1. Home
  2. Sustainable Finance Solutions
  3. Sustainability Perspectives - ESG Podcast by Refinitiv
  4. Episode 6: Africa today

Guest speakers: Jackie Cureton and Saidah Nash Carter, Bright Insights Global (BIG)


Africa Today: Sustainable Business Leadership & Investment Opportunities 

Episode 6 | Duration: 29 minutes

What drives successful business in Africa? With rapidly growing opportunities for investment and business in the region, getting access to objective information remains the biggest challenge. In this episode, we discuss success strategies for establishing sustainable leadership in Africa and leveraging emerging investment opportunities. Get unique insights and tips from Jackie Cureton and Saidah Nash Carter - leaders at Bright Insights Global (BIG) - a boutique women-owned consultancy and expert network committed to helping companies do better business in Africa.

  • Keesa Schreane: Welcome to the Refinitiv Sustainability Perspectives podcast, where we share examples of leadership and innovation. Small entrepreneurial businesses, large megacorporations and all types of enterprises in between are seeing a global shift in perspectives around the role of business and society, from ESG [environmental, social, governance] investing to sustainable finance to social impact in our communities. We're on a journey to leverage data and intelligence to make the best business decisions possible. 

    Today's guests are Jackie Cureton and Saidah Nash Carter, from Bright Insights Global (BIG), a women-owned consultancy focused on building corporate engagement and innovation in key African markets. Now their offering ranges from providing insights and intelligence on African markets to supporting sustainable development and infrastructure initiatives throughout the region. Jackie, thank you for joining us. Saidah Nash Carter, thank you for joining us from South Africa. 

    Jackie Cureton: Well, thank you. Thank you so much for hosting us. It's a pleasure to be here.

    Schreane: So first of all, what does sustainable development in infrastructure mean and also how did you become interested in this? 

    Cureton: Oh, wow. We could spend a lot of time talking about that, but real quick and then I'll let Saidah jump in a little bit. So Saidah and I had worked together on several projects and over time we realized that we worked really, really well together. 

    There was great synergy in our belief in our core values and what we brought to the table. And we'd been thinking about really just bringing that energy together and doing something that was meaningful and something we're passionate about. And Africa, doing business in Africa, happened to be one of them. 

    And so we decided that with our over 40 plus combined years, we're not telling our age here, but that the expertise and experience that we'd received and the passion that we had for Africa, we could bring it together to help like-minded organizations do better business in Africa. And so in regards to infrastructure, it obviously means the common one that we know, which is roads and buildings and railways and all that kind of stuff. But we like to think about it as a little bit expanded beyond that to include systems. So, for instance, the banking systems and the business systems and education. 

    Saidah Nash Carter: If we think about sustainability and we think about the African context, certainly when I moved to Cape Town about four years ago and spent a big chunk of that time traveling around the continent working on innovation projects for Thomson Reuters at the time, it became clear to me that there was an amazing opportunity on the table to really think about building products and solutions and services that were sustainable, not only from an environmental impact perspective, but also thinking about them in terms of business models, through this lens of, in part, the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. 

    So looking at the U.N. SDGs is almost like a platform for which to build out these new products, build out these new services, and also be a good business model. 

    Schreane: I'm glad you mentioned the U.N. SDGs in context of infrastructure and these opportunities in Africa. When we discuss investment opportunities in Africa, I know for some this is going to be contradictory to what they may think they know about the region, what they've read about the region. And I'll give an example.

    In October 2019, Brookings reported that Africa was key to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal around eradication of extreme poverty. And some U.N. and World Bank forecasts are saying that they thought it would be pretty difficult for Africa to achieve that. Some of the key issues they brought up and some of the key challenges are to increase agricultural productivity, that Africa needs to do that and also addressing risk and conflict. 

    Now, we all know that there are loads of stories similar to this. So how can investors, individual or institutional, how can investors really educate themselves to go beyond stories like these, to really understand what's going on in the environment? What's going on in terms of investment opportunities and really see some of the things that you all are talking about now? 

