‘Exploring Uncharted Waters’: The Growth Strategist Turning Around African Trade

Published 6 months ago
By Oluwatomisin Amokeoja | With inputs from Renuka Methil
Professor Benedict Oramah2
(Source: Image Supplied)

IN OCTOBER 2023, WHEN AFREXIMBANK CELEBRATED ITS 3OTH ANNIVERSARY, IT ALSO MARKED PROF. BENEDICT O. ORAMAH’S ALMOST THREE-DECADE-OLD CAREER WITH THE BANK. AS ITS PRESIDENT SINCE 2015, HE HAS SPEARHEADED INITIATIVES TO PROMOTE, FACILITATE AND FINANCE INTRA-AFRICA AND EXTRA- AFRICA TRADE, IN THE PROCESS FOSTERING GLOBAL COLLABORATIONS, AND CEMENTING THE CONTINENT’S DEVELOPMENT FUTURE. MEET FORBES AFRICA’S 2023 PERSON OF THE YEAR.

In the heart of Anambra State in southeastern Nigeria, nestled in the Idemili South Local Government Area, lies the quiet town of Nnokwa.

“It may not be in the history books that you read, but the ancient people of my village were very adventurous. The village has made its mark and is noted for many things,” says Prof. Benedict O. Oramah in an exclusive interview with FORBES AFRICA in late October.

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The President and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) since 2015 traces his roots to this place, where the “residents once dared to harvest the moon for themselves”.

Far from Nnokwa, Oramah, a doctor of agricultural economics and professor of international trade and finance, is a testament to this “enterprising spirit’, as he engages in a 45-minute conversation over Zoom from Houston in the United States (US), where he is, in the midst of “a super hectic schedule traveling to 10 countries in two weeks”, his office tells us.

Dressed in a commanding black suit, complemented by a crisp white shirt and a green tie echoing the hues of Nigeria’s flag — a subtle nod to his roots — Oramah brings a touch of his identity to the bustling Texan metropolis. As he navigates a document, a momentary pause hints at the gravity of his responsibilities, capturing Oramah’s presence in the heart of Houston, a city known for its energy, diversity and global economic significance.

Yet, this scene unfolds far from Afreximbank’s headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, where Oramah drives Africa’s trade with the rest of the world, with total balance sheet assets growing by 8% from $27.9 billion as of December 2022 to $30.28 billion as of September 2023. This is a growth from $5 billion when Oramah assumed leadership eight years ago.

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Oramah has ventured to this US city for the second edition of the Fidelity International Trade and Creative Connect (FITCC), hosted by Nigeria’s Fidelity Bank Plc. The event transcends geographical boundaries, symbolizing the interconnectedness of international trade. Against the backdrop of this expo, a pivotal moment materializes — the signing of a $40 million pre-export finance facility, orchestrated by Afreximbank, with Fidelity Bank serving as the local administrative agent. The financial synergy converges in favor of Johnvents Industries, an exhibitor at the event, amplifying the significance of this transcontinental collaboration.

The helmsman’s career at Afreximbank is as enduring as the organization itself, navigating its trajectory for nearly three decades, after having started as the Chief Analyst in 1994, a year on from its establishment. “The bank embarked on its first strategic plan in 1995. We are on the sixth one. And these five-year plans have enabled us to ensure that we operate within the limits of our capabilities as predefined at the beginning and also bring some predictability to the work of the bank and the expectations of the key stakeholders,” Oramah tells FORBES AFRICA.

“Ever since I assumed office, we have made the promotion of intra-African trade the arrowhead of our strategy.”

This strategic focus aims to tackle head-on the challenges that Afreximbank faced, from market concentration to processing degrees. The key? Promoting greater intra-African trade, positioning the bank as a pioneer “in uncharted waters”.

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As Oramah elaborates: “You cannot promote intra-African trade without producing the goods that will go into the trade. This realization led to the birth of strategic pillars – industrialization or export development, and trade finance leadership.”

Afreximbank became not just a financial institution but a catalyst for change, reversing historical trade finance norms and innovating where others hesitated.

“The relevance of the bank has become more pronounced, so that today, we are systemic to what is going on in Africa.”

The bank’s initiatives, from operating the Pan-African Payment and Settlement System (PAPSS) to spearheading the Afreximbank African Collaborative Transit Guarantee Scheme (AATGS), showcase its commitment to revolutionizing trade.

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Oramah asserts, “We are touching development, making the countries feel that we are touching their pain points. I think that’s what has made us the most successful so far. And I think in the future, if the bank continues to operate this way to deal with the pain points of the continent, it will continue to receive support from the continent.”

