‘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.
MD Ramesh, president and regional head for southern and eastern Africa, Olam International
1. What was your first job?
My first job… was in India and I was working with the world’s largest manufacturer of luggage. That was in 1989 all the way to 1992.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
The largest impact on my career has been by the current CEO [of Olam], who recruited me and convinced me to come to Africa. I have been constantly inspired over the last 22 years by his capacity to manage/motivate people by raising the bar constantly as a leader, for his ability to envision what this business should be and ensuring that we achieve it, and his ability to continue to remain on top of everything that this business does and more. So watching him, learning from him and interacting with him has had a huge impact on my career.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
The nature of our business is such that we have engagement at the farming level, and then the supply chain side, and eventually at the customer-facing side. Now on all three the risks are different and the risks are open every day, every time, all the time. We have learnt how to manage that risk, but there are so many parts of our business that are not entirely under our control. The weather risk is one, policies is another… So whether it’s the fact that there is an extra frost on our coffee farms in Zambia or Tanzania, or that tomorrow there might be change in [policy]… and then logistics may become a challenge, all of that are challenges that keep me awake at night.
4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?
One is that I think my specialisation, which is around Africa and African businesses, is very well timed in light of the fact that [Africa] is the land of opportunities, as has been recognised in the last 10 to 15 years. I have remained committed to this continent for the last 22 years. Therefore I think I have gained a wealth of experience in this context… and that is a very rare commodity in today’s market. I come across a lot of people who are very keen to be in Africa, but either they don’t understand the model of how to come in and do [business], or they don’t have the courage to take the risks that we took. So for me, here at Olam, I made a career from coming to the continent… which was not quite the same continent that it is today. But I took my chances, and I think the context and the experience… and [insight] on ways we can do business here, is one big factor in the success.
5. What are the best things about South Africa?
South Africa is a fantastic country. In fact I think I spend a lot of time explaining South Africa to a lot of people that don’t know enough about it. The weather is great. The air is clean… the food is great, the people are friendly and it has such untamed, natural beauty. There is so much to do in South Africa… As a [Durban] resident, I have been here for 10 years. It’s the longest I have lived in any city all my life. So that indicates that I have a great deal of respect and love for the people in the country. I think it’s a fantastic country. I also think that it is a hugely undersold country. There is not enough being done to sell this country and its beauty around the world.
6. And the worst?
I think a lot more can be done to uplift the bulk of the population, that must [become] educated and employable and skilled. I think that is one huge challenge that you see in South Africa; that not enough skilled talent exists right now to suit the needs of the industry. That is one area that I think can seriously do with some development.
7. Your future career plans?
Olam has everything I would look forward to in a career. I am challenged, I have a serious amount of control, I work in an extremely challenging environment which also forces me to do the best that I can. There is enough space and growth for me to operate as an entrepreneur. The compensation is great. We have a growing company. Frankly I don’t see myself in a career outside of Olam in a very long time to come.
8. How do you relax?
I play some golf, I play some squash, I play some cricket, and there is so much more physical activity available in South Africa. I can go for a run, I can go hiking, I can do lots of things. So how I relax in South Africa is frankly the easiest question you have asked me so far.
9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring business people and entrepreneurs?
My message is simply: you really don’t know how lucky you are to be born at this time and that you get this time on the continent. For the next 30 to 40 years, Africa is the place to be. Use this opportunity and then cash it completely. Apply yourself and do what you like with a great deal of passion and hard work.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
First and foremost is to ensure that all the young people are educated and skilled so that the great opportunity that Africa offers is actually encashed.
MD Ramesh is president and regional head for southern and eastern Africa at Olam International, a global agribusiness and food conglomerate headquartered in Singapore. The company was established in 1989 in Nigeria and started by exporting raw cashew nuts to India. Today Olam has grown into a global company with operations throughout the world including 25 African countries.
Ramesh joined Olam in 1992, during its early years, and has spent the last 22 years in various leadership and management positions within the company. He has also lived in a number of African countries and travelled extensively across the continent. Today Ramesh is a widely sought out speaker and adviser concerning business, agriculture and supply chain management in Africa.