Yumkella: Africa Needs Visionary Leaders, Technocrats to Drive Devt


Bamidele Famoofo caught up with Dr. Kandeh Yumkella, the first African Director-general at the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation and, currently, Sierra Leonean presidential aspirant, at the Centre for Value Leadership in Lagos. He spoke on how Africa could develop and compete effectively in the 21st Century. Yumkella said his vision for Sierra Leone was to diversify the economy, improve corporate governance, and promote accountability. Excerpts:

On roles played at the United Nations

I believe that serving humanity is a privilege and I have the unique privilege of serving humanity under the United Nations for almost two decades in senior positions. There, l had the opportunity of pushing for industrialisation of poor countries, especially in Africa.  I was heavily involved in developing the new agenda that will replace the millennium development goals, what we call the post-2015 development agenda or development agenda 2030. I was very active in all of the committees. I had the privilege of serving as secretary-general to principal committees to guide the UN to develop the agenda, but particularly proud that l led the energy issues for the world for quite some time, creating the sustainable energy for all initiative, securing accessible and affordable energy for all. For doing that, I’m grateful for the privileges for serving humanity, especially the poor.

On leadership in Africa

It is hard to generalise about Africa, giving our complexities, different histories, cultural, ethic, religious experiences. There are those African countries that are evolving very well and you see them advancing, and doing the right things. They are beginning to build the institutions that will help them transform their economies. We’ve seen some good results in Rwanda, and some pockets of that transformation in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Ghana. Of course, there are other countries like Mauritius, Botswana and Tanzania. They are evolving nicely. You begin to see them venturing into the digital economy. We live in the 21st century where knowledge matters, information technology, and so on. So you see these countries establishing I.T hubs. You see them also approaching middle income status; we hope they do not get trapped in what we describe as the middle income trap, where some middle income countries have been stock for two decades now.  Yet you have others under the bottom of the heap; which is where you find my country Sierra Leone, and then you want to say, wait a minute, others are moving ahead and we are just retrogressing.  There are countries in Africa where democracies are setting nicely but you also see others where democracy is being manipulated to set us back to the sixties. Now you see countries where ethnicity and ethno-regional issues are beginning to re-emerge (tribal issues), and so it’s a mixed bag, others are progressing while others are moving back.

On visionary leadership

And yet, you can see a country like Nigeria where the young and the middle class are beginning to demand more. I just found out now, l didn’t know, that there could be 70 million Nigerians that are using the social media. I hardly could believe that. So, l was happy and impressed that Nigeria could become one of the digital hubs of the future.  It means the young generations are demanding knowledge. Can the government tap into that dynamism of 70 million social media users in Nigeria?  Can the government take them up, train them, and make Nigeria an I.T hub, like India?

That is why you need a visionary leader, a leader that will say, if this is true that my children are that hungry for technology, l will create my own version of Silicon Valley. That is what they have done in Kenya. They have created what they call the Silicon Savannah.  That is why you need a visionary leader to look at how that can be done and capitalise on it. Investing in I.T education and creating support facilities and scholarships, so that these kids can come out and become entrepreneurs. They will create software programming and development for Nigeria.

On Africa’s biggest problem

Lastly, what l will say is the biggest problem for all of Africa is the youth bulge. We are going to be 1.4 billion in 2030, 2.2 billion by 2050, and that is like adding another 1 billion by 2050, but where are the jobs? Will we benefit from a demographic dividend or suffer for it. It means 30 per cent of people below 30 years of age will be in our continent by 2050. Will the growing population become a basis for manufacturing to create jobs? Can we be the bread basket of the world or could this be a disaster waiting?  If we have the youths unskilled and without jobs, what we get in return is civil disorder and this leads to crises. We need visionary leadership to look into 25-30 years to create an inclusive society, not just today. They must give these kids skills to become the big entrepreneurs that our nations need to develop.

On Africa’s competitiveness

I guess the indicators we have to go by are the competitiveness ranking forum of the World Economic Forum and the World Bank.  We are not doing very well. I can’t see any African country at the top of that ranking. A good number of us are way down at the bottom, so in terms of competitiveness, we are not doing well. Second, if you look at the cost of doing business as well, we are not doing well. That is one big issue governments should look at if we are to attract investments. The cost has to be good. People need to know that they can come here, establish factories and ship goods without hassles. We are doing well on competitiveness, cost of doing business, and l don’t believe we are also doing well in skill formation.  It is also identifying those skills that we need at the factories to become productive, and this is beyond the degrees. We need to develop good welders, good fitters that can work in factories, building machines, computers. We need this to become part of the global value chain. You don’t need to produce the whole product, but you can become an expert in producing just a component of it, and you will be known for doing that very well.  And, of course, my biggest obsession is energy. To be able to industrialise, we need an affordable, reliable energy services in Africa.

