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

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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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New African Development Bank leader puts energy at the forefront

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Akinwumi Adesina

The new head of the African Development Bank says his top priority is to develop the continent’s energy infrastructure to spur economic growth.

Akinwumi Adesina, known for his reforms and anti-corruption efforts as Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development of Nigeria, became president of the bank on September 1, 2015. The bank is one of Africa’s largest lending institutions and finances projects to improve electricity, water and transportation.

“My top priority will be to focus the Bank to deliver on “power-for-all” – a universal access to electricity for Africa. Nothing is more important to Africa than access to power,” Adesina said in his vision statement for his candidacy for president.

Lack of energy slows development

Adesina said lack of energy is the greatest obstacle to the development of the continent.

“The development of the energy infrastructure for Africa will drive more rapid economic and social development of the continent, by reducing the cost of doing business, powering industrial growth, unlocking entrepreneurship of millions of small and medium size enterprises, improving educational and health systems and deepening financial services, driving agro processing to create jobs,” he said.

He noted that Africa’s total energy capacity is only 147 GW – similar to that of Belgium. He wants to expand that to 700 GW by 2040 with development of renewable resources.

“Africa has 50% of the world’s renewable energy (wind, hydropower and solar) but they remain largely untapped,” he said.

Plans to fund large and small projects

He proposes a mix of large, regional projects and smaller local ones that can be developed quickly.

“The Bank cannot afford to put all its focus on large regional power projects alone, as they are very complex, have high capital exposure and risk profiles, will take time to achieve, even though they are critical,” he said.

“Under my leadership, the Bank will pursue a twin track approach: build success in the short term, deliver successful investments in power and then scale up based on success. To show quick successes, build momentum on execution and delivery for countries, the Bank will also focus on providing support for the piloting of decentralized integrated power systems within countries.”

Corruption is an obstacle

Another obstacle, he said, is corruption.

“The cost of corruption is massive; it turns the whole continent into darkness,” he said, estimating that corruption costs Africa $148 billion a year.

Africa looks to reduce carbon emissions

Adesina was a prominent voice for a unified African agenda at the recent Climate Conference in Paris and that agenda also stressed development of renewable energy sources in order to reduce greenhouse emissions.

At the time, he said Africa needs an international investment of $55 billion a year through 2030 to create an efficient energy sector that uses more renewable resources. He said the bank would contribute $5 billion in financing, 40 percent of its total investments.

Increased investment in private sector

In addition to pledging to make investments in the energy infrastructure, Adesina said the bank would increase its investments in the private sector.

He said private sector lending by the bank was $2.1 billion in 2013.

“Given that the private sector accounts for 70% of all investments in Africa, 70% of all output and 90% of all employment, there is need for the Bank to be more expansive in its private sector operations,” he said.

Adesina also said the bank will embrace an “activist” posture in support of infrastructure developments.

“The Bank will increasingly take on a transactional approach by helping countries and the private sector to resolve legal and regulatory environments that will unlock bottlenecks to project development and execution. The role of the Bank will be more of an “activist financier” that will be more engaged in driving the execution of infrastructure projects, not just ideas and master plans,” he said.

Known for agricultural reform in Nigeria

Adesina is a respected economist and agricultural expert.

Before joining the bank, he had been Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development in Nigeria since 2011. He was known for implementing bold reforms in the country’s agricultural sector, including anti-corruption efforts and infrastructure improvements. Agriculture had been long neglected as the West African country’s reliance on oil revenues grew.

During his tenure, domestic food production increased by 22 million tons while food imports decreased significantly.

In 2013, Adesina won the Forbes Africa Person of the Year award for his reforms in Nigeria’s agriculture sector. In 2014, he was selected as Anti-corruption Man of the Year and Most Transparent and Accountable Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria by the Foundation for Transparency and Accountability.

He holds a master’s degree and a PhD in agricultural economics from Purdue University.

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Ashish J. Thakkar, from refugee to millionaire

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Ashish Thakkar

Uganda’s Ashish J. Thakkar, 34, founder and executive chairman of the Mara Group parlays a small computer business into a multinational conglomerate.

His life story reads like a sweeping epic of tragedy, adventure and success.

