This week the Tony Elumelu Foundation announced the appointment of Professor Reid E. Whitlock as its new CEO. The Foundation, which was launched in 2010, is Africa’s leading promoter of programmes aimed at ensuring that entrepreneurship becomes the key driver of Africa’s economic growth and social transformation.
Whitlock, who will be overseeing the foundation’s four key projects and programmes including the recently launched Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme and the Africapitalism Institute, brings 30 years of working experience as a business school rector, diplomat, entrepreneur, strategy consultant and advisor to leaders in Africa on economic development. In addition to his native language, English, he speaks several other languages including French, Danish, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese and Spanish. He therefore brings a diverse knowledge of both the public and private sector to the organisation
In this interview, Professor Reid E. Whitlock shares his experience working in the public sector, his stay in Rwanda and how this gave rise to his interest in private sector development in Africa Economies. He is determined to ensure the growth and development of the Foundation while addressing some of the problems specific to the African private sector.
Is Nigeria the only African country you have lived in other than Rwanda?
I’ve actually lived in Tanzania, ivory-coast, Senegal, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Sudan before Rwanda.
How has your experience in Africa affected your career so far?
Well I guess I have more or less been moving upward, sometimes laterally, but each new assignment allows me to build on those before. So people give me more responsibilities and trust me more because they say yes you really understand the situation. The first time you work in a country in Africa people will say well you don’t really understand Africa you are new here, but when you’ve done almost 20 years on the continent people will begin to say okay we can’t trick you, we can’t fool you, you understand the tribal issues, you understand the nuances and the differences even across border that makes one country unique and different from another. So I think have developed credibility by virtue of the number of countries i’ve lived in, and the amount of time I have spent living in Africa.
Incoming CEO, Professor Reid E. Whitlock, (left), and outgoing CEO Dr (right)
Incoming CEO, Professor Reid E. Whitlock, (left), and outgoing CEO Dr Wiebe Boer (right)
What gave rise to your interest in private sector development in Africa Economies?
I’ve spent a lot of my time in the public sector helping to address issues that involved the private sector, so I guess you could say my interest has come from professional obligation. If I’m told we need to work with this organization and it could be anything from grain storage warehouse, to a transportation company… I’ve worked for the number of kinds of private sector organizations while being on the public sector side often as a donor, or as an advisor or as a founding partner. So part of what you begin to appreciate is how vibrant the private sector is in spite of some of the obstacles that are placed on it and on its activities either by the public sector or just by the environment in which they operate. Whether that’s poor infrastructure, whether that’s low levels of skill and low levels of professional expertise, all of that comes to play when you are trying to work with an organization and you are getting frustrated or the organization itself is getting frustrated, that it wants to professionalize, it wants to export, it wants to partner and it’s not up to the standard of the partners that might be outside the countries border. So that keeps one aware of the challenges that still remains for a vibrant, active, professionalized private sector in Africa. So I can’t say that I’ve been part of it, I haven’t been a private sector entrepreneur in Africa, but have worked with a closely trying to un-bottle bottlenecks and work to improve their access, increase their professionalism gaining access to training, forge partnership and ties with and every level from small, uneducated one-person operations up to large cooperation by Africa standards.
What problems do you think are specific to the private sector in Africa?
Well, one is that in many of the countries in Africa you don’t have convertibility of the currency. So just the fact in most of the world, the currency in which one operates for daily transactions is something that you can talk about as being a tradable convertible currency that the rest of the world will be happy holding whether is a Yen a Franc or a dollar. The fact that that’s in many of the African countries is a problem that nobody wants the local currency means that you double your workload just by having to convert your local currency into some other currency for anything that’s going to be going across borders; any import or export is going to involve at least two currencies and that adds a lot of overhead to operating cost that almost all African businessmen and women appreciate and understand.