 On the energy challenge in Nigeria

When l worked in Nigeria 15 to 20 years ago, we had issues with energy, and when l saw queues at petrol stations on my visit to the country now, l was surprised that the problems of 20 years ago still persist. But more importantly, l used to take consultants to the factories in Nigeria. Nigeria has cheap labour, but when you begin to look at the other bottlenecks, Nigerian industries were not very competitive because they had to provide their own electricity, clean their sewage, and provide water. So l just gave you some indicators that we are not competitive.  This is what we must tackle. That is what they have done in Asia. There in Asia, leaders are becoming the best friends of captains of industry. Why? They are building infrastructure, providing systemic competiveness. They can clear their goods in the ports quickly; get licenses to do business speedily. There, they are trying to go paperless doing business. Some countries have been clever to use the concept of industrial estates well to their own advantage.

On value addition

When l worked in Nigeria, l pushed heavily for the use of cassava for the purpose of industrialisation, because l couldn’t believe that a country that is the largest producer of cassava in the world consumes about 90 per cent of the product locally.  Whereas in Thailand, they were processing cassava into 15 by-products, and in Brazil, they were doing the same. And l say, why can’t we process the same product into flour in Nigeria, glue and use some of it to produce textile products and so on. In Malaysia, when l took some Nigerian ministers to that country, they were trying to get 30 products out of palm fruit, which they took from Nigeria.  Value addition is what we need to transform the economy of Africa. Malaysia now produces high quality chocolate, which they sell to the rich and they are saying they won’t need to cultivate cocoa but source raw materials elsewhere. Malaysia has been able to use money from gas to grow its agricultural sector, which is what is also expected of Nigeria.

On factors hindering industrialisation in Nigeria

There are many challenges from my experience in Nigeria. Inconsistency of macro-economic policies, lack of industrial policy, and l talk about the development state. One of the characteristics of developed economies was that they all have industrial policies. They have plans for between 20 to 30 years, which they followed consistently and persistently. They may appear to favour some sectors a times, but they do that to achieve a purpose.  They supported science and technology, skill formation, finance for at least a period of 30 years. It does not happen overnight. And even when government changes, the policies do not change, because they wanted to create wealth, jobs. Third, lack of proper financial intermediation that will support the kind of development it desires. In some instances the government of Nigeria means well, they gave out the money to the people to build their businesses, but the beneficiaries never channelled the funds to the original purpose and they divert them into other things –round-tripping.   In Korea and other places, the industrialists never sacrificed performance, when they produce a product; it meets the world standard, because quality matters to them. They produce what the market wants, and they have been able to do it consistently over the years. They managed the cost of production. People can then outsource to them to produce for them. I guess those are some factors that have limited production in Nigeria.

On what Africa needs to industrialise

I believe leaders in Africa need to be consistent. When l was here in Nigeria for years back, l worked with President Obasanjo to industrialise cassava. That should have continued after he left government by the successive leaders. By now Nigeria would have been exporting cassava products. They would have stopped importing wheat flour. They would have had school feeding programme in schools. That was our agenda. We said feed the children and develop your manpower. They should have created an internal market – they would produce alcohol that can be used to support the fuel. That is what the Brazilians did. They produced alcohol from sugarcane. We proposed all of that. You could have used cassava as the basis for transforming your agriculture. Some of the companies here wanted the initiative so that can save foreign exchange spent on importing the raw materials for the production of their goods. So lack of consistency is the problem. Secondly, the energy policy is bad. Nigeria used to charge industries more for energy and that happens in many other countries in Africa. But that did not make sense, because in many other continents, where growth is seen, they are literarily subsidising energy for production.

 If you want them to be competitive and create jobs, government needs to do that. You need again that mentality of an industrial state that is friendly to development. I want to give the Emir of Kano a credit in this area. When he became the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, he raised the alarm that the banking sector was lending more to real estate rather than the real sector, and he said there could be a bubble. He said we have to lend more to agriculture and manufacturing if we have to create wealth and he did that. That is how Brazil, Korea, Japan and some others do it. Not in Nigeria, you can’t borrow at 20 percent and you say you want to industrialise the country.  That is not possible.  

