Leadership

New Territory: The African Society of Association Executives

By / Apr 1, 2016 (iStock/Thinkstock)

Africa has a growing economy and burgeoning professional class. What’s missing are professionals leading their industries and opportunities for them to meet. With a new society, Africa is getting serious about association management.

Chidorum Nwakanma, president of the Nigerian chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), has been interested in associations since his school days. Back then, though, he didn’t think of it as working in associations. What he was interested in was “interaction, networking, knowledge production, and sharing,” he says. “That has always been the ideal, the idea of service in propagating common group interest. I didn’t know of it as an industry until much later.”

Since then, Nwakanma has had a robust 15-year career: In addition to his position at IABC, he’s served in multiple board roles for the Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria. But that work has also alerted him to many of the limitations in Nigeria—and throughout Africa—for gaining experience in the business of running an association.

That’s changing. February 2016 marked the official launch of the African Society of Association Executives (AfSAE), designed to bring education and training to the nascent community of association leaders on the continent—and perhaps stoke some travel and convention business as well. Meetings Africa, the annual gathering of conference and event leaders in Johannesburg, South Africa, has informally hosted association executives from the continent for years. But more recently the energy around creating a formal group has been building.

Those informal gatherings have attracted around 100 attendees, and that’s likely just a sliver of the continent’s association community, according to Gregg Talley, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of Talley Management Group, which is providing pro-bono startup support for AfSAE. He estimates that there are at least 500 formal associations on the continent, “and we feel that’s the tip of the iceberg because we know there are many more national and regional associations.”

AfSAE's board.

AfSAE’s board.

There’s nothing lacking in the structure of associations in Africa that would make it hard to build an association community there.

First Steps

Association Day at Meetings Africa has been taking place for the past seven years. But about two years ago, Talley says, “there started to be an interest and desire to start something more formal to help them network and to help them think about their own development as association leaders on the continent.” At the 2015 event, a group of 25 leaders gathered to discuss the matter more formally and elected a 12-member “establishment committee” to discuss how to move forward.

Among the members of that committee is AfSAE President Jeffers Miruka, executive manager and head of operations of the African Association of Agricultural Economists in Nairobi, Kenya. In 2004, he co-organized the inaugural conference for the association, then helped it become officially registered with the Kenyan government. In that process, he was struck by the power of the organization to help network and educate—and by his own interest in helping. “It dawned on me that I was attracted to association management, that this was a global profession that I preferred to pursue further,” he says.

The missing piece in Africa, he says, is education and training on leadership and management, which is one of the short-term goals for the new group. “Online and face-to-face [education] will address issues reflecting best practices in not-for-profit management and enable members to build both their professional and personal skills for enhancing their careers,” he says.

There’s nothing lacking in the structure of associations in Africa that would make it hard to build an association community there, says Gary Grimmer, CEO of Leading Edge, an Australia-based consulting firm that is also assisting AfSAE. Nor is the continent’s economy a major roadblock: According to the African Development Bank, the continent’s GDP grew 5 percent in 2015 on the strength of better political stability and booms in the services and agriculture sectors. The necessary shift for the profession, however, is to promote it as a professional activity, not just a volunteer one.

“The association community operates in a pretty similar fashion all over the world,” Grimmer says. “What makes Africa different is that it’s not a terribly efficient model. It’s not a terribly sophisticated model. The reason for that is that it’s highly volunteer-driven by people who have not been in the business of managing associations for very long. There’s a heavy emphasis on volunteerism, and while that’s a positive thing, that has plenty of limitations.”

He adds: “Africa does have a fledgling association community and talented association leaders, but it’s not a well-developed community overall. Many are interested in developing their communities but don’t know how to do it, because they’re busy being specialists in their fields.”

AfSAE’s establishment committee covers a wide swath of the content—representatives hail from Nigeria, Kenya, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Zambia. It also covers a wide variety of industries: journalism, port management, neuroscience, software, public administration, and more. Miruka hopes that the organization can build around that core group.

“Our strength is in that diversity of experience and knowledge,” he says. “Many [African associations] mirror the growing industry sectors as in other parts of the world: agriculture, infrastructure, resource extraction, healthcare, education, sports, trade. We anticipate interest groups will form around specific industrial sectors and organization type and scope.”

Meetings and Money

The organization could bring other ancillary benefits to Africa: Grimmer sees the potential for AfSAE to be an economic driver for the continent’s meetings industry in the short term. One of the group’s partners is the South Africa National Convention Bureau. “Our feeling was that a stronger African association community would also create a lot more meetings activity, both as a region of the world—regional meetings—and also as a linkage to global meetings,” he says.

Because of the connection to South Africa and Meetings Africa, that country will be AfSAE’s hub in the short term. “Our initial base is South Africa for administrative convenience and history,” says Nwakanma. But he adds that over time, “the areas of the greatest need or challenge would determine where the focus would be. … We may also look at the [industries] that deserve the most urgent attention for African countries. These would be agriculture and mineral resources. We can then focus on helping associations in those sectors contribute optimally to improvements in those fields. It will evolve.”

Miruka is optimistic that the continent’s diversity can be leveraged. “We have dynamic growing economies in this diverse continent of Africa with a future yet to be told,” he says. “We have a young, educated population that is being entrepreneurial, and that is driving commercial and social change. That energy, that growth, that desire to connect, learn, and share will keep us sustainable.”

Talley says AfSAE could attract upwards of 200 members in the first year, focusing on the most economically robust nations, such as Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, and Nigeria. But membership in the thousands in the short term isn’t unreasonable.

“It’s in our interest for the association community to grow and prosper, but it’s also in our countries’ and our regions’ best interests, especially in the developing world,” says Grimmer. “[Industries] need to be looking at the highest level of the services economy and how to strengthen their educational capacities. Without associations, it’s difficult to do that.”

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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