On the ‘Boko Haram suspects’ arrested in Abia State

Almost 500 persons arrested early hours of Sunday along the Enugu-Aba-Port Harcourt highway in southeastern Nigeria, by Nigerian soldiers. They were travelling in a convoy of three dozen buses. News reports did not mention where they were coming from, but suggested they are from across Northern Nigeria. They were reportedly travelling down south in search of jobs. 

They were arrested by the military on suspicion of being ‘Boko Haram’, and all of the reporting I’ve seen has described them as ‘Boko Haram suspects’. (Should the media have refrained from that hasty categorisation?)

There has been much debate online about the arrests, with a good number of people describing it as a sad case of profiling, targeted at persons of Northern origins on account of the actions of terrorist group Boko Haram.

Here’s what I think: 

The military was right to halt the journey, and decide to investigate. It is only right and proper to investigate a convoy of 30-plus vehicles travelling cross-country, considering the security situation in Nigeria at the moment. While I strongly believe that our law enforcement agents have a reputation for highhandedness and brutality, it is also important to state that in a situation like this the right thing to do was to decide to investigate. 

It would be good to get answers to a number of important questions

  • Who arranged the cross-country expedition – providing the vehicles, fueling them, etc.
  • Where did they depart from?
  • What job plans, if any, were made for the almost five hundred men at their intended destination
  • Are they Nigerians, or undocumented immigrants? (That’d be a tough question to answer, in a country with poor documentation habits).
  • Were any arms or dangerous possessions found on them?

If there were no arms found, and there is no proof they are not undocumented foreigners, then the men should be released with immediate effect, and allowed to continue their journey. There is no basis for trying to restrict the movement of Nigerians within their country. (Lagos Governor Tunde Fashola deserved all the flak he got last year for the ill-advised deportation of persons of southeastern origin). The only thing the authorities can do, from a security concerns point of view, is keep them under non-intrusive surveillance.

It is important to note that cross-country migration in search of greener pastures is an important part of the Nigerian story. On a visit to Yenagoa, Bayelsa state in 2013 I found out that many of the commercial rickshaw operators were from Northern Nigeria. There are lots of people from the North also in the South West, making the occasional trip back home to farm or see family. I met one of them a few years ago.

However, the idea of tens of buses rolling in a convoy across the country, laden with job-seekers, is a novel one to me. 

It is also necessary for the authorities to immediately provide the men with access to lawyers. It is the prerogative of the men and their lawyers to seek redress if they feel they have been unjustly treated by the military personnel.

I have not seen any evidence that the detained men were mistreated or abused. If such has happened then the military officers responsible should be made to face disciplinary action. 

In closing let’s recall two incidents from recent years:

July 2010 and December 2011, when convoys of youth from the delta made their way to Abuja to protest (in one case the non-payment of their allowances as part of the amnesty programme; in the other it was an issue related to party politics).

In both cases the groups had almost made it into the capital Abuja before they were stopped by law enforcement agents. Back then there was a lot of outcry – how did hundreds of persons make their way that far before being intercepted?

It’s hard to blame the military and the authorities for erring on the side of caution. What we can and should blame them for is any attempt to mistreat or dehumanize what I would call the ‘persons of interest’.

Feel free to disagree. 

Takeaway – thoughts around entrepreneurship and retail

Ran into a friend yesterday in Lagos. He relocated – part relocation; divides his time between Lagos and NY – to Nigeria two years ago to start a service business. He actually cashed out his 401(k) pension plan and invested it in his Lagos business. Now he wants to expand into another line of service business, and he’s fundraising in Nigeria and abroad. Has commitments in excess of $750k. A chunk of that money is from Nigerians living in Nigeria. He attributes this success to the fact that he already has a business running quite successfully. He’s optimistic about success, but at the same time worried about the security implications of the 2015 elections. 

A few hours later I ran into another young Lagos entrepreneur. Interesting conversation about the size of Opportunity in Nigeria, considering we’re starting from a low/no base. He highlighted retail distribution as one of the biggest codes waiting to be cracked in Nigeria. I mentioned NIPOST, the government-owned postal system that almost no one I know still uses. I recall Minister of Communications Technology saying NIPOST has the largest existing infrastructure spread in Nigeria. In excess of 3,000 buildings nationwide. The closest competition is banks – but no Nigerian bank has got up to 1,000 branches.

