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Generational Shift Needed To Power Africa Forward- Lonsa Group Ltd Chair Robin Vela.

August 17, 2021

By Ajong Mbapndah L

Robin Vela,Chairman of the Lonsa Group is at the helm of seasoned principals who have invested more than USD $2.5 billion across Africa in last 17 years

For Africa to move forward, the younger generation must be capacitated and given a chance to lead, says Robin Vela, Chairman of the Lonsa Group, a leading investment entity in Africa incorporated in Mauritius.

To Robin Vela, Africa has an abundance of talent with a generation of globally educated talent leading multinational companies but under appreciated by a generation of leaders in the twilight of their lives. For a generation that is driven by instant news, communication, and technology, the seasoned corporate personality believes that much of the leaderships in Africa are not in sync with the ambitions of many young Africans.

“If the biggest economy in the world can elect a 44-year-old as its Commander-in-Chief, why would a country with 0.02% of the world’s GDP think it can only be led by a person of 55 years plus?” Robin Vela questions.

Lonsa’s principals have unrivalled experience and knowledge of working with businesses gained by investing more than USD$2.5-billion in the continent over the past 17 years, says Robin who enjoys global repute. Still, it is in his native Zimbabwe that this reputation was nearly tarnished when he took on the challenge of bringing to life the moribund National Social Security Authority of Zimbabwe, -NSSA.

The whole point of taking the NSSA assignment was love for country and a desire to give back, says Robin who believes his ethical and rigorous management impeded the feeding trough.

With strong forays in the energy sector, Robin Vela maintains strong criticisms of the controversial decision to relocate the African Oil Week from South Africa to Dubai. The move was akin to scoring an own goal and the emergence of the African Oil Week was only a logical response from Africans who felt slighted.

“I believe African Energy Week will continue to get (and has already got) substantial support from many who are similarly offended as me at the exhibition being moved off the Continent,” Robin Vela says.

Could we start with an introduction of the Lonsa Group of industries that you lead and in what countries the Group has operations in?

Lonsa Group Limited (“Lonsa”) is a principal investment entity investing in businesses that enable infrastructural development; facilitate logistical services; deliver renewable energy; and provide affordable housing in Africa. It is incorporated in Mauritius.

Lonsa’s current investee businesses (and our brands) are:

Infrastructure development

  • Everite
  • Sky Sands
  • Sheet-rite

Logistics

  • Robvel

Renewable Energy

  • Lonsa Energy

Housing

  • Firstmile

Lonsa was established in 2004 and has a track record of concluding complex corporate transactions. Lonsa’s principals have unrivalled experience and knowledge of working with businesses gained by investing more than USD$2.5-billion in the continent over the past 17 years. 

There are only a handful of African Countries, principally in North Africa, where Lonsa’s principals have not done business.

For Africa to move forward, the younger generation must be capacitated and given a chance to lead, says Robin Vela

With the vast wealth of knowledge and broad experience that you have how would sum up the current business realities and potentials of the continent?

Africa remains the undiscovered continent with a growing, youthful, and urbanizing population giving it huge economic growth potential.

You are one of those whose companies have operations in diverse parts of Africa, how have things worked for you and what challenges have you faced?

Africa is not a homogenous bloc. Each country on the continent has its own nuances and these must always be respected. Lonsa has indeed operated in diverse parts of Africa and in diverse sectors. For instance:

  • Finance – where we consulted for the World Bank on a refinancing facility for local banks who had short tenure financing for independent power producers in Uganda.
  • Upstream Oil & Gas activities – Egypt, Nigeria, DRC, Malawi, Tunisia;
  • Housing, Logistics and Power Generation – Zimbabwe, South Africa;
  • Manufacturing and distribution of Building Materials – SADC

From your experience across diverse countries in the continent, what recommendations do you have to make the investment climates more friendly or encourage progressive minded Africans like you to move the continent forward?

In many instances, we are our own worst enemy. We have an arrogance about ourselves and home address forgetting often that CAPITAL is mobile and goes to where it is safest and most welcome.

Africa has an abundance of talent with a generation of globally educated and experienced talent leading many multinational companies. These leaders do not even get a “look in” back home as they do not have liberation war credentials. Absurd indeed!

Africa is led by a generation of leaders in the twilight of their lives but seeking to lead a generation of youth who are more au fait with instant news, instant communication, and the technological generation.

For Africa to move forward, the younger generation must be capacitated and given a chance to lead. If the biggest economy in the world can elect a 44-year-old as its Commander-in-Chief, why would a country with 0.02% of the world’s GDP think it can only be led by a person of 55 years plus? This is primitive at best. The same youth that make up more than 60% of the population are being led by persons they have zero in common with!

