‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series in which we pose 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.
Francis Kibhisa, founder and MD, Rex Energy (Tanzania)
1. What was your first job?
I was employed by BP Solar as head of technical operations. I was just 27.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
I have my own personal drive… but I have had a number of advisers, one of them being a person within government service who is now a board member of the company. He has always emphasised the importance of hard work to deliver a service, and not rushing to make money, but rather work to create a company that will leave a legacy.
3. Which parts of your job keep you awake at night?
Starting a business from the grassroots has a number of challenges. One is getting the funding right to have enough finance. We first achieved this from our own equity, from the salaries we saved, especially mine… and yes it has been very difficult to create financial viability. This remained a challenge until recently when we started winning some big contractual work.
Another challenge is getting the right human resources to actually drive the business in the direction you want. Small to medium sized businesses always face three challenges: getting the right skill set, and of course financing. And a third is innovation. As you know, with any business you have to come up with innovative market penetration strategies.
4. What are your top reasons for being successful?
I would say we have a growing business. One of the reasons is customer service which has been something I have taught to my team. If the customer is not satisfied, I don’t sleep and I have emphasised the importance of getting customer service right… and I have trained my staff to make sure they understand both customer demands and branding our company.
The second is research and development. We have kept doing a lot in these areas. And a third reason is networking with reliable partners like manufacturers and financial institutions.
5. What are the best things about your country, Tanzania?
Tanzania is one of the politically stable countries in East Africa and our government leaders have initiatives to support local business. Not only local business, but also foreign investors.
Tanzania, in terms of logistics and transport, actually has a lot of potential in its location. It is next to the Indian Ocean so is actually well positioned, especially with shipping. And another plus is tourism. It has so many attractions. We have some of the top national parks in the world. Think of Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The Ngorongoro Crater is one of the seven natural wonders of Africa. And think of the highest mountain in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro… it’s a beautiful country.
And then with natural resources; there have recently been oil and gas discoveries.
Tanzania is also well positioned economically. When people talk about coming and investing in Africa, Tanzania is a top priority… I would encourage my government leaders to make sure that they actually take opportunities to negotiate on behalf of Tanzanians, and ensure that Tanzania’s economy can grow steadily.
6. And the worst?
Things I would like to see changed is the mindset of the government. Instead of negotiating with foreigners on getting aid, rather they should negotiate with sponsors to come into a trade alliance. They must take every opportunity to welcome investors and then empower local businessmen. Instead of being watchers of investment in our own country, they should encourage foreign and local partnerships in equity investment. Whoever comes and invests in Tanzania, there must be a local company empowered too. And this has to be defined by the policies of the government. The investors who venture into our country have often been in business for 100 years. They have numerous skills, particularly in mining and natural resources. They should partner with a local company because at the end of the day the people who come in and invest will leave the country. We have to empower our local people.
The government also has to strengthen tax collection. Taxation issues need to be clear… we need to give foreign investors incentives to invest, but without allowing tax avoidance and evasion. We lose millions.
7. Your future career plans?
I would like to grow this business through East and Central Africa, and Africa as a whole. We want to support the people of Africa by giving them affordable and reliable sources of energy.
8. How do you relax?
With my three girls, my son and my wife. That is my best place to relax. I love my family… I work hard but I do not forget to relax with them.
9. What is your message to young aspiring business people and entrepreneurs?
Work hard and be patient. The main problem I see with young African guys is they want to grow overnight. Yes, they have to be ambitious, they have to think big, but they have to be patient. Rome was not built overnight. Rex Energy has just been recognised at the Africa Best Practices Awards, but it’s been a steady progress that’s been happening for the past 14 years.
So it’s a process and Africa has the potential. You can see much of the world is actually seeking a slice of the Africa cake. I encourage our young businessmen to first of all have integrity in whatever they are doing. They should follow business ethics… they should be patient and should work to create more African businesses, opportunities and jobs.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
A lot has been said about Africa but I have two points for African government heads. First of all we need to have a common voice in Africa, outlining what we need in terms of business, in terms of trading with either the west or east. Every African leader has his own agenda… we need, as an African continent, to sit down and come up with an agenda in terms of defining what types of business and investment we want from America, China, India or from Europe. Otherwise we could lose our great potential. It is not time for begging the west or east to come and help us.
It is now time to discuss business, and our solutions. We have well-educated African business guys. But we do not have an African agenda. We [need to] look outside our own boundaries. We have our own local interests, but we do have to look bigger.
Another point I would like to make about Africa is concerning the conflicts and wars around the continent. I think government leaders around Africa can try to do more to reconcile this conflict and sort out silly wasr. What is happening now in Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Central Africa – it is a shame, this fighting between Muslims and Christians. Now is certainly the time to fight, but for a share in the global economy.
Francis Kibhisa is the managing director of Rex Energy in Tanzania, a company he founded in 2000 to develop and supply solar powered energy solutions, such as lighting, fridges, batteries and water heaters. Its latest innovation is a solar powered charger for mobile phones, which was introduced into the market in January to address the needs of people living off the grid.
This month Rex Energy was recognised at the Frost & Sullivan’s Africa Best Practices Awards Banquet for its solar innovations to address Tanzania’s energy gap, where less than 20% of the population are estimated to have access to power.