Speaker after speaker stressed that India, and indeed the world, needed to revise its notions about Africa being a 'dark' continent, full of poor impoverished people and the home to tinpot dictators and countless ethnic wars.
Lamenting Indian ignorance about the changing scenario in Africa, Navdeep Suri, Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs who will take over as consul general in Johannesburg, South Africa later this month, pointed out that some two-thirds of the African nations had "moved to multiparty governments."
This was a major political dimension which is yet to be recognised by many nations, he said.
Another trend which was not recognised was that many of the long-running civil wars were fizzling out. "Rwanda, Mozambique, Kinshasa. Yes, there are still pockets of problems," but they are no longer the predominant feature of the continent, he argued.
More importantly, he noted that the continent as a whole had shown a steady, consistent annual growth rate of close to 5 per cent for some time now, which augured well for Indians aiming to invest in the region.
"We must shed some cobwebs or notions about Africa," he said, saying it was intellectually lazy to look at Africa as Africa, and not at the individual nations, which had so much to offer investors.
India, he said, was trying two things. One, to create awareness about these changes, and two, to put its money where its mouth is by investing heavily in the region, in sectors which could act as catalysts to spur growth in Africa.
Noting that India had given close to a billion dollars in concessional lines of credit to African nations, he said it was time to move beyond this. "We must move away from trading relationships to a more sustainable partnership, we must take advantage of regional economic groupings." .
However, instead of acting like 'colonial masters' who thought they knew what was best for their subjects, "the path we have followed is that each country chooses the project which it would like us to get involved in, and then the Indian Ministries of External
He then spoke of a pan-African e-network project, part of "our President APJ Abdul Kalam's vision' which would connect 13 African nations with six top Indian hospitals and six top educational institutions in India online in a phased manner. A pilot project will be initiated in Ethiopia in August," he said.
Earlier, in his welcome remarks, T C Venkat Subramaniam, chairman and managing director of EXIM Bank of India, listed some of the areas which had huge potential for Indian investors, like medicine, education, IT, and biodiversity. The tremendous bio-diversity in Africa could be a interesting opportunity for the Indian boi-tech industry, and those interested in herbal medicines, he said.
In his special address, Hamid Diane Semega, Minister of Mines, Energy and Water, Republic of Mali, lamented that when the international media focused on Africa, it was "only about the endless fighting, and not about an Africa on its feet, marching forward."
We are a "continent full of opportunities, not beggars," he said.
A "country like Mali does not lessons in democracy from anyone," but for change, "we need assistance," he argued, closing with a Chinese proverb: "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness."
The Ambassadors of Ethiopia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, the consul general of South Africa, a counselor from the Tanzanian High Commission, and trade and commerce representatives from Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Ghana, and Namibia were among those who addressed the gathering, which included representatives of several Indian business concerns with interests or plans for investment in Africa.
The Minister for energy from the Republic of Uganda, Daudi Nigeriko, who was supposed deliver the inaugural address, could not reach due to a flight cancellation. The deputy high commissioner for Uganda, Ms Nimisha J Madhvani, used that as a argument for Indian airline companies like Jet Airways to invest and connect with African nations, particularly Uganda.
In the post lunch session, PR Dalal, chief general Manager of the Export Import Bank of India made a presentation on 'creating an environment for partnerships,' followed by a lecture on 'Doing business in Africa' by AP Mull, Executive Director and CEO of TCE Consulting Engineers Ltd.