    Cureton: So we usually hear about tragedies and Ebola and corruption and all of that. There's a lot more going on in Africa. 

    And I think it's really the responsibility of mainstream media to really begin to do better reporting about it. And by mainstream media, I’m thinking about the key publications that business people look for. It's hard to get any meaningful information from that. But that doesn't mean that there isn’t [any]. And so you quoted the Brookings Institute, which does really amazing research and Reuters News also, while there's still room to improve, they do really decent reporting in regards to more current stories in Africa. 

    I think that one of the things that the world really needs to pay attention to is, one, Africa is a young continent, with the average age being about 20 years old, while the West is grappling with an aging challenge. 

    So, for instance, in Germany and Japan, that is 46 to 47 in comparison to the 20 year old gap we're talking about. In 2025, one in five people on the planet will be African. So we've got to pay attention to that. And you have this really entrepreneurial, tech innovation, adaptation energy going on in Africa, which is key for innovation and just where the world is heading. So I think it's important, one, for people, investors, to take the time to really get engaged, because I think we can't afford to ignore it. Then on the other hand, I think it's really just taking it upon yourself to educate yourself. I think it's going beyond the mainstream, going beyond the stereotypes that's put out there on Africa and and tapping into the diaspora, for instance, that's an amazing resource for anybody interested in really learning about what's going on in the ground and what the opportunities are and what the potential challenges are.

    It's visiting the continent and not treating it as a monolithic space. So while people think about Africa as a country, it really is 54 countries with over 1000 languages. Just the same way one of our dear friends was telling us you wouldn't go to, let's say, Tennessee to do business the way you would in New York, it’s the same way we're asking for business people and investors to really take some time to educate themselves in the different nuances within the regions and the countries themselves. 

    Carter: Yeah, one of the most interesting and exciting points around sustainability in Africa really goes back to this idea of leapfrogging. We often talk about emerging markets more broadly when it comes to leapfrogging and tech. So jumping over existing infrastructure to be mobile phones only, for example, for interacting and connecting around information. 

    I think what's really interesting when it comes to sustainability and infrastructure and circular systems, etc. is that we also have that opportunity in both spaces within the African context as well. So to really think about building infrastructure with sustainability at the center of those development projects, because it is open in terms of the opportunity to build from the ground up in a way that is designed to have a lower carbon footprint and to be more self-sustaining. So I think there's also that to keep in mind, as well, as we think about what the opportunity in Africa does have kind of a blank slate in some instances can present to investors to want to be mindful and invest in that kind of investment. 

    Schreane: Great. I love that mindfulness and intentionality there, particularly as we're talking about building systems from the ground up where you have so many other cultures and societies that have had systems that, to your point, say to their issues there. But the opportunity here, one of the opportunities is really building that from the ground up.

    Jackie, you talked about really treating the individual cultures as such, and in the context of talking about growth, one of the articles from Reuters, a June Reuters article points to foreign investment in sub-Saharan Africa really growing. It rose 13 percent in 2018. According to the U.N., this reversed a downward trend over a couple of years. Looking at it from a country by country perspective, Uganda saw a 67 percent jump largely because of oil and gas. And also Ghana is continuing to see a jump because of oil and gas, foreign investment.

    What was really interesting to me, according to this article, is that the southern Africa region is seeing different types of investments. One, an automotive plant by a partner, Beijing Automotive Group, and another is $186 million investment in wind farms being built by an Irish firm, Mainstream Renewable [Power].

    So with that being said, could you give us some specific maybe sectors or subsectors or even regions that some investors maybe should keep their eyes on? In terms of things, investments that we would not have known about beforehand. So maybe just two to three sectors that are really prominent or that you see developing from a growth perspective. 

    Cureton: So there is a lot going on in terms of sectors and investments and all of that going on in Africa, being the wind farms also present in Kenya, which is where I'm from. By the way, I did mention in my intro that I was born and raised in Nairobi prior to migrating here. So one of the things that's happening that's quite interesting in Africa is because of the trade disputes going on, this has created tremendous opportunity within Africa. And what we're seeing is people that were looking to China before and now don't want to get caught up in the trade wars and are looking to Africa to solve some of the things that they had prior to that sought out in China. And China is a strong partner to Africa.