He was born to parents expelled from their native Uganda by Idi Amin. He became a refugee from the genocide of Rwanda. He left school at age 15 to start a computer business. Nineteen years later, that tiny business has mushroomed into a conglomerate that employs 11,000 people in 25 countries.

Meet Ashish J. Thakkar, founder and executive chairman of the Mara Group. At only 34 years of age, Thakkar’s net worth is estimated at $260 million.

Real estate, shipping, manufacturing among holdings

Mara Group, now headquartered in Dubai, operates in telecommunications, manufacturing, real estate, shipping financial services, communications technology, renewable energy and manufacturing with revenues of $100 million.

His latest venture is agriculture, large-scale maize cultivation in Africa.

The secret to his success? “It’s difficult to identify one specific reason or catalyst, but above all other things, I believe a strong sense of perseverance, always thinking big and aiming high, and of course positivity, has allowed me to realize my vision,” he said.

“Always be down to earth and approachable,” he added. “The day your arrogance or ego kicks in, it’s all over. Always remember, no matter how big you become you will still always be a drop in the ocean in the grand scheme of things.”

Foundation supports entrepreneurship

He also founded the Mara Foundation, which mentors budding entrepreneurs.

In his book, “The Lion Awakes: Adventures in Africa’s Economic Miracle,” (Palgrave: August 2015), he chronicles the economic awakening of Africa that he has seen and benefitted from first-hand.

“The West is definitely investing more in Africa — or wanting to invest more in Africa — but they’re still investing a lot in Asia as well, specifically India and China. [The] nice thing is that India and China’s investing in Africa, so the ultimate destination is us,” he says. “People do want to come to Africa; people realize that we’re the next big thing — India and China have had their time, it’s now ours.”

He also wants to be the first East African in space through Virgin Galactic, the Richard Branson-backed space tourism project. “I’m taking quite a few of flags into space, as a way to kind of send a strong message that ‘look, we as Africa have the vision and the ability as well’,” he said.

Expelled from Uganda, fled Rwanda

His super star status belies difficult beginnings.

Thakkar’s family is of Indian descent but had lived in Uganda since the 1800s until 1972, when Idi Amin expelled Asians from the country. The family lived in England for more than a decade; Ashish Thakkar was born in Leicester. The family returned to Africa and lived in Rwanda until they were forced to flee the genocide and return to England in 1994.

“From being top entrepreneurs, my parents were reduced to waking up at the crack of dawn to sell women’s clothes and drive vans to markets all around England,” he said.

From England, the family moved to Burundi before returning to Uganda when he was 14.

Started computer business with a $5,000 loan

Thakkar dropped out of school at age 15 and borrowed $5,000 to start a small computer business, traveling to Dubai regularly to bring back equipment including keyboards and mice.

“Education is good. However, informal education is much more important and valuable in life than formal education. Mentorship and vocational skills training build up an individual,” Ashish said.

Growing the business

He said he focused on growing his business rather than on taking profit.

“I reinvested everything in my business. The only way you are going to grow is if you keep on planting.”(source)

He is sometimes referred to as Africa’s “youngest billionaire” because his estimated $260 million net worth translates into more than one billion South African rand. Thakkar resists that label.

“Money should never be a measurement for anything,” he said. “I like to see myself as an entrepreneur that’s being disruptive — I like to be the underdog in a lot of cases.”

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Phuti Mahanyele: an inspirational black business woman

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Phuti Mahanyele

Phuti Mahanyele – an inspirational black business woman who believes that the poor representation of women in the boardroom of major businesses in the private sector is “not just a social injustice but an economic and business imperative”.

Phuti was born in Dobsonville, Soweto, South Africa on March 15th, 1971, however she largely grew up in the Claremont township outside Durban. Her mother died at the age of 42 in 1989 when Phuti was 17. Phuti has since acknowledged that this was a major turning point in her life as it made her for the first time realize how short life can be and why it is therefore so important to never take it for granted.

Throughout her life her parents continuously advocated the importance of education, never differentiating between their sons and Phuti and her two sisters.

