The ‘Citizens of the World’ Tackling Africa’s Next-Generation Business Challenges

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Hakeem Belo-Osagie is chairman of Etisalat Nigeria, one of the country’s largest mobile networks.

Knowledge@Wharton: Let me start with a poem, the poem you cited in a recent talk. You quoted Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood and I — /I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all of the difference.” What did you mean?

Hakeem Belo-Osagie: By that I meant, if you are going to be a successful entrepreneur, it is very important that you have the courage to listen to yourself, to avoid going down the route that most people want to take, because therein lies the opportunity. And if you go where you want to go, you are likely to be one of the earliest people there who seizes the opportunity and makes an entrepreneurial success. I think it is a normal human trait to seek the reassurance of being among a number of people who all want to do the same thing, or all want to go the same way. There’s that reluctance to strike out on your own. One of the reasons I love that poem is that it keeps reminding me all the time not to be afraid to take that route.

Knowledge@Wharton: If you think about the times you had to take that route, and summon courage to do so, tell us about one.

Belo-Osagie: The first one that is significant to me in entrepreneurial terms was leaving the government of Nigeria, and deciding to set up a petroleum consulting company on my own.

Knowledge@Wharton: This was in…

Belo-Osagie: 1981. I was about 30-31 and had just gotten married. Being an entrepreneur was not at all popular at that point in time. In fact, I distinctly remember people asking me, “Hakeem, what are you doing? What’s this thing about working on your own?” Basically, the thought at that time was that people who worked on their own were those who could not get employed by anyone else. Therefore, their excuse was that they were working for themselves. In Nigeria, you went to work for Shell, or Mobil, or Citibank, or Chase.

There is a part of you that feels that you are going to fall flat on your face if you follow this idea and it just doesn’t happen. Then there are all the other excuses — I’m getting married, we’ve got the children, we’ve got the rent to pay…. I made up my mind at that point. [I said], look, I’m 30. If there is a time to fail it is now, because then I have plenty of time to correct the mistake and go somewhere else. But I’m really going to do something I genuinely believe in, and I’m going to pursue it with all my passion, all my determination. While working in the government of Nigeria, I had seen this gap. I could see lots of people who wanted to do business in the petroleum area, but didn’t know how to go about it. They needed someone who understood the private sector, the public sector, someone who was Nigerian but understood them as foreigners. I saw that gap, and I thought, this is going to be it. That was probably the second time I’ve taken the decision, going completely on my own, but the first time I was doing it as an entrepreneur.

“If you are going to be a successful entrepreneur, it is very important that you have the courage to listen to yourself, to avoid going down the route that most people want to take, because therein lies the opportunity.”

Knowledge@Wharton: What do you think about the kind of talent pool you need to assemble? What does an entrepreneur need in his or her top management team? As you are assembling that team, what are you looking for?

Belo-Osagie: The first point I want to stress is the importance of a team. I do not believe in the Steve Jobs of the world, in the sense that there is this hero, and he is a genius. I believe that behind any Steve Jobs and any Bill Gates, if you really tell the story, you will find that there were two or three other people, maybe not as rich, definitely not as well known, but crucial to their success. They probably had complementary talent. The really great leaders recognize that. So I tried to assemble a team with different functional skills. Obviously you’ve got to have someone who is very knowledgeable in marketing, you’ve got to have someone who is very knowledgeable in finance. But for the purpose of Africa, there is one combination that is very important, and that is the combination of someone who is not an MBA and did not live most of his life in the U.S. or the U.K. He must have lived most of his life in Nigeria and been educated in Nigeria, and therefore has a sense of how things really are.

I find that a lot of young MBAs I meet don’t appreciate this person’s talents. They tend to look down upon these guys. “They’re not as articulate as I am. They don’t know how to do spreadsheets. Their presentations are not as good as mine.” And, for that reason, they lose their knowledge, their experience and often their wisdom. So I try to have a combination of people who are well qualified and have a sense of business strategy as taught in business schools and other people who are the complete opposite — people who have grown up in Nigeria and have street smartness. It’s that combination that I think is transformative in entrepreneurial activities within Africa.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is there a challenge for those individuals, whether they are getting a Wharton MBA or whatever, to find local talent?

