Good news from Africa is often drowned out by a tide of negative reporting. The Banker aims to combat this by profiling the achievements of leading young Africans. Writer Charlie Corbett.

War, corruption, famine and disease. Pick up a newspaper in any developed country and these four words will leap off the page in any given story about Africa. Often it can seem there is no good news to be found in the continent at all.

Many commentators in the West tend to disregard Africa as a hopeless case, and any good news that emerges is overshadowed by reports of the bad. Average gross domestic product (GDP) growth across Africa, for example, has averaged more than 6% for the past three years – a fact generally ignored by commentators who focus almost exclusively on negative news.

The Banker has always fought the urge to report negatively on Africa, however, because there is too much good happening to ignore.

Redressing the balance

This article, therefore, is another attempt to redress the balance of bad news. With help from the World Economic Forum (WEF), we have identified some young Africans who we believe represent the future of the continent.

These individuals come both from countries across Africa and from across the social spectrum. Some have been made WEF ‘global leaders’ already, while others are people that The Banker’s journalists have met and been impressed by during their travels across the continent. It is by no means a complete list, merely a cross-section of the continent to give a representative sample.

The resultant interviews reveal a vibrant, entrepreneurial and overwhelmingly optimistic group of individuals. Most of them accept that Africa still has a long way to go before reaching its vast potential – but all are confident that the continent will get there in the end.

We asked each participant what their biggest challenge was to establish themselves, what the key to success was in an African environment, how external perceptions of Africa can be changed, and finally, who their African hero was.

The answers are as entertaining as they are enlightening and reveal the side of Africa that is perpetually ignored by the world’s media – its future.

Simon Kolawole, Nigeria

Occupation: Newspaper editor.Age: 36

When 36-year-old Simon Kolawole was appointed editor of one of Nigeria’s most influential newspapers, This Day, in June 2007, he was the youngest ever senior editor of a major Nigerian title.

Mr Kolawole began his career in 1993, cutting his teeth on a variety of publications. His first major achievement, however, was in 1999 when he helped to found Nigeria’s Financial Standard newspaper and became its deputy-editor. Soon after, he was appointed editor of national newspaper The Week and three months before his 30th birthday, he became editor of This Day’s Saturday edition, from where it was a short step to become editor of the daily newspaper.

Asked about what he believes is the secret of success in an African environment, Mr Kolawole replies that the trick is to turn problems into opportunities.

“A key secret is recognising that there is success to be made and value to be added in the midst of the challenges. If you see refuse everywhere, rather than complain, why not use your head? Set up a refuse collection company and become a millionaire!” he says.

He believes in working hard, but also in working smartly. “We have unlimited opportunities but some people can only see problems,” he says.

When it comes to Africa, and Africans more generally, Mr Kolawole says that if the continent is to improve its image abroad it must all boil down to good leadership. “The continent must be led by men and women who have two strong qualities: competence and patriotism,” he says. “Some are competent but not patriotic; some are patriotic but not competent. The two must go together.”

Mr Kolawole’s African hero: Thomas Sankara, former president of Burkina Faso.

“He led by example. He put his country first. He was not perfect, no way – but I don’t ever have problems with people who put the interests of the community above personal interest.”

Thoko Kaime, Malawi

Occupation: Risk analyst.Age: 30

Thoko Kaime is head of the Africa division at Exclusive Analysis, a London-based strategic intelligence company that forecasts violent and political risks worldwide.

Mr Kaime, who holds a PhD in law from the University of London, is a member of the Malawi Bar and visiting faculty at the School of Law, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He maintains broad research and professional interests in public international and trade law and its relationship to the African political economy.

Mr Kaime says the biggest challenge he faces on a day-to-day basis is determining what his next goal will be. “The greatest lesson I have learned thus far is that some mountains are better scaled on the sides,” he says.

He believes that in order to succeed in an African context it is critical to focus, to work hard and persevere. “Africa has a lot of potential, albeit not without risks. The greatest asset that an individual, corporation or community could possess is the ability to identify the opportunities that are available and the means to isolate associated risks. However, the aphorism that if you fall, you must get back on that camel, is also applicable,” he says.

