“I have a special thing for China because I feel like the future of Africa’s prosperity is tied somewhat to China’s prosperity,” says Ghanaian entrepreneur Isaac Kwaku Fokuo.
From cheap electronics to multi-million dollar infrastructure projects, China’s presence in Africa has become hard to miss. Some analysts praise the Asian giant for bringing much needed infrastructural development to Africa while others claim China is Africa’s modern day colonial master.
Fokuo, founder and board chairman of the Sino-Africa Centre of Excellence (SACE) Foundation, a programme geared towards improving China-African relations, argues that, overall, China’s growing investment, especially in the area of infrastructure development has had positive effects in Africa and should be encouraged.
“If you look at the effect of Chinese foreign direct investment in Africa over the last 20 years, even the most sceptical of critics will agree, the effect on the ground has been quite profound. Look at countries like Kenya, Angola, Ghana, Sudan and Nigeria. The infrastructure that Africa has lacked for many years is being built by the Chinese and that is a good thing.”
The SACE runs the China-Africa Internship Programme, which “brings very smart Chinese students to Africa to intern with African companies”, says Fokuo. The programme hopes to build relationships that “will translate into physical investments in the future”, particularly in the private sector.
“The African private sector should start engaging with the Chinese private sector,” says Fokuo, who is also CEO of the African Leadership Network, a community of new-generation leaders which seeks to create prosperity in the continent.
“The relationships we build with these students goes a long way to the investment down the line. When these kids go back and now work in companies like Huawei… [they] understand how Africa works. These kids are going to influence China-Africa policy in the future and their perspective will be very different from that of someone who has never experienced Africa before.”
An international business development and finance expert, Fokuo stumbled into entrepreneurship eight years ago while living in the US.
“I wasn’t one of those kids who grew up thinking they are going to start their own company someday,” he says.
Fokuo says he worked on a project about Islamic finance and then decided to start Botho, an investment advisory firm which at the time worked with investors in Southeast Asia and the Gulf region.
When Fokuo moved back to Africa in 2010, Botho took a different turn.
“When I moved to Kenya those projects were no longer viable because the scope was different, the amount of money needed here was just too small and investors were not willing to put US$50m in the businesses we were exploring here.”
Today Botho offers foreign investors advice on investment opportunities in emerging markets. The firm holds over $250m worth of Africa-based private equity and debt transaction projects ranging from commercial real estate, healthcare, cosmetics, hospitality and agro-processing.
“In the investment space in Africa everyone complains about the lack of data and my philosophy is it’s not lack of data, its lack of creativity in finding good data sets,” says Fokuo. “What we do at Botho is to find the data that investors need to make intelligent business decisions, then we communicate this to investors in a language they understand. We use this as a platform to also link entrepreneurs and investors. We see a strong appetite among investors all over the world for projects to finance in Africa.”
Perception and skills training
One of the major hurdles Botho faces in working with foreign investors is the perception that Africans “are not good enough”.
“If I go and sit across [from] an investor and I put a document in front of him and I say to him this is a good product and my colleague from Brazil puts a similar document in front of him, the investor is likely to go with my Brazilian colleague.”
Access to human resources, Fokuo says, is also a major challenge.
“I passionately believe that whatever we need to do, we can do as Africans. I have met and worked with very intelligent, highly educated and entrepreneurial Africans who work really hard. My frustration is that at a macro-level, we have good education systems, but we are yet to translate good education into hard, market-ready skills. We need to do that, and we need to nurture a worker bee work ethic in our youth, so that the intern that walks through the door is prepared for work, both in terms of skills and attitude.”
Some of the lessons Fokuo has learnt in entrepreneurship include accepting and overcoming failure and ensuring proper execution of strategy.
“Everyone tells you failure is an important lesson in entrepreneurship and while that is cute to say, the reality feels like having the wind knocked out of you by a huge gorilla. If you are an entrepreneur and you fail or things don’t go your way, you need to be able to get up the next day and give it another shot no matter how tough or painful it is,” says Fokuo. “Don’t always expect the obvious and don’t be stuck in your ways and your mission statements. But you should also allow people to safely fail. Otherwise you stifle enterprise.”