Janine Diagou rises to number 2 in family company

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janine diagou

As head of banking of NSIA Group, Janine Diagou prepares to introduce company shares on the regional stock exchange.

When Janine Bénédicte Diagou joined the family insurance and banking business in 1999, it wasn’t guaranteed that she would be running it one day.

But 17 years later, she is group managing director and head of the banking division at NSIA Group, a leading insurer in French-speaking Africa based in the Ivory Coast, and the number two to her father, Jean Kacou Diagou, who founded NSIA Group in 1995 and serves as its president.

These are busy times for the Diagous as their company, which has pursued an aggressive growth strategy, prepares to take their bank public and introduce shares on the regional stock exchange for eight West African countries, including Ivory Coast.

For Janine Diagou, that has meant months of travel to meet with boards of subsidiaries in the region to smooth the way for the initial public offering, which will enable the bank to raise capital.

Diagou studied business in England, France

Janine Diagou studied business and finance in Paris and in London, obtaining a Bachelor’s Degree in business administration in France and a Master of Science degree in finance in England.

After she finished her studies in 1995, she joined Citibank in Abidjan, and then moved to Mobil Group ACOE as an internal auditor.

She said she took what was essentially a demotion to join her father’s company at his request in 1999, trading an executive role at Mobil Group for the more modest role of auditor at NSIA.

Her father was forming a new auditing group and asked her to join as a simple auditor.

“He asked me to cut my salary in half. I was not very excited at first, especially since I did not know the insurance industry. So we had to work hard to prove that I deserved my place,” she said.

Skepticism, then success

She said she faced skepticism and took pains to avoid being perceived as having the job because she was the daughter of the boss, including addressing him as “mister president.”

She rose to become financial director of the group and then took charge of strategic development. She assumed her current position in 2011.

She said she and her father never had a game plan for her advancement.

“He never promised me anything and, believe me, he did not ease the task either. I think in my job, I won his trust,” she said.

Progress for women in business

She believes her success is a victory for women in business.

“Convincing men in industry of your competence is not simple in Africa,” she said. “The main challenge was to prove again and again that I was capable of doing the job at least at the same level as men — and even better.”

She said she and her father have not reached a stage of discussing succession. Instead she is focused in gaining investor confidence that the company is sustainable.

Family, private investors having holdings

NSIA currently owns nearly 80 percent of the bank, with the family holding 60 percent and the remaining 20 percent in the hands of private investors. National Bank of Canada bought a 20.9 percent share in the bank for approximately $94 million in 2015.

NSIA Bank, formerly known as BIAO-CI is part of the financial group NSIA, which is a leading insurance provider in 12 countries across West and Central Africa. NSIA also owns a bank in Guinea. The company reported revenue of $3.3 million in 2014 and Jean Diagou forecast revenue would increase by 10 percent in 2015.

Few details of the initial public offering have been made public and no date for the stock sale has been announced.

Ivorian law requires companies to offer at least 10 percent of their shares to be listed on the exchange.

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Fred Swaniker, Educating Africa’s next great leaders

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Fred Swaniker

One man’s determination to make Africa great by teaching its fourth generation to be good leaders.

Gaining worldwide recognition, ranked among the “top 10 young power men in Africa” by Forbes Magazine and named one of the World Economic Forum’s “Young Global Leaders” in 2012, few could wish for such an impressive list of accolades. However, for Ghanaian Fred Swaniker, they are just a few happy byproducts of his passionate dedication to educate the fourth generation of post-colonial Africa.

Having succeeded in fulfilling his first dream of opening the African Leadership Academy (ALA) in 2008, followed later by the African Leadership Network (ALN) in 2010, he is by no means ready to slow down. Instead his latest mission just goes to prove that the 38 year old is quietly leading a revolution.

The ambitious entrepreneur has turned his sights towards developing the African Leadership University (ALU). Announcing his plans for the first time in public during a TED talk in October 2014, Swaniker spoke of the potential to educate and develop 250,000 leaders at the University’s 25 campuses across Africa. He estimated that over 50 years that would create three million transformative leaders who could finally walk out the doors of ALU and into the world, hopefully to carry out his vision of leading Africa in a brighter, more prosperous and stable direction.

Early inspiration

The TED fellow’s early years were spent moving from country to country almost every four years due to political unrest in his continent. At the age of four he experienced his first coup d’état that forced him and his father, a lawyer, and his mother, an educator, to leave their native home.