The problem is that NIPOST is in government hands. Which means it’s not quite dead, but also nowhere near alive-alive (grossly underutilised/underperforming, when you put output side by side with potential). Privatisation has been in the works for several years now, but this is Nigeria. Mrs Johnson appears to have big plans for it, but I’m not sure how feasible that would be without some form of private-sector involvement.

Will NIPOST infrastructure – in the right hands – play any role in altering the face of retail in Nigeria?

The answer is chilling in the post…

Tolu’s Takeaway

1. There’s money in Nigeria. The problem is connecting the Money with the Opportunities. On the one hand there’s money, on the other hand there’s very little of it going into seed-stage financing for good ideas. 

2. There could be even more money in Nigeria. There are people who’ve got money sitting idle, who haven’t even realised what their money could be doing (This story, from a few years ago, always comes to mind). 

3. My friend believes there’s not enough entrepreneurial passion among young Nigerians. Says he’s pained he keeps meeting young Nigerians who claim to be entrepreneurs but are ready to up and leave at the first whiff of a modest-paying office job offer. 

4. Home-based Nigerian investors are too focused on traditional areas like oil and gas, and real estate, to devote their attention to newer areas of growth like e-commerce and services targeted at upscale clientele.

5. As local manufacturing and e-commerce and Nollywood grow there will be even more intense demand for distribution systems. The sort that allows you to release a line of shirts or a DVD in Lagos and have it stocked in a few thousand outlets across Nigeria in days. Of course people are at work on all sorts of business plans to tackle this – I doubt there are any successes yet… 

I think I may have solved the Mystery of my Vanishing Internet Data

So I’ve been complaining on Twitter about my Internet data.

Well, it seems as if I’ve now discovered what’s wrong.

Dropbox. Yeah, Dropbox.

My CANON camera folder auto-synced with the Dropbox folder on my Mac. So when I put in my memory card all the photos (hundreds of 4-6MB files) started automatically uploading to Dropbox, ON MY INTERNET.

That’s probably why 2Gb of Etisalat data vanished in 2 days, and 4+Gb of Smile data vanished in one afternoon. 

So there, mystery solved, I reckon.

On this specific count of undue and excessive exploitation both Internet providers are hereby acquitted and discharged. 

I have also now proceeded to unlink everything unlinkable in my Dropbox settings. 

Lesson Learned: Beware what your computer (or other internet-connected device) is plugged into. The Dropboxes of this world, with automatic settings that encourage unrestrained data consumption. 

INTERVIEW: Muhammad Ali Pate on Primary Health Care reforms, the fight against Polio, and the new generation of innovative players emerging in Nigerian healthcare

Image courtesy QQdotcom

Muhammad Ali Pate was Nigeria’s Minister of State for Health, and Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Polio Eradication, until July 2013, when he resigned to take up an appointment as a Professor at the Duke University’s Global Health Institute. Before he appointment as Minister in 2011 he was, from 2008, Executive Director of Nigeria’s National Primary Health Care Development Agency. Of him Bill Gates said, in 2011: “One of the polio leaders I respect most is Dr. Muhammad Pate, who directs Nigeria’s national eradication effort. […] Muhammad Pate [has] demonstrated that the best leaders can overcome the worst circumstances.”


I interviewed him at the Economist’s Nigeria Summit in March 2014.


What governance reforms do you think Nigeria needs but haven’t been implemented? What would you like to see in place?

In 2004 the Health Policy delegated Primary Health Care to the Local Governments, and in most states the responsibility for Primary Health Care still is on the back of LGs, and yet they don’t have the resources, and the institutions are weak. 

The Primary Health Care Under One Roof policy that we passed at the National Council of Health a few years ago actually offers the best opportunity for states to have a much more active hands-on control over delivery of Primary Health Care services, bringing in the human resources and also the investments to improve the delivery of Primary Health Care at the front-lines. That is critical. Most states and Local Governments have joint accounts, so local governments don’t have the money to [buy] vaccines, or recruit the right kinds of human resources or train or incentivize them, or [buy] basic equipment. The consequence of that is that everything falls back to the hospitals and the Federal Government. 

