The Lunch Hour – Fola Fagbule, Senior Vice President, Africa Finance Corporation
Fola Fagbule is a banker and investment professional with a particular focus on infrastructure-related projects, companies and investments in Africa. He is the Senior Vice President and Head of Financial Advisory at Africa Finance Corporation, a pan-African multilateral development institution providing pragmatic solutions to the continent’s infrastructural problems. AFC has high-quality infrastructural investments in 30 countries on the continent. At AFC, Fola oversees mergers, capital raising, acquisitions and various other forms of client advisory. He has served in various capacities in the company including as Vice President, Investments and Head, Origination. He is a non-Executive Director on the Board of Anergi Holdings Limited, a leading power company with operations in several countries in Africa. Prior to joining AFC, Fola worked at Afrinvest where he was Head of Research. He was also an analyst at Shell. He holds a Master of Business Administration degree from the Lagos Business School. His book, Formation: The Making of Nigeria from Jihad to Amalgamation, co-authored with Feyi Fawehinmi is set for an October release by Cassava Republic.
Formation was a pleasure to write because it is such an important and interesting story and Feyi [Fawehinmi] is a great person to work with. He is one of the smartest people I have ever met. It was a pleasure, really. I used to work as a writer when I was a research analyst, and I have been writing since Iwas a child.
University, Science or Arts?
I studied physics in the university. I knew as early as from when I was a teenager that I wanted to work in finance and business. But I also wanted to study something with a scientific background. I knew that my career was going to be in business and banking and finance. But I had been told that you could study almost anything and still have a career in finance. I liked physics, so I chose physics.
What was your first job after University? What lessons did you learn from it?
I worked for a company called Shell Closed Pension Fund Administrator Limited. It was a defined benefit scheme that was an in-house pension fund of Shell in Nigeria. I interned as an analyst for about three months. That was my first real job. I learnt that in a formal working environment, nobody is going to exactly tell you what to do. This was a surprise to me. I had assumed that you would come in and there would be somebody telling you what to do. But you have to figure things out for yourself even in a structured environment. Resources will be given to you: your desk, your laptop and maybe your phones alongside a job description. But it is ultimately up to you to figure out how to navigate the system to achieve your objectives. It is not as formal as many people think. In many ways, you have to be an entrepreneur even within a formal working environment. I learned that very quickly and that lesson has stayed with me throughout the rest of my career.
What was the biggest lesson you learnt at the university?
In the university, I learned that I can learn anything. If you give me a subject, resources and time, there is almost nothing I cannot learn. Physics is supposedly a very difficult discipline. I was told that it was a very difficult discipline by everyone who heard that I was going to study the course. I went to the University of Lagos. A lot of people believed Physics was where people went to die, that it was such a difficult and horrible department. In reality, I learned that if you put your mind to it and spend all your time studying and attending lectures, it is possible to learn anything. More importantly, Physics is a very structured discipline. It teaches you how to learn, how to derive things from first principle, how to go from the origin of the universe to where we are today as humanity. So, if you can learn Physics, you can learn anything.
What two things have you learned during the course of your career that are not taught on MBA programs?
I am a big supporter of people doing MBAs. I cannot speak highly enough about MBA degrees. There is very little that I have done in my career that I did not get some basic teaching on during my MBA. Maybe it is because I work in business and finance. So, that goes without saying.
But, perhaps, I did not learn certain things in detail. On the MBA program, I learned that human behavior in organizations is very important. But I did not learn that it is the most important thing. I learned that from practical experience. I learned about corporate finance on the MBA. But what I did not learn was that, again, it is about human beings and not about financial models, debt-equity ratios, valuations or financial instruments. It is about people who are trying to grow their businesses. At the end of the day, human behavior is at the heart of corporate finance. That is something you probably would not fully understand during your MBA because you are just so focused on calculations and what have you.
Also, I have come to learn the importance of Business Ethics. Of course, I was taught this. But it takes professional, real-life experience, especially working in Africa, to learn how important Ethics is to sustainable business dealings. I deal with ethical considerations almost on a daily basis. I would not have thought in business school that one of the most important skills I would have to use would be Business Ethics.
When did you leave home for good? And what major lesson did you take away from home?