His family moved to Botswana, a revelation to the then eight year old Swaniker, who appreciated the country’s good infrastructure, no coups, good education and the fact that “things worked.” It was here, while watching television that the young Ghanaian pin points the moment he realized the power of leadership. As he watched the incarcerated Nelson Mandela refuse to give up the struggle against the apartheid he thought to himself, “one good leader could make such a difference in Africa.”

His experience of living in many African countries kindled a deeper love for his continent and solidified his dream, to dedicate his life to making Africa great. His first opportunity came about whist living in Botswana and his mother was asked to set up a school. On agreeing she made sure to engage her son as the head teacher, a mere 17 year old at the time. It was a life changing experience that would instill in him a deep understanding of the importance of education and responsibility.

Where education and leadership meet

These two pivotal realizations in the African entrepreneur’s life were uniquely profound but combined, they were revolutionary. He realized the potential in teaching leadership skills to bright, ambitious, young Africans to give them the opportunity to transform the continent. “For Africa more than anywhere else in the world, the difference that just one good leader can make is much greater than anywhere else,” Fred Swaniker said during his 2014 TED talk.

After studying economics at Macalester College in the US, he joined McKinsey management consulting firm before going on to obtain an MBA from Stanford University. While there he came up with the idea to create his African college.

It was not an easy road to fruition; he sacrificed his time, finances, energy and even comfort in order to raise what was needed to get ALA up and running. Reminiscing on the time, Swaniker said, “The initial funding came from my friends and family but that lasted for a few months and then it ran out. I really spent the next two years without any money and we just had to find ways to survive.” Luckily his support network was strong, with friends who believed in him enough they would go on to become co-founders and colleagues.

Looking ahead

It is with unwavering belief that the leadership development expert approaches the future. As much as he has invested already in his continent, he is ready to invest more. His faith is in this new generation and he is putting all he has into making the doors of his institutions as open as possible, to all.

The university runs a scheme of “forgivable” loans that offer students money for fees and living costs which are not required to be paid back should they work in Africa for 10 years after graduating. It is his way of additionally encouraging the bright, young thinkers to remain, to put all their new found skills and knowledge back into Africa.

“I thought that if I can create an organization that can find young entrepreneurs, young leaders in every country in Africa – that has the potential to really change the continent; if I could build an institution that could develop them, then they could achieve much more than I could achieve by myself.”

And while so much of the Young Global Leader’s time is spent conjuring up new ideas and ensuring the smooth operation of his many institutions, he still makes time to enjoy his relatively new married life. Married on the 8th June, 2013 he and his wife share a love of good food, travel and Africa – a continent that is going from strength to strength thanks to visionaries like Fred Swaniker.

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Najla Al-Midfa Breaks the Glass Ceiling

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Najla Al-Midfa

Najla Al-Midfa set her sights above the solid glass ceiling in the Emirati banking sector, joining as the first female board member at the United Arab Bank, and founding an online mentorship community to provide young Emiratis with more equitable opportunities.

The Muslim world is often portrayed as an oppressively sexist society despite some seemingly modern societies, such as the United Arab Emirates. Despite its widely publicized modernization, for women living in the UAE, life is undeniably inequitable: by law, Emirati women cannot marry non-Muslim men unless they convert (whereas men can marry a woman regardless of her religious affiliation), and wedding contracts are negotiated between future husband and a woman’s male guardian; sex outside of marriage is illegal, women cannot unilaterally divorce their husbands (whereas men can), and in order to petition for divorce must prove that they have been abandoned for more than three months, that they have been physically abused or that a husband has been financially negligent; and in the case of divorce, a woman’s custody rights may be revoked should she re-marry.

The First Step on the Career Ladder

Emirati women are lesser citizens than their male counterparts, which makes individual rebellions against the system all the more remarkable. Najla Al-Midfa, a native Emirati born and raised in Sharjah, is a prime example of the incredible strength and acumen Emirati women possess. Al-Midfa was born and raised in an affluent neighborhood in Dubai and received her Master in Business and Administration from Stanford University before entering the entrepreneurial world of the UAE. Upon her 2010 return to the UAE, Al-Midfa joined the Khalifa Fund. The Khalifa Fund was launched in 2007 to support young, local entrepreneurs in Abu Dhabi enter the business world. The Khalifa Fund was the perfect starting point for Al-Midfa: she wanted to use her business and interpersonal skills to promote local entrepreneurs in a comprehensive way. She guided a team through the due diligence process, and helped identify smart investments. While at the Khalifa Fund, Al-Midfa was constantly questioned about her career path: it was these questions that inspired her to create a mentorship program so that young people would have guidance after their academic careers.