Belo-Osagie: No, the problem is for the Wharton MBA, the Stanford MBA, the Harvard MBA, to feel that they need such a person. The freshly-minted Wharton MBA or Harvard MBA has that supreme confidence that that degree tells you you ought to have. You are poised to conquer kingdoms. It is very difficult for that person to seek advice or cooperation from some guy who has just a high-school education and has been working in some businesses that, in his view, don’t have a strategy, don’t have a five-year plan.…

His predisposition is to explain to him how he has got it wrong. Therefore he is not really looking for that partner. If he does look for a partner, he will find that there are many of them there. Then what he’s got to get used to is the idea of listening to this person, and incorporating that person’s perspective in his own decision-making process.

Knowledge@Wharton: We are sitting here with your son, listening. He is getting an undergraduate education now at Stanford. What does this mean for how you’ve raised your kids?

Belo-Osagie: I think I’ve raised my children to be citizens of the world. I see their generation as the generation that may live in New York for a couple of years, in Lagos for a couple of years, may think … why not Dubai, why not London? That is normal for their generation, in the way it was not for our generation. In our generation, you went to England or the U.S. to be educated and, when you finished the education, it did not occur to you to do anything else but to go back home.

This is a very different generation. Now we try to make sure that they come back to Nigeria very often, so that they never lose touch, and they have a sense of how things work. That said, if they do come straight back to Africa, they will still have to go back through that period of reintegration, understanding how things are done here.

“I believe that behind any Steve Jobs and any Bill Gates, if you really tell the story, you will find that there were two or three other people, maybe not as rich, definitely not as well known, but crucial to their success.”

I remember when I was in university in England, I met a Rhodes Scholar. He had gone to Harvard as an undergraduate and then came to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Most people with that background usually go to a famous East Coast law school. I asked him why he was going to the University of Texas for law. He said, “Look Hakeem, I come from Texas. It’s bad enough that I went to Harvard. It’s even worse that I went to Oxford. So if I have any plans of having a career in Texas, which I hope to have, I need to start understanding how Texas works, how people in Texas behave and have a network of classmates who are in Texas.” And I responded by saying, “I thought you were all Americans.” He said, “That is a very big mistake. We each have our slightly different cultures. They may not be obvious to you as a Nigerian, but they are very obvious to me.” So he headed straight back to Texas. They will have to do their ‘going back to Texas’ at their own time as well.

Knowledge@Wharton: You are someone that people look to for advice and a perspective on developing businesses in Africa, and certainly we have seen many entrepreneurs who are aspiring to build businesses in Africa. What do you see as areas of particular opportunity?

Belo-Osagie: The entire technology sector is an area of tremendous opportunity, because the generation before them doesn’t understand it. We pretend to, but we fundamentally don’t understand it. I remember a friend bringing to me a young man with an e-commerce idea. For me the thought that anybody would buy clothes or books through the Internet was still very foreign. Don’t they want to hold the book and sort of leaf through it, browse through it? Explain to me how you could browse through it on the Net. That was still very new to me. I think that, especially in developing countries, technology will be used to leapfrog the sequential development that we see in the West.

I think African countries are going to jump check books, jump credit cards, and will probably move straight from cash to mobile phones, and mobile commerce. Now the new generation understands that, therefore I think that the whole technology, the whole IT, the whole communications area, can be an area of tremendous opportunity. That’s one area. Another area is housing. My generation of architects and builders all are used to building houses for the elite. We never did anything more than that.

One area that I don’t know much about, but I imagine it must be an area of opportunity, is food production. For so many years we were an agriculture — cash crop — area. The move from learning how to farm intensively for food production and food export is not a huge leap. But it is one that a whole generation of people like myself, who were brought up to think urban, not rural, doesn’t recognize. That is why I am very excited now when I do come across young people in their 20s who say they would like to do agribusiness.