Looking more broadly at Africa’s image abroad, he believes the key to reinventing the continent is good leadership.

“We need to galvanise efforts to establish leadership that is responsive to the needs of Africans,” he says. “Unless we address the basic problems that many African families face through responsible leadership, many of the shortcomings that have held back our communities for a long time will continue to influence the image of Africa abroad.”

Thoko Kaime’s African hero: African mothers.

“I would single out African mothers everywhere. Their strength and hope has carried many of us, even when faced with impossible odds.”

William Kamkwamba, Malawi

Occupation: Student of the African Leadership Academy.Age: 21

Using little more than a broken bicycle, a tractor fan blade, an old shock absorber and gum trees, the 14-year-old William Kamkwamba created electricity for his village. The five-metre windmill that resulted from his efforts was copied from the cover of a children’s science book called Using Energy.

Now 21 years old, Mr Kamkwamba has become an inspiration to youngsters across Africa. His dogged determination and creativity in the face of huge obstacles is proof of what can be achieved through hard work and persistence. Born in 1987 in Malawi, one of the most poverty-stricken countries in Africa, Mr Kamkwamba has got used to overcoming obstacles.

“No one came to support me, instead they were laughing at me,” he says. “[But] I still had confidence on my own and I didn’t stop doing what I was doing.”

His windmill project was just the start. Despite being forced by famine to drop out of formal education in 1992, the young engineer built a radio transmitter for his village and constructed a bigger windmill using a car battery for storage and homemade light switches and circuit breakers.

His exploits soon attracted the attention of the Malawian authorities and it was not long before he was whisked across the country to provide inspiration to others. He has since worked on projects ranging from clean water provision, malaria prevention and laptop computers for schools.

Mr Kamkwamba is now one of the first recruits to the elite African Leadership Academy, a new pan-African school based in Johannesburg with a mission to create the next generation of leaders.

He says the secret of his success has been patience. “When people were laughing at me when I was building the windmill, if I did not have patience I would have dropped what I was doing,” he says.

Overcoming superstitious villagers was also a problem for the young engineer. “One January, the clouds began gathering and the wind started blowing the windmill – it was spinning very fast. The people started to point their fingers at me. They said that I was stopping the rain because they thought that the windmill was blowing the clouds away,” he recalls.

Looking ahead, Mr Kamkwamba feels the developed world’s attitude towards Africa needs to evolve. “Most of the time when the media writes about Africa it is about war, while there are many other good things that people are doing, which are rarely covered,” he says.

William Kamkwamba’s African hero: Fred Swaniker, founder of the African Leadership Academy (ALA).

“The image of Africa has been bad because we don’t have good leaders. When we, the ALA students, become leaders, we will change the image of Africa by doing the right things.”

Phuti Malabie, South Africa

Occupation: Company managing director.Age: 37

At just 37 years old, Phuti Malabie has achieved an impressive amount. Her career has spanned continents and included spells at infrastructure specialist Fieldstone in New York, the Development Bank of Southern Africa and, most recently, managing director of energy investment firm Shanduka Energy. When it comes to her educational background, she boasts qualifications from Harvard University, the State University of New Jersey in the US, and De Montfort University in the UK.

The Banker is not alone in recognising her success. In 2003, the Association of Black Securities and Investment Professionals awarded her the top project finance award for 2003, the World Economic Forum rated her as a Young Global Leader in 2007 and The Wall Street Journal named her as one of the top 50 women in the world to watch.

So what is the secret of success in an African environment? Ms Malabie says it is all about building partnerships, not only with local firms in particular countries, but also between countries.

“Partnering helps by giving you access to knowledge and understanding of the social framework and nuances that may not be immediately obvious to a foreigner,” she says. “Certainly from a regional perspective our economies are interlinked and to this extent we should leverage on each other’s strengths. While South Africa has the deepest capital markets and most robust regulatory frameworks, we lack access to sufficiently deep markets to give us the growth trajectory most businesses aspire to.”