When l took Nigerian ministers to Malaysia, they still had official loans at between three and six per cent. Nigeria has the muscle to do that but it has never done it.

On gas for industrialisation

Nigeria has not capitalised on its gas deposits to industrialise its economy, and that bothers me. Cheap gas means cheap energy but they flare it. When l was leading the energy initiative for the UN, one of the last things l did was to get companies in the oil sector to sign an agreement to cut flaring by 25 per cent, and also pushed for zero flaring by 2030. What am l saying? Nigeria probably has more gas than oil. From gas it can make fertiliser and with that agriculture booms. Ah, LPG! I’m obsessed with LPG. Nigeria is losing one of the greatest opportunities in LPG. It could generate at least $5 billion dollars annually from LPG.

By flaring gas, Nigeria is killing so many lives per annum, as people get killed from air pollution and agriculture is also dying because of this same issue. Tonnes of firewood come into Lagos and Abuja daily to meet the energy needs for cooking while the LPG lay in waste. You create a new LPG industry and with that you can create so many other things. With that you will supply gas to every home. 

No home in Nigeria should be using any other source of energy than gas to cook. You should be like Europe where nobody uses the wood. Nigeria can industrialise on gas and cassava, that is my point. With her gas, Nigeria can become the energy hub for the world, but they keep flaring it.  Nigeria can be like Norway where you have more than sufficient energy. You have the sun, gas, biomass and water to your own advantage, yet you lack energy. What’s wrong with us? I asked what is wrong with us because my daughter lives here, she is married here. So, I’m your In-law, and also one of you.

On the presidential race in Sierra Leone

For 20 years, l have watched my country stay at the bottom of the developmental ladder. It is where you have one of the worst infantile mortality in the world. Six months ago, in 2017, WHO said the worst place to be a youth is Sierra Leone, because we have the highest rate of youth mortality in the world. Two months after that report from WHO, another report from FAO said Sierra Leone was one of the 300 poorest countries in the world. Everything bad is with us. I was fed up with seeing those statistics, because we are seven million, and God gave us everything. One of the largest deposits of iron-ore in the world. One of the largest and purest deposits of Titanium. Then we have the mineral for making phones and software. We have Bauxite, you name it. We have gold, diamond and a lot of agricultural land. So l was angry about that. The second most important thing was that l have seen transformation in Cambodia. I have been there personally. I have seen factories producing garments and other things that have taken them where they are. I say l can do it. For me, what drives is what can be done, the possibilities. I believe we can change it. It took some leadership to transform Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Over 70 per cent of the Ghanaian population have access to electricity. It’s one of the things they have done well and no other government has changed it.  That’s why my message is Hope, Opportunity and Transformation. I want to give the youth hope. You can’t be creative if you are depressed. I want them to believe that they can build a great Sierra Leone. In terms of opportunities, God gave us solid minerals to industrialise the country. And transformation, that is where the vision comes in. It is to bring to Sierra Leone the best practices l have seen in the world.

On the 21st Century Leader

We need leaders now that are more knowledgeable. We don’t want those that approach leadership as guess work anymore. No, this is a technocratic world, 21st century leadership means you have to understand the impact of climate change on all the sectors. It means you have to understand macro policy a little bit more. We need leaders that are different now. May be they are corporate leaders, they come into politics. May be they are technologists, that is what you see in Korea now and other places – technocratic leadership. 

This is because economies have become complex, because we live in a global world. Leaders have to go into leadership because they understand what they want to achieve from the first day in office. But now what do we have, you get into office and for one year, you are still trying to figure out what you are supposed to do. They should be result and performance based. Your minister is supposed to sit in front of you and say, these are my three targets in one year, and if they don’t do it, you change them. That is what we want to see in Nigeria. Nigeria can be our leader and pull all of us along when it is doing well. It was why I was always upset with Nigeria when l worked here. Nigerians are the most generous people that l know. And l say, if this people become an industrialised nation, they will lift all of West Africa.

To diversify the economy, push good governance, and then accountability. If you are not accountable, corruption will destroy everything. We have one of the worst kleptocratic governments in the world. I also want to invest in education big time. There is no liberator like education and health. I want to build partnership with Nigeria and Ghana, so that we have exchange of doctors because these guys are more advanced now. I’m very impressed with that. 

 They can come over, teach our people. We have distance learning opportunities with satellite to help our people improve. We will focus on energy and cost for value infrastructure. You don’t build roads that are four times costlier than they should be.