By Ajong Mbapndah L
The UK must stop thinking that they are Africa’s saviour and African countries must stop lifting their begging bowl to the UK, says Edgar Chibaka, Chairman of the UK Malawi Business Group. Despite the wealth inequality between the UK and African countries, trade must be done on a partnership of equals approach to create a win-win situation, says Chibaka who recently scooped the top prize at this year’s Black British Business Awards alongside his partner Jamal Tahlil.
While Chibaka sees in the award a recognition of the hard work he and his partner have put in under challenging circumstances to make it in the corporate world, he believes that there is still much the African diaspora can do to participate in the development of their continent. Instead of limiting themselves to remittances, Chibaka tasks the diaspora to consider investment in property and agribusiness.
You and your partner Jamal Tahlil recently scooped the top prize at this year’s Black British Business Awards, how did you receive the news and what did the award mean to you?
We were very excited and received the award with a lot of humility reflecting on the journey we have travelled to get this level.
The award is a reflection that when one has a vision or dream are prepared to pay a price for it through a mixture of hard work and strategy nothing is impossible. This is what we have demonstrated over the fourteen years of building the First Response Group and other companies we also own like Robinsons MEA Ltd which is a mechanical and electrical contractor business with £4 million annual turnover; Apardion Limited focused on facilities management solutions based in Scotland; Robinsons Living Ltd that focuses on property maintenance and refurbishment; RoCool HVAC Ltd focused on design, installation and maintenance of air conditioning equipment; Gemini Rail Ltd which is a critical staff provider to the rail industry but also undertake small works packages.
May we have insights into your company First Response Group, the services that it offers and how it went from scratch to employing over 500 workers today?
First Response Group is a security, risk, and facilities management company. It is a multi-service business working across all sectors of the economy providing manned and electronic security like Access Control, Detection and Surveillance systems, cleaning, landscape, pest control and facilities management.
Foremost, we set the vision and core values of what our business was to be like. We defined the organisation culture upfront and all what we did revolved around authentic family, respect and love which was translated in the way we marketed the business promising that our personnel deployed to their locations would be happy and loved.
You are from Malawi, and your partner Tahlil is from Somalia, can you tell us a little more about your meeting and forging the business relations and bonds that led resulted in your successful corporate adventure?
Jamal and I met at work. We were working for different companies but within the same business park. Our buildings were opposite. Then, we got talking about the way how our companies treated their staff. There was no difference in the general practices in that nobody cared, one was just number and mattered less. So, we shared a common dissatisfaction and frustration hence we sought to do it ourselves. The vision was then born “to creating a company whose staff were loved, valued and happy to work for.” Today, we look around our offices and on our customer locations, we see staff who are over twelve years in the business, they have not moved and do not even contemplate changing jobs.
Jamal and I are brothers, family, and friends. There is great respect between us which create a conducive environment for a great partnership. We value each other’s talents and skills which are unique.
What are some of the challenges that you faced in growing the Group to the prominence that it occupies today?
There have been many challenges from prejudice, discrimination, and racism. There have times when our business was denied opportunities because of our race. But when you have faith, hope and determination, all wrapped up in a great vision, nothing of this sought can deny one’s destiny. They can only delay it. We kept going knowing that better things lay ahead of us.
We had to overcome doubt that as black people could deliver a quality service. So, we made sure that we were authentic and credible in communications with potential customers. We clarified our messaging several times to overcome the roadblock of doubt.
How has COVID 19 impact business for you in the last two years?
The major impact has been a slowdown on our growth plans. Certain contracts we had won got delayed and with lockdowns, we saw some staffing numbers on customer locations reduce. However, we pivoted the business by strategically positioning to be a helper in Covid 19 management especially in the retail sector. We had an aggressive push on innovative security technologies replacing manned security. In the end we experienced a 50 percent growth in annual sales.
You are originally from Malawi; may we know the ties that you maintain with your home country and continent?
I still have family there, my mother, brothers, and sisters. I am growing coffee and macadamia nuts in Malawi. I have investments in media, transportation, and site facilities management and logistics services businesses in Malawi. I hope in the next couple of years to expand the services business to Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Tanzania.
First Response Group in partnership with a United Kingdom registered charity sponsors a school children’s feeding program in Kenya, Somalia, and Malawi as a way of giving back to the continent.
What is your assessment of business ties between the UK-and Africa and is there any room for improvement?
The UK has strong ties with Africa from colonial days. I think the ties could have been better to help Africa develop faster especially by implementing trade for aid. The UK now with Brexit should be inviting Africans to trade more in their commodities as it is only through trade that lives are uplifted. UK companies must partner with their African counterparts for trade and investments. The African continent is not short of good skills and talents.
There is plenty of room but starts with a change in attitude on both sides. The UK must stop thinking that they are Africa’s saviour and African countries must stop lifting their begging bowl to the UK. Despite, the wealth inequality between the UK and African countries, trade must be done on a partnership of equals approach to create a win-win situation. This is some of the work I am championing in my role as Chairman of the UK Malawi Business Group which is in the final stages of becoming a Chamber of Commerce.
Broadly speaking, what role do you see the African diaspora in the UK playing in the development process in Africa?
The African diaspora possess a great deal of skills and knowledge across many sectors. Most African countries have closed doors to their diaspora by restricting access to opportunities like jobs and dual citizenships.
African diaspora of course must continue with remittances but should consider some investments in properties and agribusiness.
African diaspora must be interested in developing their continent if they don’t no one will. It is not the responsibility of the Chinese, Indians, American, Europeans and British but for Africans.
Based on your experiences, what is it the government in Malawi and others in Africa could do to facilitate the participation of its diaspora in the development of the continent?
I have been having some serious thought about parliamentary representation. The diaspora is a constituency for Malawi and most African countries. There is need for proper reforms that the diaspora is represented in parliament, let them bring another perspective of what good looks like. Consideration of having a junior minister within the Foreign Affairs Ministry would be good so that the diaspora affairs are heard. At the moment there is a lot of frustration among the Malawi diaspora as it has been touch and go with nothing to show.
For other young immigrants who see in you a role model and will love to emulate your kind of success, what are some success tips you can share with them?
There is no short cut to success. If the young immigrants and young people in general would like to produce sustainable success, they have work hard in their talents. Must align themselves with the right people who can provide mentorship and coaching. Have faith in who you are. I always say, “God did not create a failure neither did he create a mistake.” So must have a vision of their success. Never stop dreaming because if they don’t have a dream, they will never have a dream come true.