Ms Malabie is full of optimism for the future but says the world media must convey Africa’s success stories, not just the doom and gloom.

“We’ve come a long way from the days when Africa was referred to as the hopeless region to today, where sub-Saharan Africa is a growth region,” she says. “We need more balanced reporting from the media – focusing only on negative issues is not necessarily a sign of being objective.”

Phuti Malabie’s African hero: Nelson Mandela.

“I have a few but if I must name only one, then it would have to be Nelson Mandela.”

Nigel Chanakira, Zimbabwe

Occupation: Entrepreneur and business owner.Age: 42

Nigel Chanakira founded the financial services firm Kingdom (now Kingdom Meikles Africa) in 1994 in his late 20s.

Notwithstanding the intense political and social turmoil that has characterised Zimbabwe for the past decade, building a business that is now one of the largest listed groups by market capitalisation on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange (ZSE), with a secondary listing in London, is an immense achievement.

In the space of 15 years, Mr Chanakira has transformed a small, four-man money broking operation into one of the largest financial services groups in Zimbabwe, with operations in Botswana and Malawi. The company is still growing. In late 2007, Kingdom concluded the largest merger ever undertaken on the ZSE. It formed Kingdom Meikles Africa through the merger of hotel chain Meikles Africa, the Tanganda Tea Company and textile firm Cotton Printers.

Mr Chanakira was appointed the inaugural group chief executive of the new company, which was subsequently voted the top quoted company on the ZSE in 2007. Among the litany of awards that he has accumulated, stand-out achievements include the Zimbabwe Institute of Management’s Manager of the Year in 2000, Zimbabwe’s Entrepreneur of the Decade and the University of Zimbabwe’s Alumni of the year, both in 2003.

Mr Chanakira also sits on numerous boards, including the chair of business consultancies the Success Motivation Institute (Africa) and Velociti Solutions (South Africa), as well as on the board of the Christian Community Partnership Trust, a coalition of businesses that combine their resources to have greater impact on the communities in which they operate.

Mr Chanakira is a shining example of a success story to emerge from a troubled country. He has managed to build a flourishing business in exceptional circumstances.

Erik Charas, Mozambique

Occupation: Entrepreneur.Age: 34

Erik Charas is a young Mozambican entrepreneur and self-styled social activist. His company, Charas LDA, invests in young Mozambican entrepreneurs. It targets the very bottom strata of society with a view to transforming the next generation of Mozambicans into successful small business owners. On top of his other responsibilities, Mr Charas is also president of Mozambique’s biggest circulation newspaper, Verdade.

Among his other accolades, Mr Charas was voted a Hero of Africa in 2005 by media group MSN and was named a Young Global Leader in 2006 by the World Economic Forum. He believes passionately that the key challenge Africans face is creating a unique identity. “To stand alone in an African society is almost impossible. To think differently, or differently from the norm, is a risky and dangerous thing in these parts of the world,” he says.

As to how he managed to succeed in such a demanding business environment, Mr Charas says that perseverance is the key.

“Adversity is part of everyday life but the trick is to never give up,” he says. “These are very hands-on societies. Nothing can be trusted: check and double-check everything all the time. Be a control freak. Nothing comes easy in this continent or in this country.”

Looking ahead, Mr Charas believes that Africa needs to create positive role models, not just politicians and liberation leaders, but ordinary people who struggle to exist in a hostile environment. Corruption must also be tackled. “We should not have mercy on corrupt individuals and must make them accountable for their actions,” he says.

“I am part of a generation that believes we deserve better. A better Africa. A great and prosperous Africa, filled with new ideas and that the current scenario is just unacceptable.”

Erik Charas’ African hero: His father, and Nelson Mandela

“My father, because he believes that we are all entitled to live a dignified life and we should pursue our dreams regardless, and Nelson Mandela, the father of all us Africans!”

Acha Leke, Cameroon

Occupation: Business consultant.Age: 36

Acha Leke is a fine example of the new generation of African leaders that inspired The Banker to produce this article.

