In honour of Africa Day, we caught up with Ralph Olayé, the Director of Pan-African industrial group Eranove’s business development and project management, who shared his thoughts on the need for simple homegrown solutions, the life-changing impact of running water, and what it means to be an African champion.
Africa should not be the theme of the year or the decade. Every day should be ‘Africa Day’, and we should be recognised as a force to be reckoned with.
You have dedicated the majority of your career to the development of infrastructure across Africa, including 10 years at the African Development Bank. What led you into this line of work?
It must have started from my childhood. I’m the son of two economists who were involved in the development of the continent, so that really influenced me and helped me forge my own commitment to the cause. I grew up going from country to country seeing the different challenges — as well as the common challenges — and realising that I wanted to do something about them. I wanted to focus on infrastructure development and eventually my initial dream to build bridges and roads in Africa evolved into providing energy and water, which is a major bottleneck in the livelihoods of households, but more importantly, in the economic growth of an Industrial Revolution we are all expecting.
I’ve had the opportunity to visit most countries in Africa and discovered there’s a lot that each country can learn from others: some have better infrastructure; some have good governance and leadership; some have excellent health systems. The dream would be to combine all of these.
What does it mean to you to create a positive impact on the continent?
When you open a tap for the first time and have water flowing, you see how it changes the lives of families and communities.
It means a lot — it’s almost a calling. Sometimes people have callings to religious causes or callings that are more embedded in the community. In infrastructure, the impact is sometimes less visible, since it can take years to unfold. It ranges from providing industries with reliable, affordable electricity to providing essential services to the so-called bottom of the pyramid. We [at Eranove] have now started to do a lot of work in rural areas to provide electricity and water. It’s clichéd, but when you open a tap for the first time and have water flowing, you see how it changes the lives of families and communities, and that’s truly important.
At a personal level, my impact is probably more indirect, but equally gratifying. I try to improve lives by supporting young African entrepreneurs through mentorship and seed investment. It’s something that I take pride in doing and hope it makes a small but significant contribution that others can add to.
What would you say the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Africa is lacking, and what can be done to change this?
The dearth of African capital is stopping African ideas.
The dearth of African capital, I believe, is stopping African ideas. I think if there was more African-sourced capital involved in the ecosystem, it would bring a different approach to how capital is used and how ideas unfold and become businesses. Of course, there are good lessons to learn and import from other geographies, but context matters, and the African context is usually very different. While it’s great when companies outside of the continent establish themselves in Africa and are successful, it’s also time for some African ideas to emerge; they would be of much better use to us. An idea is only successful when it changes the lives of the people it serves. So I would welcome seeing more African capital put to sweat.
I’m putting my money where my mouth is by investing seed capital in some ventures, one being an e-commerce company that serves intercontinental trade of African products. I’m also active in a FinTech company because I think access to finance really changes the opportunities that people have. We’ve inherited a system that is outdated, and whose rules we don’t always understand. In the financial space, it’s time for Africa to catch up, because so far, financial systems have been a burden much more than an enabler.
Research underscores the unfortunate state of water and electricity access on the continent, despite the abundance of natural resources and capabilities that exist. Why are we not tapping into our natural and human resources as we should?
Letting time flow without doing anything doesn’t recognise the urgency of the needs of citizens and business players.
Sure, we have abundant natural resources and talent, but sometimes the talent needs to meet a purpose. Certainly, Fred Swaniker and others are working to tackle this problem with the African Leadership University and Academy by developing the skills that are appropriate to the current challenges that we’re facing. In the infrastructure sector, one of the bottlenecks that we need to take out of the way is access to finance and the risk perception that goes with it. Being able to channel money to the right projects is something that needs to happen swiftly, because there is a steep price attached to time. Letting time flow without doing anything doesn’t recognise the urgency of the needs of citizens and business players. For instance, the frequent power cuts that occur on the continent truly disrupt businesses and their ability to provide affordable products to the market.