Her father: a pioneer for the improvement of black education

Her father, Professor Mohale Mahanyele, was a successful business man and pioneer for the improvement of black education. Whilst the Chairman of the National Economic Education trust, he ensured that thousands of young people progressed into tertiary education. Throughout his life he refused to accept the fact that just because a child came from a home with insufficient funds to afford expensive higher education fees, they were not entitled to it. During his life he could have become one of South Africa’s richest men however he was never interested in making easy money, and instead believed in reinvesting both his money and time back into the people and places he loved.

Phuti was educated in Johannesburg until she was 17, at which point she moved to the United States where she attended Douglass College in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In 1993 she graduated with a degree in Economics and then went to De Montfort University in the United Kingdom where she obtained an MBA on “The Impact of International Trade on Black Economic Empowerment.” Her education didn’t end here because in 2008 she completed a course called “Global Leadership & Public Policy in the 21st century” at Harvard University.

Early career

Phuti’s first job was at her father’s company, National Sorghum Breweries, however whilst she admits to being very happy at this time of her life, she also confesses to feeling unfulfilled. After two failed applications she finally won an internship at Fieldstone – an investment banking firm in New York. After a difficult start, she flourished and achieved the position of Vice President before leaving 7 years later, at which time she moved back to South Africa.

Her next job, running the Project Finance Unit for the Development Bank of Southern Africa proved to be less successful and she left after only a few months. Looking back, she admits that it was a bad fit for her and not an environment she could continue to work in.

Whilst looking for other work she received a telephone call from Cyril Ramaphosa, the Chairman of a then relatively small company called “New Africa Investments” which became the Shanduka Group.

Shanduka Group

Phuti originally joined as the managing director of Shanduka Energy in 2004 and eventually went on to become the CEO of the Shanduka Group. It was whilst working there that she truly found her passion.

She has since admitted to finding Cyril so inspirational on their first meeting that she agreed to work with him even before she knew what the job and salary was.

Phuti speaks of the amazing culture and work ethic at the Shanduka group, admitting that Cyril’s astonishing humility and ability to inspire was fundamental to this. She has always felt hugely responsible and accountable to her community and working at the Shanduka Group allowed her for the first time to give something back, as the company, unlike so many others, didn’t just focus on the profit for shareholders.


Business pillars and key successes

Phuti adheres to 3 business pillars: understanding herself including her spiritually; understanding any issues affecting her staff, personal and professional; and ensuring she has all the information she needs at all times in order to be able to drive the business forward

When appointed CEO, her key priority was to ensure that the business moved some of its investments into areas that were less market sensitive, as she saw this as a way of ensuring the growth and security of the company’s investments in years to come. During her time at Shanduka she helped increase the company’s net asset value to approximately R8billion. Major deals driven by Phuti with Coca-Cola and McDonald’s were key to this success.

After 10 years at the Shanduka Group, Phuti has achieved a lifelong ambition and with the support of her business partner Jeremy Katzen, a highly experience banker from Johannesburg, has launched her own investment company called Sigma Capital.

Major influences on her life

Phuti often cites her family, notably her father as a major influence in her life, however she also frequently talks about the huge impact Cyril Ramaphosa has had on both her business and professional life.

Her parents taught her how to see beyond problems and challenges and to remain positive at all times. Phuti believes that every single person on earth has a purpose and that they are obligated to discover what it is and then achieve it.

Life changing experience

Whilst attending a meeting in London, in 2013 Phuti was experiencing severe headaches, however she assumed it was just due to tiredness and tension. Whilst out shopping after the meeting she fainted, it was at this time she first sought medical attention. She was told to rest and returned to South Africa the following day, however on arrival she ignored the advice and went back to work where she then fainted again. When she woke up in hospital she was surrounded by friends and family, all of whom she didn’t recognize. It was at this time that she was told that she’d actually suffered from a stroke, hence her loss of memory.

Although she has now made a full recovery, the experience has changed her. Whilst she still has her incredibly high work ethic and puts in long hours, she is now also committed to finding a better work/life balance by valuing the importance of friends and family and not just achievements. She is in fact now engaged again (having already been divorced twice), and is learning to cook and play the piano. She admits to being excited and is looking forward to being a better wife and stepmother. “I feel ready to be a wife now”, she said.

When Phuti was asked what she would most want to be remembered for she said, “for having given as much of myself as I possibly could”.

