From its simple beginnings as a metering conference African Utility Week, along with its trusted official host publication ESI Africa, has spent the past two decades closely mirroring the growth of the continent’s energy, power and water value chains.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Issue 2-2020.
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As the continent’s water and power systems grew and became more sophisticated, the conference and exhibition expanded into one of the largest events on the continent, morphing into African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa (AUW & PGAF).

David Ashdown, Managing Director – Africa for Clarion Events, in conversation with ESI Africa chalks up AUW & PGAF’s longevity to its ability to mirror the development and evolution of the market. “With the expo we’ve done well to deliver a premium audience of professionals, representing more than 90 countries. The conference brings together a good cross section of speakers from the continent and abroad while being focused on solution-providing and knowledge-sharing,” says Ashdown.

He is curious and excited to see what the future holds for AUW & PGAF as it enters its third decade. While it is too early to tell how a sudden burst of digitisation – brought to the fore by the COVID-19 pandemic – will affect the event industry as a whole, Ashdown thinks it isn’t so much that the digital world is encroaching on live events but that the two are finding a way to blend: “Clarion Events has been working across the two forms of media for the past ten years and we have seen a steady convergence. The reach we have through our digital media now culminates in live events as a meeting place.”

Enforced lockdowns around the world have changed how Clarion Energy’s entire global workforce operates: “Ultimately, we have to support the industry we serve; however, we can now provide support in the development plans of our stakeholders, to work with them to achieve real results in the power and energy sector.

“It is going to be challenging, bouncing back from the pandemic crisis. Our products are well positioned and the discussions at AUW & PGAF in November will be about the resilience of the industry sector and the future outlook. How does Africa manage a crisis situation? I think the situation will accelerate the digitalisation of the sector, of the energy space in Africa and the infrastructure, smart city and IoT elements.”

In terms of the traditional conference and exhibitions space, Ashdown does not foresee a move away from face-to-face engagement, as “we are human; it is the way we interact”.

He adds that through the event’s media arm, “we can communicate with an industry for 365 days a year and connect industry professionals to the benefit of their business, it’s that element that makes us very valuable. We provide a wide range of media content through our journals’ platforms, which range from a webinar where individuals speak on a curated topic to a panel bringing industry experts together or a debate on a web portal’s news story where you can take the conversation into a whole new direction”.

Webinars have a huge role to play but rather than replace a physical conference, he believes there will eventually be a blended approach – a simulcast where a person who cannot travel can still participate in a virtual way to attend a live conference.

Again, Ashdown points out that one simply cannot remove the human need to connect. “There are people who will take a more conservative approach in the short term and the fear and anxiety created by COVID-19 might limit people’s comfort zone. It is our responsibility as event organisers to recognise that and to bring in measures in November to create a safe space.”

Is the future of event conferencing virtual, though? “That is the holy grail of questions, isn’t it? What is the model and what would it look like? That debate could go on for many hours and end with different conclusions. But, what you lack in a purely virtual exhibition is the human connection. A virtual handshake is not the same as President Cyril Ramaphosa’s elbow greeting,” says Ashdown. ESI |