Originally from Cameroon, Mr Leke’s career has been punctuated by a series of high achievements. He joined McKinsey, one of the world’s most prestigious management consultancies, in 1998 at the age of 26 and has worked for the firm both in the US and South Africa. He is now a partner.

Mr Leke completed his higher education at Stanford University in the US, where he gained a PhD in electrical engineering. He also attended the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he graduated as the first black Valedictorian in the school’s history.

Mr Leke says that succeeding in Africa is no different to succeeding in any other environment. For him it is about hard work, some luck and good fun. There are, however, unique challenges. “As age matters a lot in Africa, being taken seriously as a young African can be a big challenge,” he says. “An important lesson I have learnt is to work to build credibility quickly, and be respectful yet objective. It is important to be humble and to know when – and how – to dissent.”

Looking ahead, Mr Leke is optimistic about how perceptions of Africa abroad are evolving.

“Africa’s image has been improving over the past decade and in particular over the past five years. There have been a number of positive factors behind this [such as] economic reforms, better governance, rising commodity prices and foreign investment – including the involvement of China,” he says. Mr Leke adds, however, that much more needs to be done in the arenas of governance and conflict resolution.

Acha Leke’s African hero: Those who make a difference.

“I see many heroes, from struggling small farmers with little but a smile, through to the new breed of business and political leaders who are trying to strengthen Africa’s economy. I see artists, teachers and medical professionals who are making a difference to people’s lives across the continent. Every single one of these people is a hero of mine.”

Dr Joseph Adelegan, Nigeria

Occupation: Chartered civil and structural engineer. Age: 41

Joseph Adelegan’s passion for improving the lives of ordinary Africans makes him more than qualified to be included in a list of inspirational Africans.

An engineer by training, he has used his skills to benefit communities across Africa in water and sanitation projects, construction, project management, research, policy advocacy and social entrepreneurship.

Dr Adelegan is executive director of the Global Network for Environment and Economic Development Research and chief executive of the award-winning ‘Cows to Kilowatts’ initiative. This is a partnership that aims to reduce the water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from slaughterhouse waste. It converts abattoir waste into household gas and organic fertiliser, providing local communities with clean, cheap fuel. Dr Adelegan has assisted in projects of this nature across the continent, including one scheme that converts cassava waste into electricity for rural communities.

This project earned him the World Bank Lighting Africa Development Marketplace Award in 2008. With manifold awards to his name, Dr Adelegan believes the secret to success in Africa lies in good leadership.

“Most of what is celebrated as success today in the academia, business and political arena is not true success,” he says. “True success is not a sudden rise to political power or wealth accumulation. True success starts with a sense of purpose and destiny. I mean visionary leadership.”

As to Africa’s perception abroad, he believes that the best way to improve the continent’s “dented image” is to understand the root causes.

“We blame the political leaders but we need to look inwards to address the problem. The emergence of people motivated by personal convictions rather than personal benefits and actions based on personal values and convictions will change the story,” he says.

Joseph Adelegan’s African hero: Dr William Folorunso Kumuyi, general superintendent of the Deeper Christian Life Ministry.

“My African hero is one of the authentic leaders of our time, a rare combination of academic excellence and altruism with integrity.”

Yolanda Cuba, South Africa

Occupation: Company chief executive.Age: 30

In March 2007, aged 29, Yolanda Cuba became the youngest chief executive of a Johannesburg Stock Exchange listed company, the Mvelaphanda Group. It has been a meteoric rise for someone who only joined the wholly black-owned investment company five years ago.

Ms Cuba’s life has been characterised by high achievement. A chartered accountant by profession, she has degrees from the University of Cape Town and the University of Durban. She held jobs at leading South African retailer Robertson’s Foods, which is now owned by Unilever, and accountancy firm PKF Accountants before joining the Mvelaphanda Group in 2003. She was made deputy-chief executive the same year.

Ms Cuba was recognised as the Top Empowered Business Women of the Year in 2006 by Topco Media in South Africa and was awarded a Youth Excellence Award by the Black Management Forum in 2007.