Starting Up to Help Others Starting Out

Al-Midfa left the Khalifa Fund and founded Khayarat. Khayarat gives recent graduates exclusive access to existing companies, connecting them with potential mentors who can offer personal advice on entering the workforce. The online career development platform targets the 18-25 year old market so they can launch their careers in the private sector. Khayarat promotes companies through individual company pages that provide a complete analysis of the company: a Khayarat team visits each company and photographs the workspace and employees so prospective employees can get a feel for the atmosphere. For international businesses, this personal touch is important. Khayarat only visits local branches of international companies, which might not be highlighted on a given corporate website. By highlighting the local branch, Khayarat provides a comprehensive directory of local private sector companies with which recent graduates could work.


A Crack in the Ceiling

Not only is Al-Midfa the founder of her own business, but she has worked for numerous international firms and is on several boards of directors and committees. It is common knowledge that, while women make up a significant portion of the formal global workforce, their presence in the upper echelons of business is lacking. Through hard work, perseverance and a refusal to accept the status quo, Al-Midfa has cracked the omnipresent glass ceiling. In her earlier career, she worked for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the multinational professional services network. She is currently on the board of Education for Employment UAE; Sharjah Business Women Council; Young Arab Leaders and is on the Board of Directors and a Member of the Executive Committee at the United Arab Bank–the first woman to hold such a high position.

Al-Midfa’s impressive resume summarizes and even more impressive woman. Al-Midfa is a formidable role model for all young business people, regardless of gender or nationality. When asked for her best piece of advice, Al-Midfa said “the advice that I give most often is a piece of advice that was given to me – and now I’m passing it on… ‘We find comfort amongst those who agree with us, but we find growth amongst those who don’t.’” This advice should ring true for all: comfort zones must be left, as Al-Midfa did when she went to the USA for her MBA, and as she has done time and again in the male dominated private sector, in order to grow as a person and a professional.

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Growth in African wealth brings more philanthropy

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Mo Ibhrahim Foundation

As the number of millionaires and billionaires on the continent grow, many give back to programs promoting health, education and entrepreneurship.

As the wealth of the continent increases, African philanthropy is on the rise.

For example, Aliko Dangote of Nigeria, the richest person in Africa recently joined with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to pledge $100 million to fight malnutrition in Nigeria.

Dangote has supported programs in education, youth empowerment and health as well as a program that offers micro grants to rural women and young people to help them start businesses.

Now he will help in the battle against malnutrition in his home country, where one in five children are malnourished and one in three suffers from stunted growth – the highest number in Africa.

With a fortune of $17 billion built in cement and sugar manufacturing, Dangote is considered the richest person in Africa.

Philanthropy increasing across Africa

Dangote is not alone in using some of his considerable wealth to help others.

A recent report by UBS and Trust Africa said philanthropy on the continent is on the increase, building on longstanding African traditions of giving back to family and community.

“Over the past ten to fifteen years, there has been phenomenal growth in philanthropic institutions across Africa,” according to the study, “Africa’s Wealthy Give Back” (pdf). “We have begun to see the emergence of more strategic philanthropy,” along with more formal infrastructure for giving, the report said.

The USB-Trust Africa study cited projections by McKinsey Global Institute that gross domestic product in sub-Saharan Africa will grow to $2.6 trillion by 2020. With that will come corresponding increases in the number of wealthy individuals.

Dangote with Bill Clinton

Dangote with Bill Clinton

Growing wealth fuels giving

It said there were nearly 150,000 wealthy people in African in 2013, and the number had increased 3.7 percent over the previous year. At the same time, the total wealth of this group increased by 7.3% to $1.3 trillion.

There are about 25 major foundations on the continent.

Patrice Motsepe, a South African mining tycoon, in 2010 was the first African to sign the Giving Pledge that was started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. In 2013, Motsepe donated half his fortune to his own foundation to help those in need. His net worth is estimated at $1.4 billion.

Sudanese billionaire Mohamed Ibrahim’s foundation produces an index of African governance and Ibrahim is known for fighting government corruption on the continent. His Mo Ibrahim foundation also offers scholarship aid to young African leaders. A pioneer of telecoms in Africa with Celtel International, his fortune is estimated at $1.1 billion.