This approach has garnered support with the infusion of equity into Afreximbank “from the countries”. As Oramah puts it, “Equity is critical for any bank. A bank that runs out of capital is like a car that runs out of fuel on the highway. So by having that equity, we’re assured we can go full blast on the highway.”

The bank’s ability to “double the balance sheet” for over two years reflects its financial standing, operating at a ratio below 4% – a testament to the low cost of risk.

Oramah envisions a future where Afreximbank continues to grow, emphasizing that size is a priority. “The bank will continue to grow because I don’t think we have the luxury of being a small institution. We need to be much bigger than we are today,” he states, highlighting the importance of commanding capacity and effectiveness to drive the continent-wide agenda.

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“There are few words that I can use to describe Prof. Benedict Oramah; impactful and transformational come to mind. He has truly been an impactful leader, transforming Afreximbank into a dynamic organization,” says Paschal Anyanwu, Chairman and Chief Vision Officer of Alphaden Holdings, to FORBES AFRICA.

Anyanwu’s Alphaden Energy and Oilfield Limited recently finalized a $60 million loan facility deal with Afreximbank for the construction of a 20 million standard cubic feet per day gas processing facility in Bayelsa State, Southern Nigeria.

“The establishment of a Caribbean Community (CARICOM) office in Barbados and the revival of trade relations between Africa and Russia showcase Oramah’s commitment to fostering global collaborations. His leadership reflects a harmonious blend of financial growth and a commitment to crisis response, expanding operations to support member countries during times of need. With Africa’s population expected to reach 2.5 billion by 2050, stakeholders must actively engage in sustainable solutions for trade and economies — a direction in which Afreximbank, under Oramah’s guidance, is already making significant strides,” says Napa Onwusah, a multinational tech consultant in Nigeria.


Arunma Oteh (Source: Image Supplied)

“I HAVE KNOWN DR ORAMAH FOR ALMOST 30 YEARS AND ADMIRE HIS UNPARALLELED DESIRE AND HARD WORK TO TRANSFORM AFRICA. HE HAS SUCCESSFULLY POSITIONED AFREXIMBANK TO MEET THE NEEDS OF AFRICA. HE IS A VISIONARY THAT DEEPLY UNDERSTANDS WHAT IT WOULD TAKE TO ENABLE INCLUSIVE SOCIOECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT FOR AFRICA. THROUGH ‘OUTSIDE-THE-BOX’ THINKING, HE HAS PIONEERED INITIATIVES THAT HAVE BIRTHED GAME-CHANGERS SUCH AS THE AFRICAN CONTINENTAL FREE TRADE AREA (AFCFTA), THE PAN- AFRICAN PAYMENT AND SETTLEMENT SYSTEM (PAPSS), AND THE ALIGNMENT OF AFRICA AND CARIBBEAN COUNTRIES (SIXTH REGION OF AFRICA). AFRICA, INDEED, NEEDS MORE LEADERS LIKE HIM TO UNLEASH ITS RICH POTENTIAL.

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—Arunma Oteh, Chairperson, Royal African Society

Economist Kelvin Emmanuel speaks about Oramah’s role in financing crucial projects across Africa: “Oramah’s leadership has undeniably been impactful, driving industrialization through strategic financial support. The Dangote Refinery’s success, backed by Afreximbank’s early and substantial investment, reflects the institution’s commitment to fostering development. The recent collaboration with Access Bank, providing $1.35 billion for Lagos State Government projects, including an airport in Lekki and the fourth mainland bridge, showcases the bank’s continued dedication to infrastructure development. The $473 million financing for the Cabinda Refinery in Angola underscores the bank’s vital role in promoting energy independence across the continent.”

“Prof. Benedict Oramah is a leading voice on Africa and its development challenges. I salute his contribution to our continent,” concurs MeTL Group President Mohammed Dewji, a FORBES AFRICA Person Of The Year winner in 2015.

‘A Financial Supermarket’

“My work is so engaging that I hardly have time for anything else except to run the bank,” says Oramah. “In running the bank, you do a lot of intellectual work; I have brought a lot of my learnings in making decisions and championing initiatives.”

For Oramah, the role of an academic and a development practitioner converges seamlessly, each enriching the other. His philosophy is clear — “decisions must have theoretical underpinnings”, a principle that defines Afreximbank’s approach.

“When you do something that is knee-jerk and cannot rationalize in theory, then you are going into uncharted waters and anything can happen. We subject our decisions to theoretical questions. You have to rationalize it first. If it passes that test, then nothing can go wrong,” emphasizes Oramah.