Ask yourself – how many of these African leaders know how to work “Tik-Tok”, the go- to app for today’s youth?

You had a stint running the National Social Security Authority of Zimbabwe, “NSSA”, in what shape did you meet the entity, in what shape did you leave it?

When I arrived at NSSA, it was an institution with no forward trajectory. It was a US$1.2-billion fund with investment income of US$32-million and minimal profits. In three short years, with zero magic but the simple application of investment norms, NSSA’s balance sheet was US$2.3-billion, investment income was US$190-million and profits were in excess of US$120 million.

These are facts that are undeniable even from those that wish they could – the Annual Financial Statements do not lie.

The Annual Financial Statements for NSSA as of 31 December 2014 and compared to that at 31 December 2017 show that NSSA’s financial and authoritative position as an activist shareholder had dramatically improved.

Under my watch, NSSA invested in Afrexim notes, the first offshore investment by NSSA as a way of diversifying the NSSA balance sheet from the Zimbabwe macroeconomic concerns. NSSA undertook the merger of two leading players in the insurance market (First Mutual Holdings Limited and Nicoz Diamond Limited) to create a formidable player which is today lauded as NSSA’s cash cow, though no credit is given to the initiators and executors of the same transaction.

I received the prestigious Megafest Business Leader of the Year award in 2017 for my leadership of NSSA.

That said, holding investee companies and executives to account was not to everyone’s liking, as I found at great personal, professional, and reputational cost.

Any regrets on taking the NSSA challenge considering the drama that culminated in your departure and the legal battle that ensued to clear your name?

I am philosophical about my time at NSSA.

I look at my late father, Robin Vela (Senior) who was one of the first black directors of Anglo-American Zimbabwe in the 1980s after Zimbabwe’s independence, and I feel his contribution to Zimbabwe was giving the youth a sense that a black man could succeed in previously white-dominated positions.

I felt my contribution to my native Zimbabwe would be to contribute – using the global education and skills I had acquired over some 20 plus years – towards Zimbabwe’s economic progress and sustainability.

I was naïve to believe that all Zimbabweans, in particular political leaders, wanted the same thing.

Officially, I was “fired” from my chairmanship role because I was a “non-resident” of Zimbabwe. This was some three years after my appointment and when the market plaudits were flooding in.

The truth is that I was and remain a straight shooter: I called out the shenanigans and put an end to the feeding trough.

I wanted to resign several times, but I felt a sense of duty to the NSSA senior management team I had just recruited to remain.

I never needed the NSSA position; I did it for the love of country and out of a desire to give back.

It has, however as I have indicated, been enormously costly – not only financially and emotionally, but also in terms of the harm done to my reputation and the opportunities I have lost out on.

Today, some four years after my departure, not one piece of objective evidence has been produced that I acted without the highest degree of integrity. Not one!

The truth is that I was an impediment to the trough and the only way to access it was to have me removed.

But to remove someone who had been applauded by the market had to be justified. So, the reason put forward by the then youthful, inexperienced, newly appointed, and grossly incompetent Zimbabwe Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, Petronella Kagonye, was that I was “non-resident”. The market did not buy this, so she and her cohorts created a false narrative about me being corrupt.

Africa remains the undiscovered continent with a growing, youthful and urbanizing population giving it huge economic growth potential,says Robin Vela

With the coming of the African continental free trade agreement, what opportunities do you see for the continent and any business projects that the Lonsa group has in mind to tap into those opportunities?

The AfCFTA presents both an opportunity but also a risk for Africa.

The opportunity is enabling the continent to feed off each other’s best parts to enhance the whole.

That said, Europe tried this and failed; that is why BREXIT is now a reality.

The risk is that because Africa is not homogenous, in jurisdictions with weak institutional structures you will have “rent seeking” that defeats the noble objectives of AFTCA.

The setting up of a distribution centre / labelling a manufacturing concern in Country X, benefiting from AfCFTA concessions, with sales throughout the continent but profits then being transferred to Continent A, where the real owners of the concern are from, will defeat the noble motivation of uplifting the continent.

The key to the success of AfCFTA will be in its ability to be carefully governed.

Robin Vela has considerable experience and stakes in the Energy sector and served at one point as Patron of the African Institute of Petroleum, may we know why you took serious issue with the relocation of the African Oil Week to Dubai?

I started attending Africa Oil Week in the early 2000s as a green-eyed boy whose creator/ founder (Duncan Clarke) took a liking to, simply because of our mutual Zimbabwean links and the mutual connections/ networks we shared.

I have the utmost respect for what Duncan had sought to achieve and the opportunities / breaks he gave me as founder of SacOil Holdings Limited, an upstream oil and gas entity which at the time aspired to replicate the success of UK-based Tullow Oil and Afren.

