Isaac Kwaku Fokuo, one of Africa’s brightest young leaders, offers strategic and leadership guidance to support clients successfully navigate the nuances of emerging markets. Fokuo is the founder and principal of Botho Limited, an emerging markets investment advisory firm, and is also the founder of the Sino Africa Centre of Excellence (SACE), an organisation that facilitates partnerships between Chinese and African private and public sector actors.
Daily News Egypt sat with Fokuo on the sidelines of the Africa 2017 forum to review his insights on the continent’s challenges, hopes, and prospects.
Tell us about your company Botho. What drove you to establish it?
Everything that we do as a company, myself and others have to have an impact on the ground. We are an advisory company based in Kenya and have offices in Dubai and Ghana, and we work all across the continent. What we do is initiate great conversation on topics that matter to people, such as what are the things that we look for as a continent in the next 20 or 40 years, and then we try to convince stakeholders to sit and have these conversations, we bring in the government and private sector, to talk about these issues.
For example, next year, we are going to do something about the Red Sea. As you know, everyone is talking about integration. How do you integrate into Africa; there is an organisation called the Red Sea Foundation and what we are trying to do is to is to know how Africa can become ready to trade with the Gulf. We can integrate all day within Africa, through ECOWAS and COMESA, that’s great. But also, we should focus on other countries. Look at Egypt, it’s on the Red Sea, and is very close to Europe. If we formed preferential treaties, we can benefit from COMESA, Red Sea Foundation, and Europe altogether. We need to think more asymmetrically as countries to benefit from all these opportunities.
To do so, at Botho, we think how to include SMEs in Tanzania, Sudan, Kenya, and everywhere, to export their products to the Gulf. How can they learn from Egypt’s startup scene, as Egypt has a really vibrant startup environment, and more importantly, finance; how they can attract finances, if we look for example at Sharia-compliant finances, a lot of deals regarding Africa now are done mainly in South Africa, Nigeria, and maybe Kenya. I would argue that there is not enough capital that goes into Islamic or faith-based projects. If want to do something that is Sharia-compliant, where can you look to get the finances? You can look at countries like Egypt or the GCC countries, which have an Islamic base, but also have funds.
Finally, we look at policy and investments. On the policy side, we try to influence policy, while for investments, we try for the private sector to invest in those opportunities.
What motivated you to start SACE?
SACE was founded in 2012. One of the reasons I founded the organisation is when I was travelling to China, I was astonished by the sheer magnitude of the country in the last 20-40 years. Forty years ago, China was a very poor, developing economy, and there was something that the government and the people did deliberately to change that. So I thought my self, Africa keeps talking about China, the Chinese have the money, the expertise, and the technical competence, but what do we have? What do we bring to the table? They come and we complain and say they take our resources. So the basic idea of SACE was how can we change the way the next generation of African and Chinese people view each other?
Consequently, we set up something called the China-Africa internship program, which brings young, smart Chinese students to take internships in African companies. These are the future leaders of China; we want them to sit next to the future leaders of Egypt, Kenya, Namibia, etc. and work with them for three or six months, or even maybe one year, to get to know each other better. Maybe in Africa we don’t have the resources, but we can have the relationships, which are the biggest thing in business.
The other thing that we do is start a business-to-business dialogue. One of the objectives SACE is trying to achieve in the next five years is to see successful African companies forming alliances with Chinese companies and penetrating both markets.
What are the main challenges that face the private sector in Africa?
Without a doubt, talent is the main challenge. We live on a continent, from Algeria to Zimbabwe, where universities are not great. They are okay, but they could be better, and more importantly, we are teaching 20th century conversations, not 21st century ones. We live on the poorest continent in the world; even if some countries are relatively better, as an aggregate, we remain relatively poor. We need to look at educating our young people for 21st century jobs and we are not doing that; companies can’t even find enough talent to run.
The second thing is the mobility of people. Our continent is restrained with visas and bureaucracy, even if I find talent in Egypt, I can’t get it to Kenya because of the work permits. We need to open it up; it’s 2017, this has to stop, and it is starting as part of the African Union resolutions we are bound to. Rwanda, Mauritius, Ghana, and Kenya have implemented it already. The guys that the governments worry about for security reasons, they don’t get visas, they find other ways. Meanwhile, the businesspeople, if they get a call in Kenya one day to come to Egypt on the next day, they can’t, while Americans, for example, can.
The third main challenge is connectivity. I live in Kenya, which is relatively advanced in terms of technology, yet sometimes, I can’t even have a video conference due to the bad internet connection.
Finally, finance. We need money. I think one of the problems of business on the continent is not that we don’t have money, but that our people don’t invest in themselves; we expect foreigners to invest in our countries, while we don’t.
How can the private sector tackle the education challenge and how can governments assist?
Education goes back to private sector actors. There is a university called African Leadership University, established in 2015, which has campuses in Mauritius and Rwanda, and they have plans to expand. Before establishing the university, a conversation with private sector players and businesses took place to identify the problems that they have with talent, so they can build a university addressing such problems, and make sure that graduates can add value and work for these businesses.
However, education takes a long time to change the mindset. To help to do so, governments have to relax their regulation without sacrificing quality. The private sector and civil society need to take a firmer stance and speak up. They always blame the government. Governments in Africa are currently doing better. They are doing their best to change their attitude; they are not the governments of the 1980s any more. They started to listen to the private sector and have the private sector in governments. Wwe need to give them the credit.
How can we push the intra-African movement?
It goes back to us young people, especially the young generation. We have four waves of change in Africa. The first was independence, then we started to decline in the 1970s and 80s, and we started to stabilise in the 1990s, but now its up to everyone who is aged 50 and below. We cannot sit back and watch; we need to push the boundaries. That’s the only way. No one is going to do that for us. We need to agitate the system; that’s the way forward.