    So they are also keenly invested in some of what's going on. So, for instance, the textile industry, that is something that's beginning to pick up. And there's lots of opportunity there. Obviously, the tech space, Africa is, like I said, a very young continent. It's also really growing continent. And the urbanization is rapidly increasing. And that presents a lot of opportunity for the tech, the mobile tech company and the telco industry as well. 

    So that's I think it's poised to double in the next few years, I don't remember the numbers off the top of my head. And then mobile banking, so the financial space as well. There's been lots of innovation in that space. There's still a lot of unbanked people and Saidah is working on a very interesting project. And I'll let her weigh in on that. So there's opportunity in that space or in the financial sector as well. 

    So those you asked for two and I think I've given more than two. So let Saidah add her thoughts as well. 

    Schreane: The mobile industry, tell us about your great project there.

    Carter: Yeah, I think it's looking to sort of echo and then add one more into the mix. When I look at the innovation landscape, the startup landscape and the tech landscape across the continent, it's really fintech and ad tech that are the two areas that are emerging as having the most activity and investment here.

    And the project that you both mentioned now sits at the intersection of both of those areas and it's bankable farmer. It's the original idea for that project came out of a series of innovation workshops that we ran with the large South African banks a few years back. And we heard repeatedly the theme around wanting to lend to smallholder farmers and frankly, other activities along the value chain, but not having any access to these farmers and to these businesses, to these micro enterprises, and also not having a visibility as to whether or not they were good credit risk and that gap.

    And you mentioned the unbanked or the underbanked. And this is largely that sector. And so we've been working with a large agricultural services company, AFGRI, based here in South Africa as well to essentially build out a risk model, leveraging alternative datasets and a more alternative approach to risk modeling in order to come up with a profile that will allow traditional financial institutions to make services available, starting out with loans. But certainly the idea to expand beyond just lending products and this business is very much at the center of what the innovation ecosystem is supportive of, number one, but then also is what's needed by both the ecosystem and the banking sector. 

    Schreane: Could you dig to help us dig a bit deeper into what the ecosystem looks like? So from what I'm hearing, it sounds like perhaps personal loans, which would grow into maybe micro loans or business loans. So we're starting out with the farm. Where do we see the next steps in terms of the lifecycle or the trajectory of the types of loans and the types of financial services transactions that will be done within that particular example? 

    Carter: Yes, so we’ve been very intentional about looking at lending to what we're calling small commercial farmers. So while the loan size may be small relative to other loans, the goal is to loan to small businesses. So these are farmers who view their plot of land, view their farm as an entrepreneurial enterprise. So by definition, they're not personal loans. They are meant to be business loans. And then certainly beyond that, once they build up a lending profile, they have a payment rate and history that we can build into the model. Then we can think about expanding services beyond that and perhaps supporting more of the ecosystem around that farmer as well. 

    Schreane: And would you say there is room for other institutions who aren't already in those regions, if there is room for them to enter into those regions so they can be the ones giving out the loan? 

    Carter: Absolutely. So what's at the center of the model on the plan that we're working on is that we bring multiple banks to the table. Competition brings a better quality product in general. And so ultimately the goal is to have a number of different banks on this platform making lending services available to what would be ultimately millions of farmers on the platform. 

    Cureton: I think I'll just add that there’s space for the central banks, too, to get involved because we have the affordable banking project that Saidah talked about. And then there's obviously room for the financial institutions to come along and aid in this space. The central bank role to me is one where because it's not just a matter of can they get loans, but can they get it on favorable terms because they might not have a credit history. And what we found in Kenya recently, launched a solution to try and solve for that, that it wasn't necessarily in favor of those small scale farmers. So how do we actually ensure that the interest rate is meaningful and favorable for the loan recipient? And so I think central banks do have a role to play in this as well. 