Tracing Afreximbank’s evolution, Oramah narrates the institution’s transformation into a formidable group entity comprising the impact fund subsidiary called the Fund for Export Development in Africa (FEDA), and insurance management subsidiary AfrexInsure –“making it possible for anybody who wants to buy insurance to have access to that insurance”.

“We were created for something, and that was fully captured in the charter of the bank,” Oramah explains. “We decided we will not put self-imposed limits on ourselves…”

Afreximbank’s broad mandate to promote, facilitate, and finance intra and extra-African trade became the catalyst for bold initiatives, for trade and project finance; a concept addressing diverse challenges faced by the continent.

“We have something for everyone,” declares Oramah, describing Afreximbank as ‘a financial supermarket’. “If anybody wants to do business in Africa…be it e-commerce, payments…we have it.”

From project preparation facilities to trade services, advisory and capital markets, insurance solutions, and a digital bank as a trade gateway — “international payments is the fastest-growing business of the bank in terms of revenue” – the group’s offerings resemble a comprehensive menu catering to the continent’s varied needs.

“Our strategy is hinged on intra-African trade and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) implementation,” says Oramah emphasizing the strong partnership between Afreximbank and the landmark continental agreement. The bank’s support of it has been from the initial signing to ongoing operations, going beyond financial backing.

“We have coordinating staff at the AfCFTA to make sure that the work is seamless,” he notes, underlining the practical commitment to ensure the agreement reaches its zenith.

He explains tangible initiatives that ease the complexities of the trade landscape. In a continent boasting 54 countries, each with its unique standards, the challenge is clear. Afreximbank steps in, not just harmonizing these standards but implementing them through the African Quality Assurance Center. Oramah paints a picture of harmonized standards for medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, and textiles, fostering a seamless flow of goods without compromising on quality.

“We have 42 currencies in circulation on the continent, therefore, 42 payment rails, and that’s a recipe for disaster,” notes Oramah. Afreximbank, in collaboration with the AfCFTA Secretariat and African Union, introduced the Pan-African Payment and Settlement System “integrating all the payments on one rail and backing it with $3 billion of settlement”. This system allows payments in national currencies, reducing the dependency on external currencies like the dollar or euro.

The logistics maze within Africa also gets a much-needed revamp with the $1 billion African Collaborative Transit Guarantee Scheme commencing operations in the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) region with Afreximbank as the regional guarantor, making the movement of goods across Africa’s 110 multiple borders “easier, faster, and cheaper”.

Oramah describes a scenario where goods can move seamlessly from Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, to Abidjan in Cote D’Ivoire without unnecessary stops, facilitated by a trans-regional transit port. “In combination with the PAPSS, the Transit Scheme will reduce the foreign currency cost of paying for transit bonds,” Oramah said at the third Intra-African Trade Fair 2023 (IATF2023) held from November 9-15 in Cairo.

Oramah reveals the bank’s role in organizing the trade fair and AfCFTA marketplace — “the continent’s largest gathering for trade and investment”.

“The numbers speak volumes, with the last fair in Durban in 2021 attracting 32,000 participants and closing deals worth $42 billion.” He continues: “All these and more are the kind of things you need to make the AfCFTA work for Africa. And we are proud to be partners of the African Union, AfCFTA Secretariat and others in making sure that we put these things in place.”

At IATF2023, Afreximbank recorded deals including the announcement of cooperation agreements with the Comoros National Investment Promotion Agency, the Kenya Private Sector Alliance, and the Kenya Association of Manufacturers.

The signed agreements seek to deepen collaboration through the exchange of ideas, sharing business-oriented information, facilitating trade and investment, business matchmaking, grants, training, technical assistance, capacity building, inter- institutional cooperation, and other agreed activities. The objective is to enhance the impact of Afreximbank’s TRADAR Club, a member-driven network empowering international businesses and executives to transform trade and investments in Africa through trusted trade intelligence and advisory services.

Afreximbank also announced working on the establishment of a $1 billion African Film Fund to be launched in 2024 to support the continent’s film industry. The very first film the bank financed recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and more are in the pipeline. Beyond trade, Oramah expresses commitment to addressing food security, especially passionate about his role as an agricultural economist. “Every day, somebody gets hungry in Africa, it means all of us are hungry,” he says. “So we must make sure that we minimize that, because it is the specter of hunger that people use to denigrate the continent of Africa.”

The bank’s $6 billion commitment to development financing to strengthen Africa’s food security prospects echoes this dedication. He envisions a future where Africa is not just a consumer but a producer of its own food, leveraging the continent’s abundant arable land and diverse ecological assets.