Another reason our resources are under-tapped could be the willingness — or unwillingness — to pay. In West Africa, it rains a lot, so people don’t see why they should be paying for water, but potable water is very different from what falls from the sky. Our abundance of resources, of course, will contribute to controlling these costs, but we have to start accepting the reality of paying for the services that we want, or at least somebody has to pay for it. If it’s not the end consumer, it has to be the government or other schemes. This creates the potential for the private sector to lead on some projects and take some of the burden off the government, too. I think if we are able to find the right balance in this debate, it will help us reap the fruits of the resources we have while also addressing the urgency of the matter.
How do you think African organisations could better position themselves to produce home-grown solutions for sustainable development?
To produce homegrown solutions, space for innovation is needed.
I’m not an economist by training, but maybe one cue from my perspective is to start simple. Taking the example of the Ivorian electricity sector, it’s probably one of the best in Sub-Saharan Africa because the rules are simple. They are relatable and understandable by all actors. Everybody knows the role that they have to play, hence they’re able to play them. On the other hand, there are many countries with sophisticated frameworks that were designed by consultants that are so complex that those in charge of enforcing them don’t understand all the nuances introduced by those that designed them. At the end of the day, you’re left with a system that is completely in stalemate and everybody’s pointing a finger at another party. So it starts off as a good idea, but it’s poorly executed.
The second point would be on capacity building. To produce homegrown solutions, space for innovation is needed, along with actors that understand the solutions and positive disruptions that need to be harnessed.
The last point, and this is a trend that we see in more and more countries, is the need to establish delivery units at the center of government. Blueprints and roadmaps of all sorts have been written for the continent, but the plans are seldom executed. Sometimes, it’s about taking a simple plan, executing it, moving to the next step, and enforcing difficult decisions. Where delivery units have been implemented, you see rapid and distinct change. I think that’s something to learn from.
How have concerns around climate change impacted your work?
Ethics and governance are the cornerstone of having a faithful commitment to combating climate change.
Climate change impacts our work in every way. I just wish we had started focusing on this sooner. Beyond this important consideration, what I think is most appropriate for the African context is the wider ESG framework. So it’s not just about environmental factors, but social and governance factors too; I think that’s what’s at the heart of shaping impact.
At Eranove, we started with a strong focus on ethics and governance, which for us is really the cornerstone of having a faithful commitment to combating climate change. When you go back to the commitments that were made at COP 21 (2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference), they’re only worth what you’re willing to execute, and I think that requires strong ethics and governance at all levels to be able to go forward.
Secondly, we took the long approach of certification. Verifying that we’re meeting all quality, safety, environmental and corporate social responsibility standards took time, resources and commitment, but we’re now fully certified on all the major perimeters of our work, and I believe we’re one of the few organisations that publish a yearly Sustainable Development Report which is publicly accessible on our website. We report on our greenhouse gas emissions, gender equality in the organisation, how we are responding to the communities we work in, and so on.
Eranove prides itself on being a pan-African organisation. Why do you think this positioning is so important?
Pan-Africanism is not a position we take out of opportunity; it’s a reality.
Pan-Africanism is not a position we take out of opportunity; it’s a reality. I believe a former chairman of a pan-African bank said, “We don’t have an African strategy. Africa is our strategy.” When you look at Eranove’s logo, we only operate in Africa, so it’s not about seizing an opportunity; it’s where we work. 99% of Eranove’s employees are African nationals. 30% of the capital is in African hands — whether that’s African institutions or African nationals — so it’s very much our reality.
I think that African champions are really needed because that’s what’s going to enable us to do business differently and to take a long-term approach to things. Africa should not be the theme of the year or the decade because there are opportunities here or because there is a crisis on the continent. Every day should be ‘Africa Day’, and we should be recognised as a force to be reckoned with. This is why we all need to collectively invest in the best insurance that we can, which is ourselves, instead of depending on others.