I think if the Primary Health Care Under One Roof policy were to be uniformly applied by all state governments and the fiscal space for health is improved at the subnational level, then the delivery of Primary Health Care on the supply side will get a lot better.

What is that Primary Health Care Under One Roof Policy?

Before that policy what you had was that the Ministries of Health at the state level were responsible for Primary Health Care programmes, but the staff that delivered Primary Health Care were staff of the Local Government Service Commissions, and so there was a bit of a disconnect. The Local Governments also had responsibility for hiring for Primary Health Care, and they don’t always hire the right people, or allocate the right levels of resources.

The Primary Health Care Under One Roof policy basically was to bring the delivery of Primary Health Care under one umbrella between states and their LGs – funded through a joint mechanism where 40% of the funding for Primary Health Care was directly coming from the state government and 60% from the Local Government all at once – and then have State Primary Health Care Development Agencies or State Primary Health Care Boards that then oversee the implementation to ensure the facilities are appropriately sited, functional, that the human resource is available.

Why is Nigeria one of the few remaining countries in the world still struggling with polio? What role is religion playing in this?

Five years ago there were twenty-seven states of Nigeria that had polio. We used to have thousands of cases a year, so Nigeria has made progress given that it has interrupted Type-3 polio, for almost eighteen months we’ve not had a case of Type 3. Even Type-1, there’s only been one case this year (2014), which is a lot of progress. So in the global context when we’re talking of polio

Nigeria is no longer the issue. A few years ago Nigeria was the issue.

When you look at population immunity, from almost 42% in 2008, by the end of 2013 it was almost getting to ninety-something percent. So polio has been localized, there are only pockets of the country that continue to transmit, and even in those pockets we’ve only had one case in 2014. Which means that Nigeria can interrupt even Type-1 polio by the end of 2014.

But all the effort that has been put in over the last several years has to be sustained for that to happen because reversals would not be anything anyone would one at the global level or the national level.

When India was struggling to do this people thought maybe the vaccine was not efficacious because of the frequency of diarrheal diseases, but that turned out to be not the case. Now in Nigeria are there those factors that have to do with the nature of the interaction between the virus and the population? I don’t think there’s evidence to support that. There was misinformation, which has been cleared and that’s why people are now bringing their children, that’s why the progress that we’ve made is actually real.

Of course there are Christian and Muslim countries that have been polio-free for a very long time, so it’s not about religion. It’s about delivery of public health programmes in an effective manner, and ensuring accountability,

What we did with the Presidential Task Force was to restore accountability within the system, meaning that we had good information, and we used that good information to make decisions, to hold people accountable where things were going right and where things were not going right.

Provided that accountability is in place you can do a lot of things. Information is core to accountability. Accountability is core to governance. Without information you cannot have accountability and without accountability there’s no governance. Information will not flow anyhow by itself. It has to be demanded.

Why are we not at the moment seeing any substantial private investment in healthcare in Nigeria, targeting the 1 billion dollars you’ve said is going into medical tourism annually?

A year and a half ago – in 2012 – when this conversation started it was a turning point, and since then I think there’s been interest shown more so than in the past. The environment is imperfect, but from the conversations we’re hearing even the domestic private health sector is beginning to look at how to improve the game such that they retain some of these revenues going abroad. Why would you allow a private provider in India deliver services that a private provider in Lagos or Abuja can provide?

So the argument is that there are things governments that can do on the policy and regulatory side, and also things that the markets can do in terms of providing access to capital.

We have had some private equity funds targeting health, so I think that tells you that there’s good response. The private health sector has to organize itself; the [current] fragmentation means that lots of people are small-scale, solo providers. They may not be able to raise or utilize the capital that will be required to improve on their infrastructure, buy the large equipment, but if they come together as groups they might be able to do something. But that’s not something that government will force on them.

But at the end of it all I have a lot of confidence in the Nigerian spirit, and that a generation of Nigerian players is coming to the stage. We’ve seen it with the Private Sector Health Alliance, with the Innovation Marketplace, with the young people that are coming out to contribute. I think [there’s an energy that] can be unleashed. It has not yet been unleashed but I think we’ve started, and I hope that will be sustained.