They’ve gotten used to it, they’ve learnt to be flexible and adapt to it especially in high inflation countries. In Zimbabwe, during the period of highest inflation, it was amazing the degree to which they respond to their rapid changes in the inflation reign by having suitcases they will bring with them to the supermarket, so they will have enough cash because you needed so many bills just to complete simple transactions. So I think that you can find work around but you don’t want have to find work around. What an African business person will love is to have those transactions cost be lowered. So one of the problems I would say not necessarily unique to Africa but more prevalent in Africa than in other parts of the world, is exchange. Another is poor state of infrastructure. So can you do work a rounds for that as well? Yes, you can. If your roads are really poor and path marked, and if they create more wear and tear on your vehicles then will be the case in other parts of the world. You don’t like that but you manage. It takes longer to get from point A to point B, you have to replace tires more often so you have more overhead more cost to transacting business. So it’s not that bad roads are unique to Africa, you can find the occasional bad road in anywhere in the world but more of them are bad, and those that are bad are in a worst state of disrepair in Africa than in other parts of the world. And under infrastructure I will even include things like postal service and access to electricity. There is more than just the transport infrastructure, I just didn’t want to go into more details. So frustrations about infrastructures and the obstacles that poor infrastructure imposes to doing business I think it’s a frustration you will hear across national borders in Africa in general.
Tell us a little about your experience working as the Country Director of the OTF in Rwanda, What projects did you over see?
That was an interesting chapter in my experience, there were no firm consulting firms that were willing to take a risk to go into Rwanda right after the genocide. So here was a period where there was no government to speak of in the early days, it was trying to re-establish itself. After the government in power [had] been brought down, many people had fled, you have UN troops patrolling the street, you had no international belief that that country was going to rise back from sort of the ashes of the genocide. So in that environment you could imagine that it would be difficult to attract international business and international consulting firms even to give advice to the government on how to go forward. They would say we are not going to be safe there is no electricity, there is no garbage pick-up, there is no mail delivery, there are no flights in the airport, nothing works in the country. So our firm was the very first consulting firm that said we believe in what President Kagame is saying about the future of this country and we believe the country has a brighter and more prosperous future than what we see today. So OTF came in close to ground level, I’m not saying it was 1994 the year of the genocide but in 1999 OTF established its resident office in Rwanda. So not only were they first to come in when others were still afraid to come in but the fact that they did so not with just a project run-out of a hotel or something that they would say okay will suffice this project from Kenya or Uganda but they had a resolute team that lived there so they were on call all the time. They got to really know the people, they got to have a sense of nuances of the culture and the organization on chart of the government by being present on the ground with a pretty sizeable team. A team of about 15 people so that’s exciting because you are getting the support of the government and the confidence of government when that government was first being created and they say we need help we don’t even know where to turn, let’s turn to OTF, because we were right there, we didn’t need to put out letters to get a contract to employ, because all those people were sitting there in Kenya or South Africa.
We were close by and we had a critical mass, meaning that almost no matter what problem they came to us asking about we had somebody on our team who had some area of expertise. So the projects that we were involved in, I should probably first mention that our firm had a pretty narrow focus. We were dealing with frontier economies or post conflict economies and all of our strategy work was focused on export orientation. So if you say help me fix my flower mill or something; we weren’t interested. We wanted to think about and help a country think about how we can be more relevant to world economy. How can we produce things to the standard that the world will want to buy them, produce them in such quantities that were actually bringing in revenue and foreign exchange enough to make a difference in the economic prospects of this country? That’s what we were about. So you didn’t want to find marginal products, you wanted to find heavy hitters; things that could make a huge difference. So tea, coffee, hides and skin; animal skin, pyre thrum; a product used for insecticide it’s a natural insecticide, Diary sector, business process out sourcing, honey, these were just some of the industries that we were asked to do the whole value change analysis, try to see who were the competitors in the region. What are we not doing well enough in terms of whether it might be packaging, branding or quality control, pesticide application, fertilization of the product to bring our tea up to international standard? If it is up to international standard why isn’t it being served on the first class passenger menu of the airways? which we ended up getting to that level. So we really pushed up Rwanda branded products. So those where the kinds of things we took on really trying to showcase products by making sure they were world class quality and reach a world class audience. From 700 km from the nearest seaport in a country where nobody believed in because of its genocide and its civil war that has Kinyarwanda as its international language in Rwanda, which isn’t spoken anywhere except in Burundi. So there were a lot of things operating against us; lots of challenges but that country is what I think today is universally acknowledged as having done more with what little it has than virtually any other African country. So I won’t say it’s almost a success story in absolute terms, it can’t compete with Spain or new Zealand or something like that but if you think of the neighbourhood in which Rwanda operates; Burundi, Eastern Congo, Southern Uganda. It is not in a very good neighbourhood and it’s really outperformed its problems and it outperformed the expectations that I think the world had for it. So we would like to feel as if some of the success that Rwanda has enjoyed was due to the good start it got in terms of the road map we created. Don’t focus on that industry, this is one of the key ones. This is your bottleneck, you got to get your weigh stations for weighing the trucks, if that doesn’t happen nobody is going to bring any product from the ports of Mombasa and Dar es Salam. We identified key things earlier on that could help the country and I think that’s what they see as our legacy and I was part of that.