Tony Elumelu, a Nigerian banker, whose foundation is funding 10,000 African startups at a cost of $100 million. The program provides entrepreneurs with $10,000 each, half for training and half to start the business. Elumelu’s goal is to create one million jobs and add up to $10 billion to Africa’s gross domestic product. Elumelu’s net worth is estimated at $700 million

Jim Ovia, the founder of Zenith Bank, one of the largest banks in Nigeria, and of the telecom Visafone, which has three million subscribers, supports technology startups. His wealth is estimated at $550 million.

With a fortune estimated at $450 million, Cyril Ramaphosa, vice president of South Africa, supports South African entrepreneurs through his Shanduka Foundation. His Adopt-a-School Foundation has already built 454 schools.

Philanthropy builds on African tradition

Halima Mahomed, a philanthropy advisor to Trust Africa, said the wealthy Africans are following deeply ingrained traditions of African culture. “Rich or poor, everyone gives in Africa” and the newly wealthy are following that trend, Mahomed said.

Gregorie Muhr, a philanthropy analyst at UBS, said the approach is changing, as the new philanthropists take a more business-like approach to their giving, having seen that millions of dollars previously donated in Africa have not always reached the intended objectives.

The advent of billionaire philanthropists is not unique to Africa. “The trend is global’’ in developing markets where a new class of super rich emerges, according to Jenny Hodgson, executive director of the Global Fund for Community Foundations.

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Maha Al-Ghunaim, CEO, Global Investment House

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maha al ghunaim

Maha Al-Ghunaim, founder and CEO of Global Investment House, is a pioneer in the world of Arab finance

In the world of Arab banking and finance, Maha Al-Ghunaim is something of a pioneer as the founder and CEO of one of the Middle East’s largest investment companies, Global Investment House. As a women in a male-dominated industry, both in the Middle East and beyond, working in a country where only 15% of women are in the workforce, she is also something of a rarity.

Building Global Investment House

Al-Ghunaim trained in mathematics, graduating from the San Francisco State University in 1982, and has worked in asset management and investment banking for the over 30 years since. Straight out of university she joined the large government-owned investment company, the Kuwait Investment Authority. And she comments: “At that time they really took care of young Kuwaitis who were entering the workforce… I started from the bottom and learned how things are done and gradually moved my way up the ladder.”

She would work there for many years, before taking positions at the now dissolved Kuwait Foreign Trading Contracting & Investment Co. and the Kuwait Investment Company.

In 1998, Al-Ghunaim launched Global Investments House with four colleagues, having spotted a gap in the Middle Eastern market for integrated solutions in brokerage, asset management, and investment banking. She says: “We understood that the capital markets in Kuwait lacked certain products and services and we capitalized on that.” Focused specifically on opportunities in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Middle East, the company chose to offer funds and investment products which were wholly new to the region, including bonds, index funds, fixed income funds, and private equity. The company also pushed research and development. “We widened the capital markets rather than everybody competing for the same slice – make the pie larger. We started to create very new funds and products,” comments Al-Ghunaim.

Global is now an investment bank with $3.7 billion under management, 210 employees, and offices in Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE. In 2008 the company became the first Kuwaiti firm to list on the London Stock Exchange, and was also listed on the Kuwait, Dubai and Bahrain bourses. “We started Global with a capital of $50 million in 1998 and, by mid-2008, we were trading at a $5 billion market cap,” comments Al-Ghunaim.

Regularly included in Forbes’ Top 100 Most Powerful Women, Al-Ghunaim is also a leading Arab businesswomen who chairs or sits on the boards of numerous companies and bodies including Kuwait’s National Industries Group, Kuwait University, Bank Muscat International, Bahrain, Baring Private Equity, Hong Kong, and Jehangir Siddiqui Capital Markets, Pakistan.

Steering Global through the financial crash

But the journey has not been easy. Having launched Global during the phenomenal Middle Eastern boom when oil prices were soaring, the company found itself significantly over-leveraged when the financial crisis hit in 2008. The company’s accumulated losses exceeded 75% of its capital in 2011, breaching Kuwaiti market rules, and the group’s shares were suspended from trading. One year later, it was forced to delist from the country’s stock exchange. “We found ourselves in the middle of liquidation disasters to pay off our debts and simultaneously organize Global International, regionally or locally. The financial crisis hit everyone around the globe… but also [there were] some mistakes that we encouraged in the way we do business,” she comments.

Al-Ghunaim successfully steered Global through this trying time, but needed to completely restructure the way the company did business. “We chose to be completely transparent with our clients, shareholders, and regulators throughout it all. This approach was unique in a culture that generally conceals problems, but we stuck to our commitment to being honest… Our earnings will be completely different from what we had before; it’s no longer about how much you make but about the quality of your earnings which provides sustainability and better valuation.” Now a risk-averse company, she reports that Global is well capitalized, debt-free, and profitable, and business is growing.

