Originally Published on April 23, 2015
Isaac Kwaku Fokuo is the founder of Botho Limited, a Nairobi-based investment advisory company, and the Sino Africa Center of Excellence Foundation (SACE), a research hub and exchange program that aims to create an influential cohort of Chinese decision makers who are knowledgeable and sensitive to Africa's needs and can be lobbyists in favor of African interests.
Ghanaian-born Fokuo, 39, is also the CEO of the African Leadership Network (ALN), a vibrant membership community of Africa’s most dynamic and influential new-generation leaders. ALN which was founded in 2010 by Acha Leke, a Senior Partner at McKinsey & Company and Fred Swaniker, founder of African Leadership Group, creates and strengthens relationships between these leaders to encourage intra-African trade, investment, and collaboration.
In the coming weeks, I will be interviewing some of the members of this community under the Young African Leader; learning about their work in Africa, what makes them tick and the legacies they hope to leave for Africa and its future. There’s no better person to kick off this series of profiles than Fokuo.
I caught up with him recently in Nairobi where we had a chat about his work in increasing cooperation between China and Africa in trade and investments, and on how ALN is leveraging the collective influence of its members to drive prosperity in Africa.
You were asked to be CEO of the African Leadership Network in 2013. What milestones have you achieved so far and what future projects are you working on?
I'm not sure that I alone have achieved anything but the ALN team, since its inception in 2010, has achieved a lot. We've run five successful annual gatherings hosting 1500 people in four countries. In addition, we have a two-tier fully functioning board and we continue to build our governance structure. We launched ALN Ventures, an accelerator program and platform dedicated to growing the next generation of amazing entrepreneurs in Africa. Our partnerships are something to be proud of. I'd like to highlight ALN's recent collaboration with the Africa Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and the Aspen Institute as part of the China-Africa Dialogue Series specifically. The purpose of this series is to develop best practices in trade and conservation to ensure the protection of Africa's wildlife and lands. Together with our Chinese counterparts, we hope to lobby our respective governments, businesses and civil societies to create awareness and ensure implementation. Lastly, ALN sees a lot of cross network investments between member companies. For instance, one conversation between two members a one gathering resulted in an $87 million dollar poultry project. Another spurred the beginnings of a $350 million dollar resort project.
These are just a few examples of what we have achieved. In the future we hope to increase our membership to include all 54 states and non-African alliances; become a world leader in providing educational opportunities through our sister organizations African Leadership Academy and ALU and become a premier platform for talent and human capital advisory in Africa through our other affiliate, the Africa Advisory Group. (AAG)
Tell me about your company, Botho. You say founding Botho was a 'happy accident.' How did it come about?
It was in a Chicago, in Chinatown around a table with more food on it than my friends and I could eat. I'd just quit my job, my well-paid 8am-4 pm stability that I actually enjoyed. Regardless it was time to do something else. The problem was what? As I wasn't entrepreneurial, my natural instinct was to join a company with international focus. I tried and tried but the job gods weren't smiling upon me. I took this as a sign to create my own opportunity! After some initial brainstorming, my friends and I at the table decided to focus on serving as a bridge between financial capital and projects. We also reasoned that because the space was crowded, we needed to focus on a niche and impactful sector.So we chose Islamic Finance because of the impact it could potentially have on the development for lower income individuals without access to credit. We started almost exclusively in the Islamic Financing space, which included raising capital from Middle Eastern countries for projects in Southeast Asia and Africa. This niche was truly a happy accident as Africa has a large Muslim population. I believed that with the effective deployment of capital, lives on the continent would be changed. My hope was for some African countries to emulate Malaysia's model, where Islamic Banking thrives alongside mainstream banks, which provides consumers with more choices and better value.
Over the last few years, Botho has shifted from Islamic Finance to working with brown field African companies in three ways, mainly through assisting companies on investment strategies;Working with entrepreneurs to fundraise for their projects, and advising local governments on international political and economical issues.
Describe how the Sino Africa Centre of Excellence Foundation was born and why it's proven to be a vital initiative.
In 2012 I went on an ALN learning journey to see firsthand what the fuss was about. I became fascinated by the inner workings of a dynamic component of their culture and foundation for China's success, known as guanxi – or “strategic relations”in English. I pondered 'What can guanxi do for Africa?' I had just witnessed what it did for an unassuming small town in the United States. During my trip to China, then Chinese Vice President and current President Xi Jinping was visiting his former host family in Iowa. Twenty seven years earlier, President Xi visited Muscantine, Iowa on an agricultural research trip. During his time he befriended the governor and was still close to him nearly thirty years later. I wanted to apply these same principles of guanxi to the China-Africa context.
