Expo 2020 Dubai is a fantastic opportunity to visit Africa in one place. All 54 African countries and the African Union (AU) have pavilions showcasing the best of Africa’s history, culture and heritage, tourism, and investment opportunities. The AU is often criticised for lacking any meaningful impact but the exhibition at Expo 2020 Dubai has done the continent proud. It starts with a display of the photos and words of wisdom from the founding fathers of the Organisation of Africa Unity (OAU), which preceded the AU. It then highlights African firsts such as: the University of Karueein (Morocco) is the oldest university in the world; Fatma Samba Diouf Samoura (Senegal) became the first female Secretary-General of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) in 2016; Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) became the first person to ever run a sub-2-hour marathon; the Akan of West Africa were the first to develop inoculation against smallpox. Under the banner of ‘The Africa we want’, the pavilion highlights the key initiatives that it is hoped will one day transform the continent’s fortunes. The AU pavilion is the ideal place to start the Africa tour.
Like the AU, some African countries understood the assignment to inform, entertain and entice visitors to visit Africa. Unfortunately, other countries gave little thought to the décor and content, filling their free exhibitions with the kind of items you would find at a craft market and deploying outdated marketing strategies. Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and Angola are the only African countries that built their own pavilions. After spending a day (10am to 10pm) viewing all 55 exhibitions, here is our feedback on what to see and what to skip:
Best African exhibition: Egypt
Egypt has one of the most visited exhibitions at Expo 2020 Dubai thanks to the stunning use of audio-visual screens that take visitors on a journey through Egypt’s ancient civilisation to the tech-focused future. A replica of King Tutankhamun’s golden funerary mask and the real coffin of the ancient Egyptian priest, Psamik, are also on display. These serve as a reminder of the treasures that await visitors at the newly-opened Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo which ONGOLO covered in April 2021.
Rich African culture and heritage: Mali
Mali has been making headlines this week after breaking ties with France and expelling the Ambassador. Mali’s past will help visitors understand where they get the balls to pull off such a move. The 10th century emperor of the Mali empire, Mansa Musa, is widely regarded as the richest man who ever lived. He was the Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk of ancient times. Tinbuctu (Timbuktu) was a key trading post and a centre of Islamic culture and is just one of many cultural sites to visit. Bamako’s contribution to African music is appreciated the world over. To visit Mali, please contact Mohamed El Mouloud, the General Manager of Timidwa on [email protected] or [email protected]
Comoros: best island display
Comoros has been on a winning streak of late and their pavilion beats that of Seychelles and Mauritius. The massive underwater display of a scuba diver and sea turtle immediately grabs visitors. The pavilion ticks the box for culture by showcasing traditional Muslim wear called the chiromani and highlights key exports such as vanilla, nutmeg and cloves. It was only fitting that the pavillion also paid homage to The Coelacanthe, the national football team, who truly put the island on the map.
Simple and chic: South Sudan
The world’s youngest nation has one of the chicest pavilions at Dubai Expo 2020 – the minimalist, white palette and large photographic displays scream expensive art gallery and draw you in. Designed by local South Sudanese interior designers, the display highlights people such as supermodel, Alek Wek, the culture, tourism, and key economic drivers of this young country. South Sudan proves that you can make a bold and effective statement without tech.
Surprise hit: Republic of Congo
The Republic of Congo is often overlooked in favour of its larger neighbour and namesake, Democratic Republic of Congo. Which is why the pavilion was such a pleasant surprise. Congo put in alot effort into their marketing video and décor, highlighting the economic activities (petroleum, mining, timber), tourism and culture. The exhibition ends with a stunning display of photos taken by Pieter Henket for the book, Congo tales. A must buy!
Strong business focus: Kenya and Senegal
Kenya came to Expo 2020 Dubai with a clear agenda to do deals. The bulk of the exhibition showcases economic activity from agriculture to tech (eductech, agritech, fintech) and electrification and connectivity. The cultural display showing the various tribes as you exit is almost an afterthought. The lack of emphasis on tourism was a glaring omission.
Senegal’s pavilion is white and bright in contrast to Kenya’s dark and serious colours. Senegal also seemed to have the highest number of local representatives on hand compared to other countries, including one who explained the best way to spend a week touring the country. Air Senegal features prominently – Dakar has recently opened one of the largest airports in Africa. Other impressive projects include a high speed railway, the Smart City called Diamniadio, and a $1.1bn DP World super-port to serve West Africa. Senegal is doing what many African countries have failed to do – diversify from natural gas and oil.
Wasted space but still worth a visit: Morocco
Morocco has one of the largest pavilions at Expo 2020 Dubai and dwarfs Egypt, which is nearby. VIPs can take the lift via the side entrance paying homage to King Mohamed VI to the seventh floor VIP lounge where they can enjoy the scenery and food. The top floor also hosts a traditional Moroccan restaurant where all visitors can enjoy local cuisine. Unfortunately, half of the seven floors are closed and for ‘authorised personnel’ making it a waste of space and an unnecessary trek. It is still worth visiting to see the display about the Moroccan explorers such as Ibn Battuta, whose story is also told in the Uzbekistan pavilion; the Argan stories; the impressive natural medicine exhibition; and the art gallery.
Missed opportunity: Côte d’Ivoire
Côte d’ivoire will host Africa’s biggest sporting event, AfCON 2023 in less than 18 months and yet there was little to show of the tourism potential for the country. The exhibition is sad. The most important video, which shows all the tourist spots, was muted. The staff were uninterested in feedback. It does not bode well for 2023.
Most underwhelming and a hard miss: Nigeria
A horse greets visitors to the Nigeria pavilion and the display goes downhill from there. The most interesting display are the photos of entertainment personalities such as Yemi Alade and WizKid who are bringing Naija to the world on one side and a display of the ’36 states of opportunity’ in the back. It is an underwhelming performance by Africa’s richest country and one that can be skipped.
Other pavilions worth visiting
Rwanda (free coffee – unlike Turkey – and beautiful wood-panelled walls), Tunisia (audio-visual displays and store), Democratic Republic of Congo (beautiful décor), Somalia (rich history), Niger (110-million-year dinosaur, rich culture and history), São Tomé and Príncipe (history, natural health products and tasty, premium cocoa beans), Djibouti (rich culture), Togo (rich culture and historical sites) and, Tanzania (informative and charming).