Tolu Ogunlesi (c) 2014

Brazil in 10 points

By Tolu Ogunlesi

I’m in Brazil for two weeks, on a reporting fellowship sponsored by the International Reporting Project of the School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University. Over the next two weeks we – there are ten of us; journalists and bloggers from the US, India, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa – will be visiting Sao Paolo, Recife and Rio de Janeiro.

Before I left Lagos, every time I mentioned to people I was coming to Brazil, they assumed it was to do with the World Cup. Understandably, considering that kick-off is only two months away. But no, this is not a World Cup trip; instead it’s to explore and better understand Brazil’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) progress. Brazil’s MDGs performance has been  a remarkable one. The MDG Progress Index assigns values to low- and middle-income countries, and Brazil has consistently performed well above the average for middle-income countries. (Nigeria on the other hand has had a lacklustre performance).

I will be writing about the trip in the coming days, but I thought I should start with my first thoughts about Brazil, a country I’m visiting for the first time, but which has for a while occupied space in my imagination. A lot of my interpretation of Brazil will be happening against the backdrop of Nigeria, my home country.

  1. English is hardly spoken in Brazil. I didn’t quite realize this until I got here. For English speakers this sort of culture shock is a welcome prick of the arrogant Anglospheric bubble. You can speak English fluently and yet still be an ‘illiterate’ traveller (or something like that).
  2. Brazil’s transformational story has a lot to do with the Constitution developed in 1988 (updated several times since then); three years into its experiment with democracy, after 21 years of military rule. “it was pretty much a social democratic constitution,” says Sergio Fausto, one-time presidential adviser and now Executive Director of a think-tank and presidential library named for the doctorate-wielding (Sociology) former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The constitution, according to Ana Borges, an Assistant Professor of Public Health at the University of Sao Paulo, deemed health “as a citizen’s right and the state’s duty.”
  3. If 1988 was an important date, 1994 was equally important. That year marked the launch of the ‘Plano Real’ (Real Plan), the economic programme that helped end hyperinflation. It was also the year Cardoso was elected President. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s Brazil experienced hyperinflation, rising in excess of 1,000% in 1989 and 30,000 % in 1990. Sanity returned in 1995, dropping to double-digits from the 2,000% rate the year before.
  4. Brazil has achieved remarkable success in human development indices – health and education especially – in the last two decades. The Primary Health Care system is well-developed, and forms the foundation of the advances in health outcomes in the last two decades. Adult HIV prevalence in Brazil is currently 0.4%, amounting to less than one million persons living with HIV/AIDS. Compare that with Nigeria’s figure in excess of 3%. Brazil experienced its last case of polio in 1990, while Nigeria is still struggling to eradicate polio. In 2014 Brazil launched a vaccination programme to protect young girls (11 – 13) against the STD- and cancer-causing Human papillomavirus (HPV). More than half of all girls in the country now vaccinated. The country is full of these kinds of ambitious health management stories.
  5. Brazil has an extensive Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) programme (“Bolsa Familia“) that is widely seen as a model for emerging economies. The scheme transfers cash sums to beneficiaries – drawn from the poor segments of the population – on monthly basis, tying receipt of payments to the fulfillment of any number of conditions/commitments e.g. school attendance, medical check-ups, immunization, attendance at antenatal clinics, etc. Bolsa Familia, while far from being perfect, is a safety net that ensures that millions of Brazilians can live above poverty. In terms of the fiscal burden of Bolsa Familia, Fausto says that the CCTs amount to less than 1% of GDP, and that public pensions are a much bigger drain.
  6. Inequality is still a major problem. “The poorest Brazilians are the poorest in the world. The richest Brazilians are almost as rich as the richest Americans,” says Alexandre Chiavegatto Filho, a Professor of Public Health at the University of Sao Paolo.
  7. There are state and regional differences in the development indices of Brazil. The North East is the poorest region, and the one with the highest national rates of infant mortality (maternal and infant mortality generally correlate with poverty). But it also saw the most impressive decline in infant mortality – an almost 50% decrease – between 2000 and 2010.
  8. Race also plays a crucial role in Brazil, and has to be taken into account when interpreting social data. For example, AIDS mortality rates are almost twice as high for black people as they are for white. Poverty is also often closely allied with race, the bulk of extremely poor Brazilians are black. [It should however be pointed out that centuries of intermarriage mean that the terms “black” and “white” exist at the ends of a continuum. “Most of the Brazilian population [exists] in-between, so it is very difficult to know who is black or white,” Fausto says].
  9. There are affirmative-action (“quota”) programmes in Brazil, based on race and social factors like poverty. These guide everything from allocation of University spaces to government recruitments. It appears that there is much debate and controversy surrounding these schemes.
  10. Brazil’s economic progress has slowed in recent years, marked by slowing growth, rising inflation, a currency devaluation, and a diversion from investing in critical public infrastructure to focus instead on the World Cup (2014) and the Olympics (2016). The country appears to be at a crossroads, wondering if there’s a new prosperity model to be unlocked, or if instead its fate will be stagnation or regression. It must be like 1994 all over again.

