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Africa’s unreasonableness

Interview by Josie Powell, THEWORLD@OxfordSaïd Issue 2

Dolika Banda, international banking and financial management expert, was the keynote speaker at the Oxford Business Forum Africa held in March 2016. Josie Powell talked to her about Africa’s destructive tendencies and potential, the gaps that leaders need to fill, and how it felt to go home to Zambia.

We've called this conference 'Unreasonable Africa'; what does that phrase mean to you, and do you think it is a good way to describe Africa now?

I was a little bit taken aback by the title when I first heard it, but the more I started to think about it, the more I thought it was an interesting time to use an interesting word. Africa is unreasonable for me in many ways, both positive and destructive and negative. On the positive side is this concept of just breaking the boundaries and doing things that have not been done before, in new ways that have not been tested before. I’m thinking of technology and the power of apps to bridge or leapfrog development and economic empowerment. But there are areas where we are lagging, such as political leadership and vision, and that is hindering what is otherwise a fast-moving and energetic population. There are also many social ills in the region – which, nonetheless, I think can be overcome by the positive side of unreasonableness.

Africa, of course, is a continent and a highly diverse one at that, with an enormous mix of countries, cultures, histories, and languages. But it seems also to be developing a strong continental identity. Is this going to help its development?

I think Brand Africa is certainly a powerful platform, and a way to shine a light on this great opportunity. Having said that, I think it's important that people understand that it is 54-plus really disparate countries and different cultures. You can cluster some, but even then it's not one size fits all. So, I think the caution I’d give about Brand Africa is, yes, let it entice you, but then please make sure that once you get in there, you analyse each country, each region, for what it is. You need to plug your ideas and talent into the right place, because you can very quickly end up in the wrong place by clustering it all as one.

… And the danger is that perhaps then some would advance more than others, and some would be left behind.

Exactly. There are language issues and cultural issues that differ quite significantly. There are historical issues that come into play that affect the way people behave in different situations.

What is the most important thing that political and business leaders in Africa can do to enhance prosperity and well-being across the continent?

More and more I am finding leadership – or the lack of it -- to be the major single hindrance to realising the African opportunity that is facing us today.

I have been reading about the concept of noblesse oblige, which is a term you hear thrown about quite often, but perhaps without real understanding. Fundamentally, it says that someone who is privileged to be in a position of power or financial advantage has a responsibility and obligation to look after others. So this concept of ‘shared values’ that we have been thinking about, that's really the fundamentals of noblesse oblige, and I think we, or our leadership, need to go back to the basics and learn that concept.

I have also been looking at the economies of countries that have transformed themselves, and tried to understand what happened in those countries to make a change – countries such as Singapore, Dubai, and Rwanda. It really made me think about how Paul Kagame has managed to shape and drive Rwanda the way he has, and why this cannot be replicated by other leaders. So, I think leadership has to have vision, they have to have a sense of obligation to the people that they are leading, and – this I think is missing – the long-term strategy about how to really shape our countries.

Do you see that happening in any other African countries?

Rwanda is the example we keep using, and that's not to say that Rwanda is pristine. It has its issues, but overall it's the best story that you can pick out of there. I think to some extent Botswana, and Ghana. Again, none of these are perfect but today they are the ones that one can look at and say they are moving in the right direction.

You were someone who left Africa and had a successful career based in America before returning to Zambia. Was there a sudden realisation or was it always part of the plan? What was it that made you want to return home?

It was always part of the grand plan; when I left Zambia to join the IFC, I had intended to go for the three years of that initial contract and then come back. But I got seduced by the comforts of Washington DC, working for the World Bank and having that UN passport, and going everywhere I wanted to go! Africa was always at the back of my mind, however, and I was very fortunate in the World Bank in that I tried always to be working in Africa, or on Africa, so I always had that connection. Then came 2012, when I turned 50, and I had to make a decision: it was now or never. At the time I was handling both sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean as a financial markets director for the IFC. When I started to see what we were doing in Latin America and the Caribbean, I just said to myself, ‘Why am I doing this here?’ When I was in Africa, it didn’t feel like work, but doing exactly the same thing in Latin America was definitely a job. So I knew that it was time for me to focus completely on Africa.

There is beginning to be quite a pattern of people leaving Africa, going to other places and then going back. Do you think that this is something set to continue, or can you see a future with a lot more home-grown and home-nurtured talent? How do you see education developing over time?