Asked what the biggest challenge to establishing herself was, Ms Cuba says it was acknowledging the opinions of others.

“As a young person, one tends to think one has a monopoly on all good ideas,” she says. “The biggest challenge I faced was acknowledging that the best idea in the room must prevail, no matter which side of the room it came from.”

The key to her success, according to Ms Cuba, is in realising that Africa is not a homogenous environment and that a solution which might work on one geographical region will not necessarily work in all areas. Looking ahead, she believes that Africans must work harder to realise their potential. “As Africans, we need to project ourselves as the giant that we can be. Our natural resources are enormous. We should not sell ourselves short.”

Yolanda Cuba’s African hero: Kwame Nkrumah.

The first president of the Republic of Ghana, after the country became the first sub-Saharan African colony to gain independence from Britain in 1957.

Nathan Reddy, South Africa

Occupation: Graphic designer.Age: 39

Nathan Reddy is a leading South African graphic designer. He is a founding partner of one of the country’s biggest design agencies, Grid, and epitomises a new generation of South African leaders.

With a career spanning back to 1990, Mr Reddy has faced innumerable obstacles to carving out a successful career in design in South Africa. “The biggest challenge I faced in establishing myself was pre-election in 1991. Cracking into the design industry in South Africa proved very difficult then, even though I had qualified as a professional designer,” he says.

Once he got his break, however, Mr Reddy made the most of it. He spent three years in his first design job, often working up to 18 hours a day, and eventually gained the confidence to start his own company.

“After 1994, the new South Africa was ready for me,” he says. He has won numerous awards and is chairman of The South African Graphic Design Council (Think) as well as an executive director of the advertising and marketing body Creative Circle.

His former clients have included such international brands as leading South African bank Standard Bank, car makers BMW and Nissan, mobile phone company MTN, fast food giant McDonald’s, drinks giant Coca-Cola and oil firm Mobil.

The secret of success in an African environment is competitiveness, says Mr Reddy. “In order to have the edge, you constantly have to come up with innovative ways and ideas to be ahead of the competition. Relationships and having talent work together. I found that without great relationships, great ideas seldom get sold, and having a great relationship with no talent seldom works out.”

As to how Africa is perceived abroad, Mr Reddy says that the rest of the world is often too busy addressing its own problems to see the good in Africa. A largely negative international media does not help either: “If only the world would give her a chance, Africa has a lot of wisdom to offer the present world,” he says.

Nathan Reddy’s African hero: Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

“I know this is a cliché, but Nelson Mandela. Close second is Desmond Tutu.”

Jose de Lima Massano, Angola

Occupation: Bank chief executive.Age: 39

Young, educated and optimistic, Jose de Lima Massano is typical of a new generation of African leaders.

A product of a post-conflict country that endured a 30-year civil war that ended only in 2002, Mr Massano has risen swiftly. He is chief executive of Angola’s biggest private bank by assets, the Banco Africano de Investimentos (BAI), and head of Angola’s bankers’ association. Set up 12 years ago, BAI is independently controlled, with 8.5% owned by state-owned oil giant Sonangol and 1.5% owned by the Angola national diamond company, Endiama.

Mr Massano helped BAI to become the fastest growing bank in Angola and was a driving force behind the decision to transform it from an investment bank to a universal bank. His ambition is to put Angola on the world stage, but admits it will be a challenge.

“We need to put Angola in the context of today’s developed financial industry and in order to do that, you have to comply with international rules,” he says.

“BAI has to adopt procedures that still have not been established by the central bank. International banks don’t want to see you as bringing risk if you are dealing with them. The more our banks are exposed to international rules, the more the central bank will have to adapt.”

Looking ahead, Mr Massano is optimistic and with good reason. Driven by a booming oil sector, GDP has been one of the highest in the world for the past three years, at between 15% and 20% annually. “People were sick and tired of war by 2002,” he says. “You can go everywhere in the country now and see progress. People are going places. We are discovering Angola.”


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