A conversation with Olumide Famakinwa

Good morning, Olumide. Can you tell me a little about yourself?

I am Nigerian, and I live in Lagos. I have a background in Economics, spending 17 years in banking, majorly financing small and medium businesses. I saw that there was a need in Nigeria to build capacity (Institutional and Infrastructure) for our country’s grain sector in West Africa – to make sustainable structures to increase trade within Africa and other markets, and I left banking to set up a consultancy company called Firstling.

Its goal is to facilitate trade, to improve the supply chain through better access to financing, better logistics and industrial investment – adding value in rice, wheat and soya in particular, as well as other critical commodities.

I am quite passionate about Public-Private Partnership models and structures as a panacea for spurring growth and development in Sub-Saharan Africa.

I am also an executive director in Cargo Marketing, a fifty-year-old company that handles cargo logistics and also involved in warehousing and other supply chain services.

Is the government supportive in helping you facilitate trade?

Not as much as we would like. There is a considerable gap; our government could do so much more in creating an enabling environment for trade facilitation.

On an international level, the African Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) should come into force next year. It should, over time, drive an increase in intra-African trade and services and act as a vehicle for West Africa to catch up with Southern and Eastern Africa. It should be the catalyst that we have been waiting for in terms of aligning policies over tariffs, documentation, standardization and certification. It will foster integration and facilitate inter-African trade, especially for agribusiness. It could be transformational.

We are also excited about the possibility of Nigeria’s Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala becoming the new Director-General of the World Trade Organization. If she is selected, she will be the first woman, and the first African, to lead the institution. She understands Africa and the challenges we face, and she is well-suited to turn the searchlight on Africa and trigger support to overcome challenges trade-related.

Unfortunately, the US is for the moment holding up her appointment, but we are keeping our fingers crossed that her appointment will go through.

What are the biggest challenges that you face in your day to day business?

Lack of physical infrastructure: the road network and the seaports need to be updated to international standards to meet and increase import and export capabilities

Lack of skill and technical know-how: there is tremendous scope for improving or digitalizing the whole trade process in terms of IT, documentation process and generating/analysing data. We have to improve our systems across the spectrum.

Lack of capital: fixing the gaps in physical and knowledge infrastructure would give financiers more confidence and increase the availability of capital. More like asking, which comes first, chicken or the egg?

We need 10 -15-year consistent long-term funding to invest in the infrastructure necessary to build capacity for the medium and long term effect, but getting that is a challenge.

There is a tremendous opportunity here. Africa can leapfrog existing technology, and, in that sense, we are better placed that many parts of the developed world that have a pool of existing and limited ability to expand infrastructure. The developed markets are quite saturated, and diminishing returns might have set in.

If Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is appointed, what would be the first thing that she should do?

She should bring all African countries together to push for the right political will to implement the AFCFTA. We have everything that we need in terms of raw materials and natural resources; what we are lacking is the political will to realize our potential. She has to get political leaders to dismantle various bottlenecks and drive the private sector to operate optimally

What messages will you try to get across when you address the Geneva Grain Conference?

 Most markets around the world now are what I would call ‘mature’ markets. Whether you look at it from the production or the consumption side, African markets are not mature. That gives us all a tremendous opportunity to invest and to build the necessary infrastructure for production and distribution, and at the same time to develop consuming markets.

My main message will be that we all have to look at the African market from a different perspective. We have to re-evaluate the risks and how we manage them. For me, diversification is the key to manage risk across the whole grain value chain. And of course, we have to look at what has worked and what hasn’t worked. We have to learn from that.

My second message is that there is a big focus now within Africa on healthy living and diet. Our population is consistently growing, and so also is our middle class. Africa is a vast market and a huge opportunity, but local knowledge is essential as each country is different. So, my final message to investors, partners and interested stakeholders would be to think local but to act global!

Thank you Olumide and good luck with your presentation!

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