    Schreane: One thing that you touched on which I think is so very important is leadership styles and how we bring ourselves to the table when we are engaging business or otherwise, in this context, engaging in a business transaction or in business discussions with people who have different backgrounds, different cultures and perhaps even different expectations. I’d love to get your view, Saidah, as well as Jackie on how a leader or a business person who is not from the region can come from another region, do business within an African business partner in a way that is both respectful and the way that exudes openness to the new opportunity. 

    Cureton: I'm a strong believer in the role that business leaders and businesses overall play in terms of just progressing and moving Africa along and really allowing Africa to tap into what we know as the talent. So what I believe is there a lot of organizations that are a corporate global corporations that are operating in Africa today. Some of them are doing pretty well and their approach has been quite meaningful. 

    And then there's some that are really struggling in terms of really setting culture that is not just a transplant of what's going on in the West into Africa, but taking what we know as global best practices, honoring the culture on the ground and then growing leadership with those two intermingling well. And so there's a challenge in terms of leadership or talent development in that regard, because you can't transplant the West's culture into the African culture and expect it to be meaningful. 

    And that doesn't mean that there's nothing to learn from the West’s culture. But you have to respect the African culture as well. So I think the first thing to me is, any leader trying to establish either an organization or wanting to learn or establish themselves, is to really understand the culture that they're going into and what works and what doesn't work. And that could be done in a myriad of ways. You know, it's obviously listening and exploring and spending some time on the ground. But then also there's certain things that to me are standard regardless of where you are from a global perspective. And that is just being mindful of your leadership style, being mindful of the shadow you cast as the leader. 

    Not approaching it from a position of dominance, so just assuming that your way is the best and the African way is not and you have to come in and solve and save the situation. And we see a lot of that going on not just in the business space, but also in the non for profit space as well. And I think it's really coming in understanding, but also valuing the talent that is there and then figuring out how to tap into that and grow it. And I think to me, at least using this approach and really focusing on building a culture that is meaningful not just to the business but to society, then tends to have this bleeding effect across some of the things or concerns or issues that we have. We've talked about the youth. And while it's an opportunity from a talent perspective, so we have the age and concern of the West in regards to talent, resources. We have this blooming population in Africa. 

    If we don't rise to the challenge and ensure that we are actually grooming, engaging and providing meaningful employment for this young population, there are risks and challenges that could present themselves as a result of that, of our attention in some of those risky migration patterns that we've observed recently. 

    Right. So when people are trying to leave because there's an opportunity and there's no meaningful job or if they have a job, it's not meaningful in terms of growing that career. And the other is just being radicalized. And that becomes a concern not just for Africa, but for the world. 

    So I think that and I've gone round about in answering this because it's such a short time and I think all of them kind of tie in. 

    I think it's really just being mindful that there is a culture, there's a rich culture within Africa. And when you go to do business, to understand that, to appreciate that, tap into that, because I think it would be foolhardy not to. And then also kind of just really bring what you know as business best practices alongside as well. So just really finding a way to marry the two. 

    Schreane: Right. And then Saidah, you have a slightly different perspective and that you went from the U.S. You mentioned that you traveled around to different countries. South Africa, I guess, is your primary location. But I love to hear from you. How did you how did you manage to really bring your leadership style? But on that same end be able to listen and adapt? Or is that what you did when you travel throughout the different countries or even in your place of residence? Now, how did you manage that? 

    Carter: So, I mean, as I mentioned already, I was born and raised in Nairobi and moved to New York. And I now call New York home. I have deep passion and deep connection and a network in Africa while working for Thomson Reuters and that came out in the bio. But I did work for Thomson Reuters for 20 plus years. Part of what one of my assignments was really to go back to the continent and just really assess the culture. We were going through an enterprise change and really just understand the regions and what they were doing well and some opportunity areas. And so I did go to west, east and South Africa. So that just really gives you an appreciation of all three. As an African, I know inherently that they are different.