Committed to opportunities in the Middle East

Going forwards, her focus continues to lie in the Middle East, as committed as ever to the opportunities for Global in the region. “We create a strong bridge connecting buyers and sellers across the region. This is where we can really add value. Many investment houses offer similar expertise and experience in financial engineering and technical sides of the business, but our regional footprint, insight and placement power gives us an edge.”

Global is also continuing to pioneer in the region, adding new products to its range of billion dollar private equity funds. Two new products due to launch include a fund to invest in secondary private equity funds in the region, and a healthcare platform “which will allow investors to take advantage of the healthcare domain at the GCC-MENA-Turkey level”.

Al-Ghunaim also sees significant opportunities developing in education, consumer goods, and retail, “considering the demographics on the consumer-side, the strong inflow of expats, and the growing entrepreneurial spirit among SMEs”. And a spreading of bets across these sectors seems a particularly valuable strategy for Global considering the continued low oil prices in the region.

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Adeeb Al Balushi: a Young Innovator

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adeeb al balushi

One of the youngest inventors in the world, an Emirati schoolboy is being prepared for a future providing technological solutions to the problems of people around the world.

Adeeb Al Balushi is an eleven year old Emirati boy like any other, yet in some ways he is quite unlike most other children his age. Al Balushi is a young boy who from early childhood has been driven by a desire to help people. This started with his family when he realized that his father was limited by the performance of his prosthetic foot. In an attempt to lessen his father’s discomfort he designed a light-weight, waterproof version of the prosthetic. With this success under his belt he invented a cleaning robot for his mother having noticed that her work around the house could be made much easier. Never one to be content to rest on his laurels, his ambitions are much wider ranging: he went on to create such things as a fire proof helmet whose camera system allows the wearer to see better in a fire, a smart wheelchair and a seat belt system with a built in heart monitor which wirelessly sends what could be lifesaving information to the emergency services.

“I want to change the world. There are too many people in need of assistance and all I think of is how I can be of help,” says Adeeb Al Balushi.

World Technology Tour

Shaikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai has been proactive in supporting the growth and development of young Emirati innovators in general, and Al Balushi in particular. In 2014, a world tour was organized to seven of the most technologically advanced countries in the world: the United States of America, France, United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, Italy and Belgium. The purpose of the tour was to prepare Al Balushi for a future within the field of scientific research and in so doing help raise the profile of Dubai in the field. Conferences, workshops and meetings with leading innovators within the field were carefully planned, all the time ensuring that Al Balushi’s schooling would not be significantly affected by the tour.

The young inventor was recently invited to visit the headquarters of Thuraya, one of the world leaders in satellite telecommunication technology where he was shown the way the company also works tirelessly to bring solutions to problems; Al Balushi was provided a background to Thuraya’s efforts to bring satellite technology closer to the mainstream. Such products included the Satsleeve, a device enabling an ordinary smartphone to be used as a satellite phone, as well as the company’s IP+, which is extending broadband capabilities to areas which would normally not be able to connect to a network.

Adeeb Al Balushi

Awards and recognition

His tireless thirst for invention has led to a great deal of recognition for Al Balushi. He has been awarded the Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum Award for Distinguished Academic Performance and has addressed thousands of delegates at the ITU conference in Korea. Adeeb Al Balushi is the youngest and most recognized inventor in the United Arab Emirates. He is also a member of the Arab Robotics Association, with over sixty certificates of achievement to his name; he is considered the youngest Arab inventor in this field. The year 2013 saw Al Balushi gain the UN Information Centre’s Award of Excellence, while the The Arab Youth Council for Integrated Development (Aycid) have awarded him honorary membership and named him the head of their committee for young inventors and innovators.

Persistence is key

Al Balushi is obviously a very gifted young man with the support and mentorship of a state behind him. It is also clear that he is driven in his mission to help people the world over. The passion and the associated hard work are factors, the necessity of which is not lost on him, which he takes in stride.

“There are lots of paths to take through life, but the one that will ruin everything is to decide that it’s too hard and you give up. Then all is lost and everything you have accomplished is gone. Sometimes it’s the simple changes that can lead to the biggest discoveries,” says Adeeb Al Balushi.

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Ethel Cofie builds a mobile platform to boost youth employment

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Ethel Cofie

The Ghanaian entrepreneur is developing a micro work platform that will enable businesses and people to coordinate tasks that computers cannot perform.