Tolu Ogunlesi (c) 2014

“Let them spend the GDP!”: Rebasing and the ordinary Nigerian

The rebasing of the Nigerian economy is set to benefit everyone but the ordinary Nigerian citizen.

Tolu Ogunlesi

After months of delays, and mounting anticipation, Nigeria’s economy has been officially “rebased”. It is now worth $510 billion (2013 figures) – an eighty-nine percent rise, far in excess of analysts’ predictions. Nigeria is now Africa’s largest economy, pushing South Africa to a distant second place.

But what it does it really mean for the country’s citizens?

First, a simple explanation of the concept of rebasing. Rebasing has a number of different meanings in economics. Rebasing a currency means adjusting currency denominations, as Zambia did to the Kwacha in 2013 when it sliced off three zeroes. A GDP rebasing (as with Nigeria this year, or Ghana in 2010) on the other hand refers to an adjustment in the “base year” or “benchmark year” from which GDP – roughly the value of all goods and services produced in a country in a given year – is calculated.

What is the base year and why does it matter? 

Let’s go hypothetical. I’m a bookseller. In 2012 I sold one thousand books, at 100 naira per book, earning revenues of N100,000. In 2013 book prices rose to 110 naira. Even though I sold the same 1,000 books as 2012, my revenues will be N110,000. Ignoring inflation, it will appear as though I have been more productive in 2013. But account for inflation and you immediately realize that nothing has changed. 

Now let’s apply this to GDP. Let’s assume Nigeria’s 1990 GDP was $100 billion, and in 2000 $110 billion. One would immediately seek to conclude that there was a 10% increase in GDP, over the ten years. But the real picture could simply be that the 10% increase is wholly explained by inflation, and not increased productivity, and that if one adjusted that surface-level 2000 value (known as “nominal GDP”) for all the inflation that has happened since 1990, a different – typically smaller, believably more accurate – picture of 2000 economic productivity would emerge (“real GDP”).

This is where the Base Year or Benchmark Year concept comes in. The Base Year is the statistical tool employed to achieve that all-important adjustment-for-inflation. It works thus: Economists select a particular year as “base” (it is recommended that the base year be one for which significant amounts of data can be found), and then recast every succeeding year’s nominal GDP in terms of the prices of goods and services in that base year. Applying the prices of the base year to nominal GDP in a subsequent year is what produces the real GDP value for that subsequent year. 

The United Nations Statistical Commission recommends a rebasing every 5 years, to a) account for changes in the patterns of economic activity (consumption and production), e.g. a country discovering new mineral wealth, or getting an infusion of broadband, or launching a local car manufacturing industry, or seeing an industry lapse into obsolescence; and b) update base prices to a more recent year (“Price structure less representative of base year structure as time progresses,” explains one UN Statistics Division presentation) 

In Nigeria’s case, we have not rebased since 1990 – a whole quarter of a century ago. By updating the base year from 1990 to 2010, apart from the necessary 20-year updating of prices, we have also had to take into account all the changes that have taken place in the economy in the intervening time – the impact of the internet and the telecommunications industry, Nollywood, the music industry, the sizable expansion of the services industry, etc.

The implication of all this complicated re-calculating that has just taken place is that what we thought was a $270 billion economy is actually worth $510 billion. It’s the equivalent of suddenly discovering the existence of six Ghanas within Nigeria. 

The change is noteworthy for, in the words of Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala), the “psychological impact” it will have on foreign investors. They will pay greater attention to Nigeria, now that its economy casts a larger shadow than South Africa’s, and display new confidence that will potentially be rewarded with lucrative gains in a market that is Africa’s largest, especially at a time when value-laden sectors like power are opening up in unprecedented ways.