    Schreane: So what is the one thing that you would recommend to someone who maybe is in your shoes, maybe who is American or from another Western country? How would how should we show up? What's the one key that you leave with someone? 

    Carter: Again, I go back to the value in being a leader who listens and really pays attention. 

    And part of that project, in partnership with the leadership and the managing director was really just to understand and listen to the employees and what the ideas were. And I think it's really creating a space where people can bring their full selves to work and voice what they bring to the table there on the ground. The customers are not just people far off. These are customers and people that they intermingle with. And sometimes a solution that might work in New York or London or Paris or wherever it may be, might just need a little tweak when you get to Lagos, for instance.

    And really, just being a leader who recognizes that and then taps into this resource, that is your employees who connect it to the ground and understand what the way of life is and how business is there. And so one of the things that at that point through that part of it that I mentioning was really to create a space where employees could come back to the table and share some of this insight, because you want to make sure that it works.

    And granted, as a global corporate organization, you want to have a set of standards that's consistent throughout. But if it doesn't work in a region, I think it is in your best interest to tap into the talent that you have within the company or just go around and visit your customers. They will tell you what works and what doesn't work. And I think there’s the assumption because it's done well elsewhere, that it's going to work. It doesn't work. And I think it's just that little tweak, listening, going out, connecting with the customer and making sure that you're valuing the voice that your employees bring and the insights they bring. 

    Schreane: So listening, understanding, recognizing that there are several countries and each one has its own rich culture, such valuable pieces. But I want you to leave us with this, what is the big idea? So what do you think coming down the pipeline next year, in the next couple of years? That's really going to take us by surprise for those of us who don't have the insight that you have. What's the big idea? What's the big thing coming that you want to.

    Cureton:  Wow. I think Africa is happening. Africa’s time is now. Are you involved in this space right now is the question that people should be asking themselves? I think I mentioned a couple of things, reasons why we can't ignore it. 

    But in terms of, you know, recent wealth report, out of the 10 fastest growing economies, six of those were found in Africa. And so I believe that, when you come to the West, there's lots of infrastructure and establishment and institutions, a lot of that. And it's hard to change those. In Africa, you almost have this, I don't want to say a clean slate, but a space that allows you to build systems and organizations for today. Because you're really starting from scratch. You're not trying to change a legacy system in some cases. I think that to me is great. 

    I think there's a lot of activity around the green space. So you talked about the wind farms, and I think it's just really utilizing what is the natural resources within Africa. 

    And then also, in my mind, I think that the other thing that we're beginning to hear about, it's not happening rapidly, but I think it will begin to pick up. And that is, Africa is rife with natural resources. There's no land in this world or as rich in resources as Africa. We export a lot of what comes out of that. And it's moving from exporting to actually producing and selling or exporting the produced goods. So the raw material, but finally moving it to production. I think that it's hard for me to answer what is that big thing, because I think it's going to be production moving from exporting raw material to produce goods. I think it's going to be the fintech space Saidah is talking about. I think that's really, really exciting. 

    Well, there's the business sector, but that is a little broad. Yeah, I'll leave it at those two because my mind is kind of racing there, but I think the fintech space for sure. 

    I think the textile industry is beginning to realize that they need more options. So we looked to China for the longest and there's nothing wrong with that, but there needs to be that space. Oil is another one. That's really, you know, we're finding oil in Africa. I think it's really also adding to the mix as well. 

    Schreane: Well, from listening to being actively involved, to understanding opportunities and recognizing a rich culture. Recognize and respecting their culture, recognizing the youthfulness of the country. Although the country has one of the longest histories and legacies, very youthful country at this point, terms of age and really working together, opportunities in Africa seem to abound. Jackie Cureton, thank you so much for joining us. 

    And thank you, Saidah Nash Carter, for joining us from South Africa. 

    Carter: Thank you so much. 

    Schreane: We invite you to subscribe to the Refinitiv Sustainability Perspectives podcast on iTunes, Spotify or where ever you stream your content. What did you think about the podcast? Leave us a review on iTunes. Or follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter for updates on our show. Thank you for joining.