Ghanaian entrepreneur Ethel Cofie sees technology as a key driver of business efficiency and revenue and she hopes to demonstrate that with her company’s latest project, M-Ablodé.

Cofie is the founder and CEO of Edel Technology Consulting. Her company is collaborating with the United States African Development Fund to create M-Ablodé, a mobile micro work platform that will enable businesses and people to coordinate the use of intelligence to perform tasks that computers cannot.

Edel said the platform would help create employment and wealth in developing economies, especially Africa. The name Ablodé means freedom or independence in the language of the Fon Ewe people who originated in Ghana, Benin and Togo.

Platform could help boost youth employment

The hope is that the platform will tap into Africans’ mushrooming access to mobile phones to help drive youth employment on the continent, which is expected to have a labor force of one billion by 2040.

Using technology to better the economy is at the center of Cofie’s experience in technology development.

“Years ago, I got tired of just building tech for tech’s sake,” Cofie said. “Instead I wanted to build tech that would clearly create something new for an organization or would make things more efficient, or something that would create more revenue.”

Global experience in technology

Cofie, who founded Edel in 2010, has more than 12 years of experience working in the United Kingdom, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Ghana on projects including the Bill and Melinda Gates Mobile Technology for Health project, the Ford Foundation’s Nigeria election monitoring project and as an IT strategist for Vodaphone. In 2014, she was a Mandela Washington Fellow at Yale University.

Edel projects include the World Bank’s Negawatt global challenge, a competition that seeks to encourage innovation around energy issues through a process of meetups, brainstorming, prototyping and pitching.

Other Edel projects are Unilever’s Clean Team initiative to bring affordable sanitation to poor communities; an online leadership center for the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration, and micro-finance revenue growth for Dalex Finance.


Founded Women in Tech Africa

In 2013, Cofie also founded Women in Tech Africa, a pan African organization with membership from 30 countries that has convened virtual meetings as well as conferences and training in Nigeria and Ghana.

She said she started the organization “out of my very personal need to start a ‘girls club,’ as an antidote to what had been a ‘boys club’ in the tech sector for so long.’’

The new M-Ablodé platform, due for release this summer, will tap into the proliferation of mobile phones in Africa.

Mobile subscriptions to reach 930 million

In 2002, only one in 10 in Tanzania, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda owned a mobile device, according to Pew Research Center. Today, ownership in many countries tops two-third. In South Africa 89 percent ownership is on part with the United States, Pew said.

Ericson, the telecoms giant, expects mobile subscriptions in sub-Saharan Africa to increase to 930 million by 2019.

In announcing the new platform, Edel said it would help address the growing problem of youth unemployment. Edel noted that Africa’s labor force would number one billion by 2040, surpassing China and India to make it the largest in the world. At the same time, “in Africa, youth unemployment occurs at a rate more than twice that for adults. Youth count for 60 percent of all African unemployed.”

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Akon Switches On: Turning Fame into Light for Africans

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Akon Solar Academy

American-Senegalese rap star Akon is putting his fame to use: providing electricity for the millions of people who need it in 15 sub-Saharan African countries.

Rappers may be famous for many things, but philanthropy is not one of them. Akon, the Senegalese-American rapper famous for dance hits like “Smack That” and “I wanna love you”, is changing that perception through his latest business endeavor. Unlike his peers, Akon’s newest business is not a clothing line or new cologne, but the creation of a solar power company. In February 2014, Akon announced that he would be changing the public face of rap by launching his company to invest in capital development for millions of sub-Saharan Africans.

Lighting the Way

In September of 2013, Akon and his friend and soon-to-be-business partner Thione Niang, were discussing how they could improve their hometown of Kaolack, Senegal. Both had been born and raised in this West African country, in a town without electricity. They decided that infrastructure was a key priority in Senegal’s development, and that electricity was a fundamental key to promoting employment, education and positive change in Senegal and other sub-Saharan African countries. In regions without access to electricity, life slows after dark, and in equatorial countries, darkness falls around 6pm, year round. Light is a fundamental aspect of human activity, and without electricity, families are forced to resort to what can be dangerous alternatives: approximately 3.5 million people die per year from respiratory illnesses related to indoor burning.

Akon and Niang joined forces with Malian entrepreneur Samba Bathily to bring an end to energy poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. They decided that creating a company, Solektra International, would provide a clear path to Akon and Niang’s dreams. Through Solektra International, the three co-founders created Akon Lighting Africa, a for-profit company working to create jobs and stimulate economic growth through sustainable, low-cost electricity.