I think for Africa, once we lose talent, the expectation that that talent will come back has got to be very, very low. So our default position should be to retain that talent and not have it leave in the first place. We do hear of people who are going back, but not nearly enough to build the kind of capacity and skills that we need to realise this potential that we keep talking about. We heard again today that there is a deep lack of skills in the Africa region, across industries, and across sectors, and especially in the public sector. So the moment somebody walks out the door, the likelihood that they will come back, to a harder environment by all standards, is pretty low. Yes, it is great that people are going back, but we shouldn't lose those people in the first place.

If you think about China, about Japan – and actually Singapore did this as well – they deliberately sent people to the US and Germany, to learn skills in certain industries and then bring them back. But that was a designed, visionary, strategic approach, starting from the very top office of the President, which created an incentive for people to come back. When it works, that approach is the greatest thing. It is a global world today; we need to expose people.

What are the most important lessons that you have learnt about leadership, and what advice would you give to students and younger readers of this newsletter who are hoping to become leaders and make a difference – in Africa or elsewhere in the world?

The first one is always to think legacy. And if you think legacy, you go to my second one which is to make yourself dispensable. And making yourself dispensable means putting in place a succession plan. So the greatest story you can tell is: I came, I built and I left a great team to carry on what I had started. Our politicians should also try to subscribe to this, because then you would not have presidents for 30-50 years. We must be able to let go, and be able to let go with grace and with dignity and with pride that we have built something else.

The next lesson is to think beyond yourself. So whatever you are doing, you are doing for the institution, for the staff. I think there is a lot of ego, especially in the corporate world, and letting go of that ego is one the most powerful things that you can do. If I look good then it means that someone below me has done the right job, and I should let that person be recognised for that, rather than to accept all the praise myself.

A third group is around role-modelling and actions. My priest at church once told me that leadership is a lonely place, but it is an anointed place. It is lonely because you can't socialise the way you used to socialise when you were lower down the ranks. It will come back to haunt you. And because you need to focus on whatever it is that you have been given leadership over, certain things – friends, things you do, the way you spend your time – get pushed out. Leadership becomes a box, and you have to choose if this is really what you want to do. It does impact your social life. I think also that as a black African woman who has to follow my cultural norms, which don’t always coincide with global corporate norms, it’s a stretch. My family sometimes think I should have gone to an event, for example, and I chose instead to travel or to work, so you really do get torn in terms of making certain decisions.

So what is that you are doing now in Zambia now? Are you involved with developing people coming through, educating people?

Yes. I am doing it formally, through the boards on which I sit. I sit on a pan-African infrastructure board, called Harith; it’s exciting to have the opportunity to influence a private equity fund mentality, to look at the fact that we can do good and do well at the same time. I also sit on the board of ETI (Ecobank), which again is a pan-African bank. But then there is a board that I sit on in Zambia, called FOCUS Financial Services, and this is the one that feeds my soul. It's a financial services solutions company for SMEs, started by two guys who sold their houses and got together, putting together maybe $2 million five years ago. Last year they had a turnover of twenty million. So they made good money. But it’s what they do that I love. I was opening a branch of theirs in the northern part of Zambia, which is a mining town, and this couple came to me – who don't speak English – and basically said, FOCUS has made such a difference in our lives. They were supplying the mines, and were turning over what would be the equivalent of a thousand dollars a month, five years ago. And now they are still supplying the mines, but are turning over something like a hundred thousand dollars a month. Another client of theirs sent us a video, and just said that this is what FOCUS has enabled me to do. It has no words: it is just showing us around a complex of good quality town houses that he has built. Working with a company that has that sort of impact gives me a really good feeling.

Informally, I think the power of the spoken word is sometimes underestimated, so I have to do a lot of talking. I was talking to city women's groups, I've talked to a lot of women in the banking sector, I do a lot of mentoring of young women; I think I have two young men, but it is mainly young women. So I am doing a lot of mentoring, talking and encouraging people. In spite of the ‘Africa Rising’ story, when you are on the ground you see a lot of disenfranchised, disillusioned, disappointed youth and youngsters, and they just need encouragement to stay the course. And there are a lot of vices that are being thrown at them: drugs, alcohol, sexual immorality, and they can frequently get carried away with that, so I am really just trying to keep the young generation on the road.

Business Forum Africa

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