Meet the Boss is a How we made it in Africa interview series in which we pose the same 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.
1. What was your first job?
I worked for my mum‘s catering business selling chocolate drinks, meat pies and cakes. I was free labour. I was 11 at the time. It made me happy to serve people.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
My dad. He has consistently shown me the value of having the right perspective in life. He taught me that we all have a purpose in life and that through hard work, we achieve this purpose. I think just the thought that we are here for a purpose is what carries me through every day at work. He taught me the value of being a person who respects hard work as a humble service.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
I don’t know whether there are parts of my job that keep me up at night. But I worry about making what I do meaningful and impactful to people around me. I worry about doing things better. It is this overwhelming sense of responsibility for people around me in making sure they succeed. If I feel I am not giving them the best I can, that keeps me very worried because you are as strong as the people around you.
4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?
I obsess about detail. I think that little details matter so I don’t stop and I think that has been a good asset for me.
5. What are the best things about your country, Ghana?
I think we have figured out how to govern ourselves properly. We now have two retired presidents who are living there peacefully. We lost a president last year, but this brought Ghanaians together. We had two elections that were very close and both times we resolved the issues peacefully. As peace and democracy take root in Africa today, I am glad that Ghana is getting it right. We have institutions in Ghana now that are working really well. Ghanaians are also coming back to contribute to the continent as opposed to leaving the continent. We see successful Ghanaians in Ghana and also in other places in Africa. That is a good thing for Africa, especially considering that Ghana was the first African country to gain independence in 1957.
6. And the worst?
We still lack a sense of ownership. We are yet to unlock our full entrepreneurial potential as a society. There are still many places where you get the sense that someone is waiting for someone else to do something they should already be doing. You see someone in a mansion and right outside is a refuse dump and we don’t have that sense of ownership to go clean that up. We still sort of rely on government to solve everything.
7. Your future career plans?
Ten years from now I don’t want to be running the Africa Leadership Network or Botho. I would like other people to be running them. I would like to be teaching at a university. Going to the ivory tower would be nice.
8. How do you relax?
I enjoy the company of close friends and family. I am also a big music lover and partial to African music, hip-hop and jazz. When I have the time I like to run to clear my mind and I have a passion for aviation.
9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring businesspeople and entrepreneurs?
Be proud of who you are and always challenge yourself to be better. I think a lot of African youth are told how smart they are and eventually they don’t push themselves enough. I would say work hard, persevere, be patient but also know that the best part of your life is yet to come. One of the mistakes the youth and people in my generation are making is that we are in a hurry to make money and we don’t always realise the value of the work that goes into it. Warren Buffet didn’t become a billionaire overnight. Aliko Dangote didn’t become Africa’s richest man overnight. These things take time, they take risks and they take a lot of perseverance. One of the things I feel the youth is missing is the sense of a cause. You should understand why you are doing what you are doing. If you understand why you wake up in the morning to work 15 hours a day, I think it gives you some grounding.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
I think it is in believing in who we are and having the confidence to bring our dreams to reality. I think for a long time Africans have had a self-esteem problem. We have had an identity crisis as Africans; we don’t know who we are. Our education systems in Africa are not ours and I know that sounds macro but if you think about it, the Chinese education system is Chinese and the American education system is American. In Africa, the fundamental thing that you are learning in life to become a productive member of society is borrowed.
Slowly things are changing and Africans are realising that being African is a good thing and Africans can be proud. That is good but now its needs to be conceptualised and executed in the real world by competing effectively with the rest of the world while maintaining our unique identity as Africans. For instance, we need to think, innovate and create products that not only make us proud as Africans but also that sell and make money. If you are an African and you manufacture a watch, chances are you are going to have a challenge if you are in a display case next to Swiss-made Patek Philippe because we don’t have the confidence to think we can do better, but also because the African consumer does not believe in an African product if it’s not an artifact.
We need to believe in ourselves and execute well so that our products and institutions are of the same quality or better than what is considered the best. We already see some of that happening with some African products such as Blue Skies juice company from Ghana and Yswara teas and institutions like Ashesi University and the African Leadership Academy, and even though there are many such examples out there we do not have enough.
Isaac Kwaku Fokuo is CEO of the African Leadership Network, a community of young, dynamic and influential leaders in Africa that seeks to create prosperity in the continent. The Ghanaian-born entrepreneur is also the founder of Botho, a Nairobi-based, Africa focused market insight, strategy and investment advisory firm.