Going Against the Grain: A For-Profit Company in a Non-Profit Sector

When we think of “helping Africans”, images of smiling do-gooders and the logos of non-profit agencies like the United Nations Development Programme come to mind. Not often do corporate giants like Huawei enter the conversation, but this is exactly the conversation Akon is changing. Akon is working with companies like Huawei, Solektra and Sumec to implement his projects because he “doesn’t believe in aid in Africa.” By using their expertise, Akon Lighting Africa is able to access their enormous network of partnerships to provide low-cost electricity to thousands of Africans. Their projects are provided free-of-charge to the communities they work in from a US$1billion credit line established with various international banks. According to the Akon Lighting Africa website, the average cost of lighting a village is approximately US$75,000, which includes micro-solar grids, personal solar packs for homes, street lights, lights and wiring for educational and health institutions, and the elements needed to connect each light to the grid.

Changing the Rap Game

Not satisfied with the status quo that has left billions of humans in the dark, Akon took matters into his own hands when he co-created Akon Lighting Africa. This company “aims to develop an innovative solar-powered solution” for the 600 million Africans without electricity. Akon Lighting Africa works to enable school children to study so they can pass their exams; to increase economic opportunity for small business owners; make roads safer and improve the quality of services available at existing institutions, like health centers and schools; and to ensure better access to information, all while creating jobs for the young people of Africa.

In just twelve months, Akon Lighting Africa has brought solar powered electricity to 480 villages across 15 different African nations, including 100,000 solar street lamps and 1,200 solar micro grids. Through public-private partnership, Akon’s company has installed solar powered lights into schools, community centers, health institutions, streets and private homes in rural communities. Not only has this project provided villages with electricity for the first time, but the physical construction and maintenance of these solar power grids has indirectly created jobs for a reported 5,500 young people. Unemployment, especially among the under-35 population, is endemic across sub-Saharan Africa. Lack of infrastructure, such as electricity, is just one symptom of poverty; joblessness is another. Akon’s approach is tackling both.

A Bright Future

Akon’s vision is that Solektra and Akon for Africa will be the dominant provider of renewable energy in Africa within the next decade. In 2016, Akon Lighting Africa plans to expand to 10 additional countries including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola and Chad. Both Akon Lighting Africa and Solektra International are emerging as key players in the future of solar power for unlit African communities–Solektra International has been invited to attend the Powering Africa Summit for 2016, showing their increasing importance in the development conversation.

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An Indian powerhouse in the Gulf

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Yusuf Ali

Billionaire M.A. Yusuff Ali has built the global retail empire Lulu Group from his base in Abu Dhabi.

M.A. Yusuff Ali, who has built a global empire of supermarkets, shopping malls and grocery stores, will be at the top of just about any list of the most powerful Indians doing business in the Gulf.

The managing director of the retail giant Lulu Group, based in Abu Dhabi, started in a small, isolated office in a barren desert 40 years ago and went on to build an international powerhouse that employs more than 35,000 people in 31 countries, most of them in the Middle East and Africa.

With a net worth of $3.1 billion, the Kerala-born businessman is number 24 on Forbes’ list of India’s 100 Richest People. He’s repeatedly been named the most powerful Indian in the Gulf by publications including Arabian Business and DNA India.

More retail outlets to open

Lulu Group now operates 121 retail outlets that cover a total of 22.5 million square feet. In January, it opened an outlet in Dammam, Lulu’s sixth in Saudi Arabia, and another in Juffair, a suburb of Manama, its fifth in Bahrain.

Yusuff Ali also has announced plans to open more hypermarkets and malls in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and Malaysia.

The company, with annual revenue of $5.5 billion, is also venturing into the hospitality business, notably with the development of a hotel at the former Scotland Yard in London.

Lulu opened its first hypermarket in Dubai in 2000. The stores cater to multi-ethnic shoppers in the region with an international mix of both products and staff.

In addition to its retail chain, Lulu Group engages in manufacturing, import-export, and business services.

Scotland Yard will become a hotel

Yusuff Ali has recently gone into the hospitality business, making headlines last summer with a $171 million deal to develop the former Scotland Yard headquarters in London. The new hospitality arm of Lulu, Twenty14 Holdings, will open the Great Scotland Yard Hotel early in 2017.