You have advised some country leaders in Africa and South Asia, How have their responses been?
… Your satisfaction comes in seeing your idea making it onto the agenda in the cabinet meeting, your name will almost never be there, everyone knows why. Every once in a while, yes, I will make a presentation that’s sort of head of state level more like the cabinet prime minister level, which I did a lot. But you will also have to just realize that it’s not about seeing your name on the front page of newspaper or seeing your name on the bill that now becomes law or probably even responsible for the text writing of a lot of laws; this is specifically in Rwanda and South Sudan when I was involved in law writing, actually drafting texts of law where there were not and your name isn’t going to appear anywhere but at least you can feel as if there is a good solid law in place that any investor coming in would like to be governed by because it’s not going to be privileging one group or making sure that the only time it takes the expense of the general population, it’s going to be clear, transparent and easy to understand in clear and simple English or whatever the language it might be. So those are the kind of things I hoped that I could transfer, and I think the people with whom I was working with at the senior level saw me as a good resource for always being honest and not saying yes sir yes sir just because he or she was a big wig. It was most often a she. But rather saying look I’m not part of your tribe, I am not part of your clan, and you can’t put me in jail, because I don’t belong to any group so I am telling you the truth here. This isn’t going to work, or you can try this, but I don’t think it’ll work for you, or it might work for anyone else. Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t. The more times they realize in retrospect that the guy was right.
Even if they didn’t take your advice the first time, they’ll more likely take it the next time. By spending time in Africa, and we talked about the number of years I have lived on the continent, you will also build up that reputation for having given advice that might have been contrary to the prevailing winds or the trends that were at the time being discussed, but if they say you know we didn’t follow what he said, but he was right on the target, the next time they might be a little more open. And that’s progress in baby steps, and the best thing you can hope for when you are talking about changing the world is progress in baby steps. Any more than that, I think you are rightly to be disgruntled with your success.
In your opinion, have African Governments impeded or enabled the private sector?
They have done some of both, because to the degree that they are the law makers; if they make good laws, they can be helping versus hindering. But if they either don’t change their old laws or colonial laws and the outdated laws or don’t realize that as the world is changing, the technology is now changing, not just the fact that there is change, but the rate, the pace of change. Then they are an impediment. But also the fact that, I’ll say in many African countries, they have the legacy of having gone through, in the 60s and 70s, particularly, what I’ll call flirtation with communism. And as part of embracing the communist ideology, there was real distrust of the private sector. Those people are just profiteers, they are arbitragers; which means they try to find things at low prices where they can and sell at high prices or they want to acquire as much as they can and create shortages that are really artificial and sell at high prices. Some of that was legitimate and the behaviour of the private sector people. But some of it was the fear that it might happen when there wasn’t any evidence on the ground that it would happen. But that fear of the private sector, which is really built in the communist philosophy and ideology, was not being embraced by National leaders. And it took a long time for that generation of leaders to leave power. It’s not that they ever changed their mind, almost none of them ever changed their position over time as new leaders came to replace them. So it took a generation, it took more than a generation to get that distrust of the private sector out of the highest levels of government in many African countries. So that’s one of the real challenges. You can’t just say government is the enemy, and the private sector sees it as the adversary. Part of it is almost an evolution where different leaders had to be born, be educated, rise to the top in a system that didn’t want to hear from them because maybe they were saying things that were pro-business, but by continuing to resist overtime they finally got the point of positions of power, responsibility, authority where they could change the discussion and the debate away from- the private sector is the enemy to discussions like; why can’t we have what their now calling public-private partnerships? Why can’t we empower the private sector? Why can’t we trust them to make decisions that are for the good of the country rather than simply taking advantage of opportunities at the expense of greater good?
