‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series where we pose the same ten questions to business leaders across the continent.
Ravi Pokhriyal, regional head – West Africa, Olam International
1. What was your first job?
Agribusiness has always been fascinating to me as it is so diverse and integral to society. For that reason, I started my career in 1993 in India as a management trainee in Lupin Agrochemicals Ltd, which provided agro-chemicals such as pesticides to cotton and rice farmers in South India. From there, I joined Olam as a branch manager in West Africa in 1996, becoming country head of our operations in Côte d’Ivoire and now I am regional head for West Africa.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
Over the years, I have been very lucky to have had some excellent supervisors who have played a big part in shaping my career. I am grateful to them for teaching me a management style which has enabled me to develop my own today. For example, when I first landed in Africa, I had a new geography to get to know and understand – professionally, culturally and socially. I was also starting a different type of role within Olam. Instead of sales, which I had been doing previously, I had moved into procurement. Furthermore, I had to familiarise myself with a new language, Togo being a francophone country. However, my manager, who was based in a neighbouring country Benin, was very patient and supportive. Initially I would call him two to three times a day and he would listen to me, share my concerns and questions, and give me his views, but in the end, he would encourage me to make my own decisions. It was that initial guidance and comfort, combined with having a sense of autonomy that gave me the confidence to be successful in the new environment and lay down the foundations for my future development.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
Apart from working across different time zones which can keep me awake at night from a practical perspective, I believe it is important to rest well so that I can focus on the day ahead with energy and a clear perspective. I do make time, however, to give considered thought to the business and where we can take it next, particularly in terms of keeping our strategy fresh, relevant and ahead of the competition. There are also a lot of exciting developments that I spend considerable time thinking through such as our expansion into downstream operations like manufacturing, and how we implement them effectively as they are going to be a big point of differentiation and support our continued growth.
4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?
Throughout my career, I have put lot of emphasis on building my teams and getting them involved in decision making. We have a lot of brainstorming sessions which allow the whole team to come together, tackle problems and make critical decisions. This not only fosters team spirit, ownership and alignment for decisions but also allows me to get the best ideas for the business irrespective of hierarchy and take these forward. This has also helped me to prepare younger team members for future senior roles. Today, I am happy that many of my younger team members are handling critical roles in the organisation at different places and are recognised for their contributions, as this allows me to focus on other priority areas for the business.
5. What are the best things about Côte d’Ivoire?
I have lived in Côte d’Ivoire for more than 12 years now and I have been amazed with what the country achieved in the first 30 to 40 years after independence. A large element of this is down to its people; people in Côte d’Ivoire are very competent, hardworking, open-minded and peaceful in nature. I think that this has played a major role in helping the country overcome 10 years of political turmoil. As a result, the country has built leadership positions in various agricultural sectors like cocoa, coffee, cashew, cotton, palm and rubber, which have been supported through clear policies and an inclusive culture for the people that live and work here. Côte d’Ivoire is already making a lot of progress and I am confident it will continue to prosper.
6. And the worst?
For the first time in 10 years, there were open hostilities which threatened the security of the country in many ways. That fear was my worst concern, as I have a deep affection and appreciation for this country, as well as the security of over 600 staff to consider. I’m glad to see this is behind us now, so that we can focus on the very many positive aspects of Côte d’Ivoire and continue building a bright future.
7. Your future career plans?
I see my focus being on continuing to ensure that Olam is the leading agribusiness in the region, not only in value and volume but also through innovation and responsible growth. Olam is pioneering a host of initiatives locally under my sponsorship. For example our integrated cashew model, which will change the way the cashew supply change operates on the continent. Rather than send the raw cashew nut overseas for processing, we have a range of manual units and a state-of-the-art automated processing facility to ensure the added value is kept in country. These facilities are situated close to the 226 farming villages in the Bouaké and Dimbokro region where we buy from 10,000 farmers. Our model of unlocking mutual value facilitates collaboration through partnerships – in this case with GIZ (a German development agency) and the African Cashew Initiative (ACi). I am excited about realising this plan in the next couple of years and looking at other areas where we can adapt a similar approach.
As I mentioned, developing Olam’s next set of leaders within our operations here in Africa is also important to me so I will be spending time looking at the talent within our business and how we best develop it.
8. How do you relax?
I have two young daughters aged 9 and 7 and spending time with them is very relaxing.
Also I like reading about history and particularly enjoy reading about Indian history from 1700 to 1947, which is the period up to Indian independence. It not only gives me glimpses of what happened during those days but also gives valuable insight into how to lead people today. One of my favourite books is ‘Freedom at Midnight’ by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, which describes the events in the Indian independence movement in 1947-48.
9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring business people and entrepreneurs?
There are a lot of opportunities and huge potential in Africa. Look at the facts – Africa has eight countries with a higher GDP per capita than China and 15 higher than India and there are 20 African companies that have revenues of at least $3 billion.
In order to benefit from these trends, I would encourage young people to embrace education, persevere in their chosen field to build expertise, work hard, and listen to advice but don’t be afraid to make decisions and seize opportunities. I believe that agriculture and the food industry have vast growth potential and from personal experience, is a highly rewarding, productive, complex and dynamic field to work in.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
A strong policy framework will be fundamental to realising Africa’s full potential, supported by institutions that focus on democratic and economic growth. Investment in infrastructure, education, R&D and healthcare to help Africa become a mature and sustainable next frontier is essential for future success.
Emphasis on training and developing the huge talent resource that we have in Africa should be a priority. Today Africa has the youngest population in the world with 39% below 14 years and will have the world’s largest working-age population by 2040.
Olam International is a global integrated supply chain manager and processor of agricultural products and food ingredients.