The platform Duncan created was one which sought to showcase, not just African assets and acreage, but also African talent and human resource. I recall being on the same podium with two IOC CEOs and two leading African Ministers of Energy.

My point of contention is largely around what I consider to be a patronizing attitude towards Africans.  You can’t want to talk about African acreage and resources, but not want to do so on their home patch!

Africa Oil Week became, thanks to Duncan, the must-attend industry event. It took place in an African destination Cape Town, which is all about aspiration.

One of the characteristics of Africans is that we are aspirational – and you take that away by simple things and gestures.

Indeed, my contention with AOW being moved to Dubai has not lessened, but firmed.

Do you think the launching of the African Energy Week championed by Africans was an appropriate response and does Robin Vela endorse the African Energy Week?

I have known NJ Ayuk, the Executive Chairman at the African Energy Chamber, from my early days attending AOW in Cape Town. I have zero doubt that the move of AOW to Dubai left him with an open door to walk through.

I am not sure NJ would have sought to launch African Energy Week if AOW had not moved to Dubai.

I believe African Energy Week will continue to get (and has already got) substantial support from many who are similarly offended as me at the exhibition being moved off the Continent.

I feel AOW have made a spectacular strategic error – akin to an own goal. All bets are off as to whether they can come back from this.

In short – there was no choice, and it was to be expected that the likes of an Africa Energy Week would emerge. Good luck to them.

A question many will ask is what next after the African Energy Week, what recommendations will you have for the organizers and management of the week going and what other lessons can Africa learn from this?

I see this as a start of an ongoing event, not a once-off.

The only way AOW could claw back the support it has lost is if AEW fails to be a professionally organized, attended and competent conference.

NJ has been attending those held by Duncan Clarke for over a decade. He would have picked up the tricks and as such I have no doubt AEW will be a success.

Where AEW could also steal a march would be in making the attendance more affordable and diverse. Historically, the attendance has been predominantly white males and the cost of attendance out of reach for all but well-funded companies.

You can’t want to talk about African acreage and resources, but not want to do so on their home patch, fumes Robin Vela on the relocation of the AOW to Dubai

Beyond job creation and paying taxes to countries you have operations, what else are you doing or thinking of doing to mentor and nurture the next generation of Africans to enjoy your kind of success?

I readily admit that I was born lucky!

I would like the opportunities I have been afforded to be available to many others. I have a “band of brothers” (“BOB”) that, pre-Covid, met up with an agenda to share ideas about how we can do more to capacitate those around us.

Each of the members of the BOB are professionally successful having reached the pinnacle of their professional careers and led multi-US billion dollar entities; are independently-wealthy and are seeking to give back without seeking credit or praise. Individually we already mentor people from disadvantaged backgrounds just without the spotlight being shown on us. We often say in gest that the work we do, out of the limelight, is between us and our God.

The next generation of African already exists, they are waiting for their time to shine. The biggest challenge is that our current leaders (with war credentials from the 1970s) are adamant they do not want to leave the stage. This is the biggest hinderance to the growth of the Continent.

Through exemplary leadership we give guidance to the next generation. 

I believe that people buy into what you do and not what you say. So, I am walking in my own lane and doing what I believe is right in the hope that the next generation of business leaders will also do right where they are.

Africa is endowed with talent and educated individuals but then you ask why do business and strategy fail? I believe it is because of:

  • Leaders do not listen/ they believe they know it all (EGO and personality businesses)
  • Low energy environment (Lack Purpose)
  • Internal Sabotage/ Personal Greed (Changing goal posts)
  • Customer Neglect
  • Organisation becomes stale and succumbs to the disruption in their industry. (The LP was overtaken by the iPod/ The Videocassette – now there is Netflix and Streaming/ Similarly the Taxi is now overtaken by UBER and the Hotels are being given a run by Airbnb)

Looking at the continent, what makes you hopeful and what makes jittery about the future if Africa?

I am optimistic about global innovations being led by native Africans (Tesla by Elon Musk; fintech and other offerings is evidence that ideas born out of Africa can go global).  Access to capital markets for such entrepreneurs is expanding. The growing youthful population is also key – this is a huge potential market, as sizeable to China, if only they could be made economically active.

Making these youth economically active, calls for bold leadership decisions. Current leaders still believe for them to progress, they must tear at the heart of anything that is not shouting their slogan. This desire for praise-singing, even in the face of evidence of governance and leadership failings, is self-defeating.

Finally, the inability of the voice of the people to be heard and respected will mean the status quo will continue until the current leaders take their leave by the acts of God.

I remain an optimist in Africa and continue to live by the notion that “HOPE is the ability to hear the music of the future, FAITH is the courage to dance to it today!”

*Culled from August Issue of PAV Magazine

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