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?
My first job was working in the factory as a shift manager in Unilever Ghana.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
Several people have had a big impact on my career. For this moment I will probably give the credit to my parents who formed my view about life, gave me values, and gave me good training and appreciation of hard work and effort. I will also credit the support of my immediate family; my wife and my children. I have also had some very good mentors in my career.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
Due to volatility I do invest a lot of time in trying to understand the environment around me and question myself on whether we are planning in adequate ways to be able to cope with that. This keeps me awake sometime as a result of some amount of worry, but I am also kept awake for positive reasons like when I see young people join [Unilever with] very bright futures ahead of them and the energy that they have. I consider it a privilege to be able to play a role in that.
4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?
I would think that I like to listen and observe and learn and that is important in the context of business. The rest is better for others to judge.
5. What are the best things about your country?
I guess the starting point is which is my country? I haven’t been in Ghana for some time now so I kind of consider Kenya also to be my country and I have worked in so many places and I consider them all to be my country. I would say the friendliness of the people. Interestingly I would give the same answer for Kenya as for Ghana. I only remember I am not Kenyan when people ask me: “How do you find Kenya?”
6. And the worst?
I think the worst is that we are allowing ourselves to embrace a psychology that allows us to hold ourselves to lower standards than we should. That is something that irritates me, it frustrates me. [If] you go to any of our airports and see a piece of paper lying on the floor you don’t get a sense of outrage. The same people travel to say Heathrow (Britain) or Changi (Singapore)… and see a piece of paper lying on the floor and they are surprised. That must cause us to think extremely deeply about why we hold ourselves to lower standards.
7. Your future career plans?
I am in Unilever, I am in corporate… I am not planning something that is different from that. I will always look for opportunities to contribute to the community and the larger society in the things that I do. I am very clear in my mind that whatever I do, I want to do something that contributes to the growth and the development of the continent of Africa. It was my view 20 years ago when I joined Unilever and it remains so today. I feel that this generation’s task is to achieve things that will make it easier for the Africans who come after us.
8. How do you relax?
I like to read. I walk a lot. I spend a lot of time with my family at home so I don’t go out much. I listen to music sometime. I am eclectic in my music taste so I listen to everything. I like reggae. I like the genre of music that has come from young artists who are emerging these days. Sometimes I can’t understand what they are singing but I like it.
9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring businesspeople and entrepreneurs?
Hold yourself to global standards right from the beginning. I think [the youth] have faculties and tools that did not exist before. When I joined work the internet was not what it has become today. There was no social media to the extent that it has become. So they have opportunities and they should make use of them.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
We have to hold ourselves to global standards. Do not accept false benchmarks. We have to see ourselves as people who are part of the global community and not make excuses for mediocrity. If you are looking for specific interventions I usually put it in an acronym that I call LIE: low base society, infrastructure and education.
Yaw Nsarkoh is the managing director for Unilever East and Southern Africa and oversees nine countries. Unilever is an Anglo–Dutch multinational consumer goods company operating in more than 100 countries globally with a range of over 400 food brands and personal and home care products. A Ghanaian national, Nsarkoh has worked with Unilever for 20 years.