So I think that there has been a change for the better, now the responsibility is on the private sector, not to show that they take advantage when they have opportunities and the laws that were written that could actually benefit them, but behave responsibly. And they don’t always, they are as human as anybody else. They’ll look for profits, they’ll create artificial shortages. So creating a good ethic, and giving those people who are in the private sector better education so that they see beyond the next dollar that they put in their pocket, and they start seeing the dominant or ripple effects of their action. This could affect scarcity, credibility, this could affect what fate people outside our country have in our country, and that means I might not have the same opportunity for trading, so you want them to have a longer prospect. And that comes from education, having some of the kinds of discussion and exchange of ideas kind that hopefully this foundation would be involved in.
African Nations have been reported to trade with foreign or neighbouring countries, Do You think that the four major projects of this foundation, would help to foster intra- Africa trade?
I think the key pieces for fostering intra Africa trade are the messaging that goes out, as part of either training or mentoring. So training and mentoring are built into what we do in several of the pillars of our activities. But if no one mentions that you know there’s a huge market in francophone Africa, and you are surrounded by francophone countries. Don’t be afraid of Cameroon, Benin, Chad and Niger, just because they don’t speak your language, just because they are not Anglophone. So if you have people realize that their market can be much bigger if they are willing to go across the border and go out of their comfort zone to an area that might be unknown but is rich in opportunity, yes we will get more intra-Africa trade. But if we are doing seminars for new entrepreneurs, and we don’t mention that, that’s an opportunity lost for intra-Africa trade.
So I think that it is incumbent on us to the degree that we may be very well placed to get the ears and eyes of lots of not entrepreneurs specifically, business people in general. If we don’t take advantage of that opportunity to say that your world needs to be bigger than tomorrow than it is today and your world today is only as big as your village or your town or your country; but there is a much bigger world and much bigger market beyond those borders. And here, we can show you how to access, see that world turn into business opportunity for you. So I think to the degree that I have any influence over curriculum, I would want those messages to be embed in what the Africapitalism Institute does, what the business school does, what the training and mentoring for the entrepreneurs does, what community development does. So that people can do it for themselves and have sense of outreach and not just my community is my whole world. So I think in all of our interventions, we can embed that message.
What are your goals as the newly appointed CEO of Tony Elumelu Foundation?
Well I think that it is important that people who work for your organization stay motivated and are proud to be working for the organization, and are your public face. I am not saying that this is badly done, but something that I want to put emphasis on, is making sure that we have the best possible recruitment and retention and that its pan- African and not just Nigerian. I think that it is good that Nigerians are well represented in the organization, it is a Nigeria-based organization. But I think it is important for the kind of message that we are sending to the whole continent, that we also get our ideas from staff who represent that whole continent. I think it would be a more customized message that way, and it would be more targeted message and a more relevant message. And we should reflect the colours, flavours and traditions of all of Africa in these stakeholders too. I think that we would have people say this is a mini-United Nations working here. I think that would help us actually attract and retain better people, and the kinds of conversations we have among ourselves would be at a higher level, and would be better for the final product. That’s something I would want to have my hand in.
What future do you see for the Tony Elumelu foundation?
The future could be the way people now talk of the handful of foundations that are the old money foundations, the names that everybody thinks about philanthropy, for example; the Rockefeller foundation, Ford Foundation and so on. These are names that go back to the industrial revolution in the United States and how large sums of money were first made through private sector wealth accumulation. And then some of it was then redistributed for social causes. And the way those names immediately mean things to people in much of the developed world, because those foundations have been around, doing the work they have been doing for so long and having such impact and such longevity and have had such a sustained presence.
My hope for this institution is that if we fast forward a hundred years, there isn’t anybody who wouldn’t know this name, and in a positive light.
Source: Ventures Africa