Knowledge@Wharton: When we look at the growing economies around the world, many in Africa are among the fastest growing. There seems to be a shifting, rallying cry to focus on inclusive growth — not only growing the economy but growing the number of jobs. Are there areas that you think are particularly promising for inclusive growth? For job creation?

Belo-Osagie: Yes, the whole area of agriculture and the ability to use technology to extend banking services, or any service, in which you have a high cost of acquisition of clients, or a high cost of service. You are able, with technology, to bring down those costs. When I was in banking, a big problem was that regular banks had branches and large number of staff. So whenever the government encouraged us to open branches in rural areas, we sort of yawned, we sort of had a wary look on our faces. The next thing for us was how do we get the government to subsidize what we felt would be loss-making ventures. But when you start to have people who are willing to use the Internet, willing to use a mobile phone and have technology penetrate rural areas, it means that you have possibilities of inclusive growth.

One other comment that I would like to make is that I personally have always believed that inclusive growth is necessary. I have often thought that there is a reluctance of people in the business schools to look at the fact that we must have an agenda that includes the poor. It is almost as if we feel that to have that concern is “socialist” or impractical. Or we simply say that the market will take care of that. I don’t think the market always solves those kinds of problems. I feel that the state must find ways to ensure that all citizens have some basic economic rights, whether they be education or health. They need to play a part in the economy. If efforts are made to ensure that they play a part in the economy, what we have is a broad-based economy. We have spending power, which is broad-based. That, by itself, will trigger certain businesses that wouldn’t have been set up because they would have assumed that the poor don’t have spending power, and therefore are not the basis for a successful business.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you see that as the role of the state — to be setting that agenda? Or do you think that is a role for the private sector regardless of the state’s practices and policies?

“The change that is taking place now is a redefinition of the centuries-old question: Who is my neighbor?”

Belo-Osagie: I think the state has to point in that direction, because most businessmen are not that risk taking. Unless infrastructure is provided, we still give our priority first and foremost to our shareholders.

Knowledge@Wharton: Shifting a bit from the topic of business, you are also a prominent philanthropist. Talk to us about the role of philanthropy, and the state of philanthropy in Nigeria and other countries in Africa.

Belo-Osagie: Well, I earlier made a comment: “All Africans hate being called philanthropists.” The reason why we hate being called philanthropists is that there is a saying — certainly in Islam, and I suspect that something similar exists in Christianity — which basically says that, if you are going to be truly good, then what your right hand gives, your left hand should not even know that it has been given. When you give, it is not something you should talk about, be boastful about, or be public about. There is nothing I hate more than being told, ‘You are a very good philanthropist.’ There is nothing I hate more than when I meet other folks who announce their philanthropy; I am very uncomfortable with it. That said, I have come around to the view that to the extent that people hearing that A is doing B, C, and D, it encourages them to do so, too. That’s helpful. I guess I sort of very reluctantly come out of the darkness to talk about these matters. People in Africa have always been giving money for causes. They tend to be for the extended family, the village community or people who are part of what they regard as a larger family. The change that is taking place now is a redefinition of the centuries-old question: Who is my neighbor?

What I want to discourage are what I call those groups — and there are a lot of them — who appear to be philanthropists, but are essentially supporting their business or political ends.

Knowledge@Wharton: My last question is about the role of women in business.

Belo-Osagie: I think women are going into business more and more. That said, when I look back and I hear about, say, my grandmother, she was always in business. She was a wife in a polygamous home. It was expected in that home that she would not be looked after by her husband. Her husband gave her some money but it was expected that she, through farming or often trading, would contribute a lot to him. What is fascinating is that the advent of Westernization and urbanization, in some respects, really reduced the economic rights that women had. Because when you moved from an agricultural community to an urban community and the woman got married, she now did housework. The husband was the breadwinner. So she lost, to some degree, that independent sense that comes from being able to earn her own money or being able to involve herself in an economic activity.

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