The Entrepreneurial Landscape

“The fact that we have petty traders traveling from one country to another with $5,000, $10,000 to buy goods and go back to their country is completely inefficient,” Oramah remarks, painting a vivid picture of the challenges faced by small traders in the absence of export trading companies. He outlines the inefficiencies rooted in institutional failure, conjuring images of marketwomen traversing borders, burdened by the weight of cumbersome trade practices.

In the crucible of this challenge, Afreximbank’s export development program emerged. “We decided to make it a priority… because we do not have small and medium enterprises effectively operating in export supply chains, as we have in Asia,” he explains.

The program aims to birth export-trading companies akin to those flourishing in Asia, catalysts for a manufacturing boom and champions of value-added products.

But anything transformational takes time. Oramah acknowledges the deliberate, step-by-step pace required to embed new practices. The bank focuses not only on the establishment of these companies but also on education, training, and support, ensuring a holistic approach to fostering a culture of efficient trade.

The dialogue shifts to the broader entrepreneurial landscape, where Oramah’s insights into the contemporary challenges resonate. He articulates the uncertainties that has cast shadows on the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“An entrepreneur is a risk-taker, and there was a time when the environment was very, very ripe for that, during globalization, for the people who took the risks and got results. Today’s world has so many uncertainties…

“It is a very difficult period for somebody to be an entrepreneur now unlike the past, when you could be an entrepreneur and that’s why you saw many companies flourish. That’s why we had many billionaires emerge at that time. Are we going to have the same kind of billionaires emerge in the coming years? I doubt it. I can bet we will not have it. Are we going to have many businesses fail? Yes! Not as many businesses failed in the past. And that’s why I’m saying the golden age is over… There will be entrepreneurs but we are not going to have as many as we used to.”

The question lingers in the air: had Oramah ever wanted to be an entrepreneur? He laughs in response: “We are doing things in uncharted waters. So we think of ourselves as entrepreneurs.

“We are mindful of the protection the bank has, the preferred creditors’ status, the support we are getting from our shareholders and African countries,” he shares. “Africans must take their destinies in their own hands; if we don’t do it, who will do it?”

This revelation paints Afreximbank as an entrepreneurial force, cautiously pioneering unexplored territories with an eye on safeguarding the continent’s economic future.

Oramah shares the inspiration drawn from his hometown’s resilience and adventurous ethos. “For me, the opportunity I saw at Afreximbank was a chance to use the platform of the bank to address the issues we often complain about,” he reflects. It’s a sentiment rooted in a belief that effort and determination can carve a path to success, a philosophy he inherited from his village where hard work and self-reliance were revered.

“ARE WE GOING TO HAVE THE SAME KIND OF BILLIONAIRES EMERGE IN THE COMING YEARS? I DOUBT IT. I CAN BET WE WILL NOT HAVE IT. ARE WE GOING TO HAVE MANY BUSINESSES FAIL? YES!”

“I wouldn’t spend 10 years as the helmsman of the bank, retire, and then join people complaining about the same thing. I will try to contribute my own using the platform,” Oramah asserts.

Acknowledging that complaining without action is anathema to progress, he says: “I will give it what it takes so that [when] I will go out, and if anybody complains, I will say I tried; it won’t be for want of trying.” He emphasizes his determination to leave no room for regret. As the conversation pivots to the future, Oramah shares glimpses of his personal plans. “After Afreximbank, I will rest first, I will clear my head. But one hing that comes to my mind, I will go to the university,” he reveals, hinting at a desire to contribute to education, a noble pursuit after a career dedicated to economic growth.

In the midst of a globe-trotting schedule, Oramah’s energy remains unwavering. When asked about the secret behind his relentless travel and demanding work, he offers a perspective: “Once the immediate demands of the job require you to do it, you have to find the energy.” The advice he imparts to the younger generation is equally straightforward. “If you don’t have the energy, don’t look for the job. Don’t forget that I actually applied to do the job,” he laughs. It’s a candid acknowledgment that the pursuit of impactful work demands matching commitment. “Give it your all!” says the man who has won enough awards and accolades, including more recently, Business Leader of the Year at CNBC Africa’s 11th All Africa Business Leaders Awards in South Africa.

“Prof. Oramah is one of the very few leaders from the African continent who understands the power of a united Africa and continues to champion that through his work at the bank. He is an African giant and a great champion for young people,” says Vivian Onano, Oramah’s mentee and a social entrepreneur from Kenya. “There is a mission for all of us, we say we are in a movement and that movement is not a movement of one person but of everybody,” says Oramah, paying tribute to the dedication of his colleagues around him. “I’m very pleased to be leading the team… Sometimes I’m traveling and we are working at 1AM, even odd hours, for example; like it’s just past midday in Houston now but in Cairo it’s very late. There are some people supporting this call and they have to stay awake to do that.”