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FACE Africa develops water sources and sanitation programs in Liberia

Comments (0) Africa, Featured, Leaders

saran kaba jones

Liberian American Saran Kaba Jones believes assuring access to clean water is the essential first step to rebuilding the war-torn West African nation.

At times recovery from the devastation of war seems intractable, even hopeless. But a 33-year-old woman whose family fled the civil war in Liberia when she was a child is proving otherwise.

Saran Kaba Jones, a Liberian American woman, founded FACE Africa in 2009 to help Liberians gain access to clean drinking water in the wake of her native country’s 14-year civil war. By the time the conflict ended in 2003, Liberia was in ruins – roads, schools, factories destroyed and no electricity or running water.

Jones believes providing access to water is an essential first step in addressing other problems such as lack of education and employment and rebuilding the shattered nation.

Water unlocks opportunity

“We view water as a true catalyst for change and it doesn’t just solve the issue of health, but it’s a holistic sort of development issue,” said Jones, who is the nonprofit organization’s executive director.

In its nearly seven years of existence, FACT Africa has worked with local residents to build 50 well projects that serve 25,000 people in 35 communities in Liberia. The organization has also trained 300 local pump mechanics.

A more recent effort is WASH, a project to provide water, sanitation, and hygiene awareness to local schools in response to the West African country’s Ebola outbreak.

According to UNICEF, 55 percent of Liberia’s schools do not have access to water, 43 percent do not have functional latrines and 80 percent do not have hand-washing facilities.

Local community engagement boosts success

A key aspect of FACE Africa’s effort is that local residents are engaged from the outset and communities take ownership of the water projects once they are operational. All of the projects so far continue to be fully functional, according to FACE Africa.

“Our projects utilize local materials, local labor and ingenuity and ownership is transferred to the communities upon completion. More importantly, we focus on optimizing sustainability of our water projects by forming long-lasting, collaborative relationships with communities,” FACE said.

Jones said she realized the importance of access to clean water in 2008 when she returned to her native country for the first time since her family fled the war when she was 8 years old. The family lived in Cote D’Ivoire, Egypt, France and Cypress before she attended college and settled in the United States.

Priority was education

She was initially focused on education, having contributed small scholarship assistance to a family friend in Liberia. But the visit convinced her that access to clean drinking water had to be addressed before significant improvements could follow in other areas.

“My interest at the time was education, but when I got to Liberia, one of the things I started to see was that one of the major impediments to education was the lack of clean drinking water,” she said. “Kids were getting sick and not showing up to school for long periods of time because they were drinking contaminated water.”

Empowering women

Jones also saw a connection between water and the empowerment of women and girls, who may spend as much as 60 percent of their day walking to collect water, robbing them of opportunities to work or go to school.

“One of the biggest impediments to women’s growth and development is the lack of clean water. Women and girls are the ones responsible for walking long distances to fetch water. I came to the realization that the basic necessity of clean water had to be met before any other area of development can be tackled. That’s what led me to focus on water, rather than education.’’

The UN estimates that Sub-Saharan Africa alone loses 40 billion potential work hours per year collecting water. FACE Africa estimates its 50 projects have saved 1 million work hours to date.

Africa hard hit

Lack of access to water is a global problem and Africa is particularly hard hit. According to FACE Africa, 663 million people globally do not have access to safe water supplies and more than half of them are in Africa. Globally, two million people die each year from water-related diseases. According to the World Bank, water-related diseases kill more African children less than five years of age than HIV/AIDS, malaria, and measles combined.

FACE Africa, based in Cambridge, Mass., raises money through donations, grants from foundations and corporations, and fundraising events, raising about $150,000 annually. The money can accomplish a lot: It costs FACE Africa $7,500 to build a hand-dug well and install a hand pump, for example.

Jones has been recognized for her work, including being named a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and one of The Guardian’s Africa’s 25 Top Women Leaders in 2013.

From depression to determination

Jones said the harsh realities she found in Liberia on her first visit left her “depressed and disheartened.” But she was determined to make a difference and she has.

“There’s nothing more pleasant or fulfilling than seeing the smiles on the faces of women and children who no longer have to travel miles every day to fetch contaminated water and can now drink water without worrying about getting sick from it,” she said.

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