So, I together with Tebogo Lefifi, a fellow ALN member whom I met during the China trip, brainstormed and founded the Sino Africa Center of Excellence Foundation (SACE). SACE is a research hub and exchange program that bets on a selective group of young Chinese, in the hopes that they'll become high net worth power brokers, and places them in African companies, to gain firsthand experience and insight into Africa. SACE's aim is to create an influential cohort of Chinese decision makers who are knowledgeable and sensitive to Africa's needs and can be lobbyists in favor of African interests. SACE debuted in Kenya and has so far-placed 15 Chinese interns in 7 companies; published the first ever Business Perception Index in January 2015 that surveyed Chinese's companies perceptions of doing business in Kenya, and helped local businesses set up 'China desks' to attend to the highly under-served market of Chinese consumers in Kenya.
What do you believe is your purpose through Botho, ALN, & SACE?
These initiatives are my way of ensuring ownership of the African narrative and supporting local entrepreneurship to achieve the goal of African prosperity. Ultimately, my purpose is to do my part to make this continent, and the world, a better place for my kids and generations to come. I also hope that my endeavors will allow future Africans to be revered for being African; because being African will be a perception associated with competence, competitiveness and merit.
How did your parents’ professions/careers and family values impact your life choices?
My father was a pastor and my mother was an entrepreneur. I believe my dad's influence rendered me an idealist, striving to be a servant leader; and my mom’s work ethic is why I am entrepreneurial, competitive, bottom-line focused and always looking for a different angle.
I was also exposed to a world of cultures from a young age. Born in Ghana and raised in Tamale, I was immersed in a predominately Muslim culture; my neighbors were Muslim and my best friend was Dutch; I'd breakfast during Ramadan with my Muslim friends and celebrate Christmas with my Christian ones.
My dad also traveled a lot and would come back with fascinating stories about his trips. In addition, listening to the BBC and having many international guests pass through our house helped expand my curiosity of the world and my desire to work internationally. My three sisters and I were tight and would talk about everything. So no topic was off limits; from gay rights to macroeconomics, all was acceptable dinner conversation. I believe these experiences helped me forge a career path where interacting and working with people, very different from me, is seamless.
Who do you have a career crush on and why?
John L. Thornton. I admire what he has done in improving China/U.S relations. I admire his efforts to build great, personal relationships between the two countries.I think the John L. Thornton Center at the Brookings Institute speaks volumes about his commitment to creating and building productive relationships that positively impact U.S/China foreign policy. I believe Africa needs a similar focus – hopefully some day SACE can be that institution.
You do a lot of business around the continent, and you've witnessed a lot of the changing landscape. Which countries or cities have surprised you the most and why?
First of all, it's my ignorance about the continent that has caught me off guard. I traveled to Morocco recently and was ashamed that I'd expected it to be all desert. I was amazed by Dakar's architecture and the beauty of its people and impressed with Luanda and the efforts made by the government to rebuild a country that was mired in civil war for over 20 years. Rwanda’s post-genocide narrative has humbled me and Kenya's incredibly diverse population and industries have awed me
How do you like to work?
Despite being told that early birds are more active and goal oriented, I can’t help but be a night owl.
My penchant for working late was born of necessity, when I was in boarding school in Accra. Because I preferred spending the bulk of my daytime talking to people, rather than studying, the only way I could study was late at night, when everyone was sleeping.
Staying up late has become a habit now – I do my best thinking for my work during the wee hours. Since most of my day now is spent in meetings and traveling, I tend to concentrate better is when the rest of the household is asleep.You’ll find me working from home, a hotel room or the office after hours. I need the right music or background TV; I cant’ work in a quiet environment.
On top of all that, I travel extensively, so my body is in multiple time zones at any given moment. Traveling, plus communicating with my various clients around the world, forces to me to stay up at all odd hours. But, the truth is, I love working like this. I couldn't hack a typical 9 to 5.
Talk about your leadership style. What expectations do you have for the team that works around you? Are your organizations run from the top down or bottom up?
From the back actually. I lead from the back and am a stickler for details. The more details I have, the more comfortable I am making decisions. As for my team, I expect them to know more than I do in their areas of expertise. I am not the expert – my job is to bring out theirs and steer the team's ship towards success. I expect my team to be passionate about their work, to care about it and to execute their tasks well.