Business will also boom for hotel owners, travel agents, airlines, and events planners, as the number of Nigeria-focused trips and investment conferences (already a booming industry since 2013) swell. Scammers might even be expected to cash in as well. (“Good Day dear friend, I am Lamido Sanusi, Governor of the Central Bank of the newly rebased West African nation of Nigeria…”)

And you just wait to see what will happen as the rebasing placebo begins to take effect in the government’s bloodstream. The President’s 2015 re-election campaign has just been swelled by a stand-alone chapter. Even though the story worth celebrating here is really the one about the boldness demonstrated by the National Bureau of Statistics in finally facing up to the long-overdue challenge of revising the country’s near-useless economic data, in the weeks ahead traditional Nigerian praise-singing will predictably morph it into an economic miracle for which the credit belongs to the President’s “Transformation Agenda” (pdf).

The one class of people who have nothing to gain will be ordinary Nigerians: the market woman in Ibadan, the itinerant shoe cleaner in Lagos, the motorcycle taxi rider in Makurdi, the cattle merchant in Potiskum, the shoe maker in Aba, the newspaper vendor in Abuja; the sprawling class of ‘bottom millions’ condemned by their country to extreme poverty).

The $1,200 by which Nigeria’s per-capita income has suddenly risen will not somehow magically appear in their pockets. For this crowd the news is the sort of sleight-of-mouth that they’ve since grown to expect from the government. In the aftermath of protests against the removal of fuel subsidies in 2012, President Jonathan announced, in a public broadcast, the creation of 370,000 jobs. Just like that, because everyone knows jobs are created when well-meaning presidential words mix with faith in the hearts of job-hungry citizens.

As one person tweeted at me: “Our rebasing story is like the story of a woman that decided to give her husband four pieces of meat by dividing the tiny one into four.”

Even the positive implications of better quality statistical information, which should support, in the words of one analyst, “better decision-making” by the government means little when one considers the track record of the Nigerian government.

In March, more than 700,000 applicants registered online for a recruitment exercise into the Immigration service. Knowing that they were expecting 700,000 candidates did nothing to influence the preparation levels of the test’s organisers. Stampedes ensued. By the end of that day, at least 18 people lay dead. Interior Minister Abba Moro, brain behind the recruitment, somehow still managed to blame the dead.

Which is why no one should be surprised when, weeks from now, a Moro-type (Nigeria’s bureaucracy is laden with them) is quoted as quipping, again predictably – and not tongue-in-cheek: “Nigerians don’t have money? Let them spend the GDP!”

 Tolu Ogunlesi (c) 2014


Interview: Andrew Alli, CEO of Africa Finance Corporation (AFC)

I spoke with Mr. Alli on the sidelines of the Africa Finance Corporation’s Infrastructure Summit in Lagos, Nigeria, on March 25, 2014. 

Andrew Alli, CEO, Africa Finance Corporation (Photo courtesy AFC website)

Andrew Alli, CEO, Africa Finance Corporation (Photo courtesy AFC website)


  •  The optimism of ‘Africa Rising’ needs to be balanced with reality
  •  Investors should be paying more attention to smaller African countries which often get overlooked in the scramble for economic opportunity
  •  If selling African goods abroad was the past, selling to Africans is the future
  •  Lots of potential in selling to the lower classes, on account of relative size. 
  •  PPP approach to infrastructure is more likely to produce efficiency, and reduce corruption, than direct government spending. Corruption is hardly ever the biggest issue in privately-delivered projects. 

The full interview below:

On ‘Africa Rising’ 

I believe in the general theme of ‘Africa Rising’ and ‘Nigeria Rising’. In some ways Africa Finance Corporation is predicated on the fact that there is going to continue to be progress across Africa. But I also think that should be blended with a dose of reality. Not all African countries are going to rise at the same time. Some are going to misstep. Some will misstep in terms of political violence, what we’re seeing in Central African Republic, some will misstep economically – as we can see Ghana is going through some tough economic times with their currency falling because of the [budget] deficits.

But in the long term Ghana is still going to do well but there are short-term ups and downs. There’s clearly a reason to be optimistic, but that needs to be tempered with a certain degree of realism as well.