It was his second London investment. In 2014, he purchased for $85 million a 10 percent interest in East India Company, the historic trading company that led British colonization of India in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Yusuff Ali started small, moving from India to Abu Dhabi to join the family business in 1973 and finding challenging conditions there.

“It was a very hard time initially. Abu Dhabi was all of two roads; none of the glitz and glamour that you associate UAE with today. The entire country was just coming terms with the discovery of oil,’’ he said.

Company employs 35,000

In all, Lulu employs more than 35,000 people from 37 different countries.

It has operations in the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, Kenya, Benin, Tanzania, Senegal, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Mozambique, Cameroon, Togo, and Gambia as well as India, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brazil, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

Yusuff Ali is also active in business and charitable affairs in the Gulf and in India.

He cites as a matter of great pride that he is the first expatriate to be elected to the board of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce & Industry. In 2014, he was re-elected to the board for a third term.

He also has received the Padma Sri and Pravasi Bharatiya Award, the Indian government’s highest honor for a non-resident Indian, as well as the Asian Business Award for Best Business Leader and Arabian Business Award.

He has donated to a variety of charitable causes in both India and the Gulf. He also helped organize relief from the Gulf for multiple natural disasters in India, including the Lathur and Gujara earthquakes.

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Kenzibox: Thinking Outside The Box

Comments (0) Featured, Leaders, Middle East

KenziBox is a Dubai-based company that makes shoe-box sized treasure troves of children’s activities, delivered to parent’s doors to promote creative and constructive play. UAE-based co-founders Leyla Lahsini and Shirin Benamadi started the business after facing the problems parenthood poses in the digital age.

Both women have Masters Degrees in Business Administration and impressive careers in finance. Lahsini holds an MBA from London Business School as well as a Masters in Strategy and Marketing and has experience in hedge funds in London, while Benamadi holds an MBA from the University of Maryland and has worked in private wealth management at Morgan Stanley.

21st Century Parenting

In the digital age, pulling children away from televisions and iPads and towards activities that promote healthy brain development can be a challenge for parents- especially those who work full time.

For many, after school programs are expensive or unrealistic to take advantage of on a daily basis. “Kids finish school early and you feel this need to keep them busy in the afternoon,” said Lahsini. “We don’t want to put them in activity classes every single afternoon, but you want to keep them busy in a nice way in the house.”

Like many parents of the 21th Century, Lahsini turned to the internet for solutions, downloading craft projects from Pinterest to take up with her four-year-old son. But it was more difficult than it seemed- having to go to many stores to find the right materials, complicated instructions, and the chaos that young children inevitably introduce to situations that involve glitter glue and dexterous finesse.

Taking Play Seriously

Despite the frustrations, Lahsini was determined to continue because she saw the value of exposing her son to such products. Not only do they take up the afternoon in creative play, but craft projects have been shown to develop higher thinking skills, enhance multicultural understandings, build self-esteem as well as positive emotional responses to learning- all benefits every parent would want for their child.

Lashini turned to her friend, now-business partner Benamadi, who always seemed to make the arts and crafts projects look simple and easy. This simple request for help and the master’s degrees they both carried in business administration paved the way for KenziBox.


When Moms have MBAs

“Can we bring that simplicity to everyone?” thought Lahsini. Together they researched themes and developed activities around those ideas. In November 2014, their first themed box, Circus in Town, was launched.

Little more than a year later and KenziBox stays true to their successful original fashion. Every month a new theme debuts in shoe-box form, where children can open the box and find everything they need, from materials to illustrated instructions, on how to craft everything from make-your-own clown outfits to volcanoes that actually erupt.

KenziBox: a Dubai’s Business (Role) Model

By creating a product that re-invents itself every week, KenziBox continuously provides opportunities for growth for both children and parents, with creative projects designed by early-age education professionals. Boasting stellar customer service for the busiest of parents, KenziBoxes are conveniently sold online, delivered to the door with all the necessary materials. The simplicity in meeting 21st century parenting problems makes KenziBox a role model in the UAE’s emerging e-commerce market, and is a learning lesson in itself for other businesses that aspire to create a positive impact in their client’s lives.

Their superb business model has won them several recognitions in their first year alone- Dubai Women’s Business Council awarded them First Place as well as the People’s Choice award, and KenziBox was a finalist for SME’s Start Up of the Year.

Emma Fisher, a Dubai-based schoolteacher who was one of KenziBox’s intial clients, can attest to the benefits the projects offer, both as a mother and an education professional.

One month of KenziBox starts at AED 185, with lower rates for long term subscriptions. The company also offers party favor sets and KenziBox travel bags.

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