total GDP is estimated at US$ 2.6 trillion. Against the aspirations of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 (the plan for transformation that aims for a peaceful, integrated and prosperous continent by 2063), Africa’s tourism competitiveness is increasing as destinations scale up their development agendas, specifically into the business events sector.

The Business Tourism Company has, over the past two decades, pursued a growth plan for Africa’s share of the global business events sector, with the catalyst for success being in establishing professional, skilled national convention bureaus to drive the agenda forward.

In recent years, liberalising air transport and further relaxation of visa rules, easier currency convertibility, Afro-optimism and business events infrastructure development outside of South Africa has been mushrooming throughout the continent.

World-class convention and exhibition centres and international branded hotels with excellent meeting capabilities are fast appearing on skylines in Dakar, Kigali, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Dar es Salaam and beyond.

Africa’s middle class is expanding rapidly, drawing interest from global trade and professional associations and manufacturers of consumer goods where a strong market economy is a key demand driver for business events and exhibitions.

East Africa has been the rising star for the past decade and the continent’s most recent growth region for business events. National convention bureaus have been established in Rwanda, Kenya and Ethiopia, with Uganda and Tanzania in the makings, building awareness of the business events industry as an essential contributor to national economies. The centre of gravity has now moved to West Africa, with Senegal, Ghana and Togo exploring their business event sector options.

“The top-performing business event countries in Africa are South Africa, Morocco, Rwanda, Egypt and Kenya”

As is the case the world over, Covid-19 has unquestionably been a catalyst for change. This is an important time for our industry to redefine our relationships, consider future markets, and explore new opportunities to deliver business value.

This holds true both for the international business event organiser looking for growth markets and for each of Africa’s economies looking to expand the socio-economic benefits into their communities through hosting global business events.

So, why has Africa underperformed in the business events sector, except South Africa, Egypt and Morocco that have been actively engaged for some two-plus decades?

We believe strongly that it is because of a lack of convention bureaus that understand the technicalities of the sector and that are fully skilled to raise awareness into public and private sectors as to the enormous socio-economic benefits that cascade into the economy through hosting international business events.

Rwanda is an example of remarkable success in the growth of business events in an African destination. Rwanda was ranked number three in Africa (after South Africa and Morocco) by ICCA in 2019, and number 64 globally, ahead of Egypt and Kenya that make up the top 5 on the continent.

When you compare the size of these countries in terms of GDP and population to Rwanda, the success achieved by this small nation is remarkable. It can be attributed to the buy-in from the top echelons of the public sector and a convention bureau that understands its mandate and proactively engages in sales and bidding activities.

Adding to Africa’s appeal as a region for hosting international association congresses is the growth of the professional middle class. Africa’s population is growing faster than that of any other region, and it is the middle class that is expanding most rapidly.

In less than a decade, Rwanda has demonstrated the potential that awaits Africa.

CountryICCA 2019 Global rankingGDP Global ranking (IMF 2019)Population Size 2021 (UN)
South Africa National Convention Bureau
Launched in 2004, plus 6 regional and city CBs
1st in Africa
US$387 billion
60 million
Moroccan Convention Bureau
Launched in 2009
2nd in Africa
US$129 billion
37 million
Rwanda Convention Bureau
Launched in 2014
3rd in Africa
US$11 billion
13 million
Egypt Expo and Convention Authority
Formalised in 1989
4th in Africa
US$331 billion
104 million
Kenya Convention Bureau
Launched in 2019
5th in Africa
US$109 billion
55 million

According to the African Development Bank, by 2030, Africa’s middle class will comprise over 300 million people who will spend US$ 2.2 trillion a year between them. Professional associations are attracted to destinations offering the opportunity of gaining new members, and African countries increasingly provide fertile recruiting grounds for associations.

The business events industry in Africa has resumed operations with countries such as South Africa, Kenya, and Rwanda. They have published comprehensive Event Re-opening Guidelines and Covid-19 safety checklists. Also, they have adopted the WTTC Global Safety Stamp that recognises safe travel protocols, alongside Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Namibia and Zambia.

In most countries, borders are open to international and regional delegates, with live events limited to around 50 per cent of room capacities. In Senegal, hotel venues are currently operating at almost total capacity hosting local and regional meetings.

Live-streaming technology has been embraced, and whilst the benefits of virtual and/or hybrid events have been recognised, industry experts remain confident that people realise and appreciate the value of live, face-to-face events more than ever.

In Africa, we have come to understand the extent to which we are globally interconnected and how much we depend on each other, not just for trade but for knowledge and information sharing.

As an industry, the focus will be firmly placed on the economic, social and environmental legacy benefits that business events can bring to African destinations. This must be extended to include enhancing skills development in Africa’s bright young graduates.

Knowledge must be purposefully dispersed to ensure that the business events sector helps meet our youth’s future professional development aspirations.

Through the rising convention bureau development in Africa, global meeting, incentive and exhibition clients will be encouraged through harder working sales and marketing activities to step outside of their comfort zones and explore a continent brimming with iconic abundance, warm and openhearted people, and the new experiences that await their delegates in Africa.

Might the Covid-19 pandemic experience encourage greater international cooperation and openness out of self-interest? This would impact Africa’s business events sector positively.

Let’s stand together as one Community, one Industry, one Africa … awakening to the realisation that business events will drive the future we want for our continent.

“As Africans we need to share common recognition that all of us stand to lose if we fail to transform our Continent”

Thabo Mbeki (former president, South Africa)