On best-kept investment secrets, and overlooked investment opportunities and hotspots across Africa

If you’re a small(er) country you’re less competitive in some respects and therefore there’s a stronger incentive for you to improve your business environment. It’s not surprising that actually the best-rated countries in Africa, for doing business, for credit ratings, tend to be the smaller countries. So Botswana has the best credit rating of an African country. Mauritius is well rated in terms of doing business, Rwanda is well rated in terms of doing business. There are investment opportunities in smaller countries which often get overlooked.

[One] other thing which people are catching on to – but I still think there are opportunities there – is selling things to Africans. For a long time a lot of the investment themes have been revolving around exports. Take African things, and sell them to foreigners. But I think that selling stuff to Africans is actually in some ways more profitable. Certainly those who people have done very well financially – and obviously Aliko Dangote comes straight to mind – generally have done it not through export businesses but actually selling goods to Africans.

Building on that theme, I think that another overlooked market is selling things to middle-class and even below-middle-class Africans. In my previous life when I used to finance hotels in the International Finance Corporation (IFC), you’d get a hundred people come in and want to build a 5-star hotel in Lagos or in Abuja for every one person who comes in and says I want to build a 2-star hotel in Benin City that would cater to salesmen travelling; whereas in reality the latter is actually a much bigger market, and if you can figure out how to address that market profitably you can make a killing.

As I said these are not totally undiscovered things; I think this is essentially the business model that Indomie has, that the mobile phone companies have; they make the bulk of their money from the middle class and lower classes, simply because of numbers. On a per-person basis maybe it’s the rich business-people, but how many of them are there compared with the University students who are scratching N500 recharge cards at a time?

I think financial inclusion is another area. There’s a bank in Kenya called Equity Bank. This bank was a failed or failing mortgage bank. It was taken over by some people and turned around, and its business model was really about financial inclusion, bringing people in who were not part of the banking system. Today this bank is the biggest bank in Kenya, it has overtaken the likes of Barclays who have been well established in that market, and done so by going for a not-so-affluent customer base. To put it in another perspective I’d much rather be selling Alomo Bitters than crude champagne, because the market is just far bigger.

To put it in another perspective I’d much rather be selling Alomo Bitters than crude champagne, because the market is just far bigger.

On corruption in large-scale infrastructure projects 

What we in AFC focus on are really private-sector ways of delivering infrastructure; either the private sector just doing it, or Public Private Partnership (PPP) type of structures. To be frank in those there isn’t that much corruption, at least not in the spending of the money. Because at the end of the day, the private company is borrowing the money. Their incentive is to get that infrastructure as cheaply as possible, to a certain standard, because the money is coming out of their pocket, it’s not somebody else’s money.

The other incentive is for the infrastructure to work, because if it doesn’t work they’re not going to get paid, and therefore they’re not going to make any profit. This is quite different from where the government is spending money on infrastructure, where you have civil servants who are essentially spending other people’s money and the incentives are very different. That also is one of the major advantages of private provision of infrastructure.

There are disadvantages of that as well, to be balanced, but I think that as a way of bypassing a large amount of corruption that is a very positive thing. That is not to say that there is no corruption in privately-delivered projects, of course there is, but you don’t find for example that it is the major issue in what we do. It is an issue but it is not the major issue. 

On benchmarking infrastructure costs across countries/regions

It is possible to benchmark, obviously, but it does have its complications, and I will give you an example. If you’re building a road in Kano, and you’re building the same road in Yenagoa, the cost in Yenagoa is likely to be a lot higher for two or three reasons. One, the ground is more likely to be swampy, so you may have to do piles [etc], which obviously adds to the cost. Secondly, because it rains more in Yenagoa, the possibility of erosion would be higher and therefore the road may have to be built to a tougher standard than in Kano where it hardly rains and you’re not so bothered by erosion. So while it’s easy to go and compare a kilometer of road in Accra versus a kilometer of road in Lagos, and it does tell you something, you’d also need to be a little bit careful about the differences.

It’s a fact that general price levels in Lagos are higher than the general price levels in Accra. So if you kept everything equal you wouldn’t expect a road in Lagos to cost the same as a road in Accra, if every other price is higher in Lagos. 

Tolu Ogunlesi (c) 2014