Isaac Kwaku Fokuo is the founder and principal of Botho Emerging Markets Group, a strategic investment advisory firm specialising in emerging markets, with its head office in Kenya.
1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.
One of the toughest situations I have found myself in happened when the company was fairly young, and we were working hard to establish our presence on the continent and build our client base. During this time, I was offered a potentially lucrative project that would have made a significant financial impact on the company.
This project would not only have given the company the financial boost any company in its growth stage needs, but it was also in an area that we were particularly keen on venturing into. There was just one problem with this opportunity – I was expected to bribe a few people to get the contract.
I remember speaking to a trusted friend who gently pointed out that a decision to pay off these people may have negative ramifications. He did not tell me what to do, but he reminded me what my values are.
I declined to take on that project and, even though it took us a while to get another contract, the ability to say no even in the face of potential financial distress has remained a core, uncompromised value for me. In this journey of entrepreneurship, I believe there is great value in having the right people around you who serve as a voice of reason in difficult situations.
2. Which business achievement are you most proud of?
I am most proud of my team, the culture we have created over time, and the work ethic we continue to build on. One of the things that we have been consistent about is the ability to interrogate problems and come up with solutions that are practical and value-adding while avoiding the pitfalls of siloed thinking.
3. Tell us about your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.
I often have too many competing ideas in my head and if I’m not careful, this can lead to uncertainty within the firm.
To hedge for that, we have strong leadership within the team beyond just me, and the team has autonomy for execution and pushback when it comes to all our projects. It is not uncommon for the deliberation of an idea and its implementation strategy to be handled and decided by the team.
I encourage my colleagues to always ask questions and challenge any ideas that anyone presents – and this extends to even questioning whether or not we should take on a new project. This has created a system where we all look out for each other’s blind spots.
4. What conventional business wisdom do you disagree with?
I think people sometimes place an unjustifiable emphasis on hierarchy, experience, or education when it comes to idea generation, problem-solving, and project execution. Although I respect their role in decision-making, I also believe that within the African context, we ought to have a certain hustle and start-up mentality in most of our business activities, as we do our part to create jobs and build a prosperous Africa.
We need to be more multidimensional and flexible if we want to build successful and revolutionary companies. What that means is that we need to create seats at the table for non-conventional stakeholders such as the younger members of any firm to contribute to decision-making.
To effectively execute on such opportunities, young people – and by this, I mean people under the age of 35 – need to keenly interrogate situations, to dig deep and also sharpen their critical thinking skills while maintaining a high level of hustle to develop solutions to Africa’s core challenges.
Having many years of experience or going to certain schools does not give one the automatic ability to make good decisions. We need to empower our youth and help them to learn faster to be able to take part in these processes, and these young people must be ready to put in the work.
By empowerment, I am not referring to ‘more training’. Rather, I think young team members should be thrown into the ‘deep end’ of organisational problem solving to solve for some of the critical challenges a company is facing. We will be pleasantly amazed by the results.
5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you started?
I generally don’t approach things with preconceived assumptions, I just start and discover things along the way. I was not planning on becoming an entrepreneur, this was an accident. I simply found myself in a situation where entrepreneurship was the automatic next step from what I was already doing.
From that mindset, it is difficult to say what I regret or what I wish I had known because I simply didn’t know what I didn’t know. What I will say is that I have learned that keeping an open mind, maintaining agility, and watching your blind spots is important.