I left home right after business school in 2006. The biggest lesson is that you learn a lot about yourself when you are not living under the supervision of someone else. You learn a lot about who you really are and what you really believe in. When you live at home there is a lot of external influences on your freedom. When you live alone, all of that goes away and you learn about yourself. I learned that I am a quiet, introverted person who likes to spend time at home by myself. It is a big lesson about yourself.
Who was the bigger influence on you? Was it your mum or your dad?
It would have to be my dad. I lost my mum when I was just nine years old. My dad was probably the biggest influence of any human being in my life. From him, I learned the importance of generosity in life. He was one of the most generous people I ever met. He was one of the most kind-hearted people. He was very much about allowing his children to be who they wanted to be. I think that has affected the way I think about life and people. You have to let people figure out who they are and what they want to be. You just give them the support to go in that direction. I think I got that from my father.
Congratulations on the upcoming release of your book, Formation: The Making of Nigeria from Jihad to Amalgamation, which you have co-authored alongside Feyi Fawehinmi.
Feyi and I have written a book which Cassava Republic has acquired and will publish in Nigeria in October 2020 and the rest of the world early next year.
Why did you choose to write a book on Nigerian history, rather than economy?
History is about economics itself. It is about finance and human beings and war and peace. I do not think that talking about the Nigerian economy in abstract is really useful in terms of understanding why things are the way they are. The main objective we had was to tell a story that helps people understand Nigeria better. And I do not think that it is an economics story that will help you understand Nigeria better even though a lot of the book has an economic angle. We thought that it was more important to help people understand the pre-colonial history of Nigeria and we found that the period helps you to understand the history of Nigeria and think about the future of Nigeria.
Would you say it is the toughest challenge you have ever taken on?
I would not say that. I think studying Physics at the University of Lagos is probably tougher than writing Formation, quite frankly. Formation was a pleasure to write because it is such an important and interesting story, and Feyi [Fawehinmi] is a great person to work with. He is one of the smartest people I have ever met. It was a pleasure, really. I used to work as a writer when I was a research analyst, and I have been writing since I was a child. So, writing it was a pleasure. The hardest part was doing the research but, as I said, I used to be a research analyst so I knew how to be efficient at that. History is my hobby. I have been collecting history books about Africa for nearly ten years. I have collected most of the history books on Nigeria that are in existence and I have read most of them. It was just about putting the story together and it took us six months to write the bulk of the story.
If you were to recommend two books: one on Nigerian history and another on Nigerian economy, what books would you recommend?
This is probably the most difficult question you have asked me so far because there are just so many good books about Nigerian history in particular. What we have done in Formation is to reference extensively all the sources that we used. Between us, we have probably close to a hundred books and sources for Formation. All of those books are referenced in our book; from there, you will essentially see what the best books on Nigerian history and economics are.
My two favorite books on Nigerian history and economics were not written by economists or historians. They were both written by people who were just living and experiencing and wrote about those experiences. The more recent one is called Out of Nigeria; Witness to a Giant’s Toils by JL Brandler. Mr. Brandler was a British expatriate who came to Nigeria shortly after the Second World War and lived in Nigeria for the rest of his life. He experienced a lot. A lot of the formative moments of Nigeria’s colonial and post-colonial history were captured in the book. He was a very observant writer. He was very involved in Nigeria’s economy as a businessman – he was a timber export merchant and an industrialist. It is a really good book from a practitioner. The other one is called The Making of Northern Nigeria by Charles Orr. Orr was a captain in the British armed forces that was sent to conquer Northern Nigeria. While he was on that mission, he wrote about what he was seeing and the things that were going on around him. It is a really useful first-hand account of what was happening at the point in time when Northern Nigeria was being conquered. Those are the two books I will recommend.
What book are you currently reading?
Right now, I am reading The Room Where It Happened by John Bolton. It is a book about US politics, written by the last National Security Adviser to President Donald Trump.
Who is the best boss you have ever had?
By far the best boss I have ever had is Andrew Alli, who used to be the CEO of Africa Finance Corporation [AFC] where I work. He was my first boss in AFC. I was Andrew’s Chief of Staff when I first joined. Andrew was and is a great boss just because he is a great human being. He is very often the smartest person in the room in any situation that he is in. He is also a very thoughtful, careful, well-mannered and well-organized person from whom I learn a lot about how you relate with and lead people.
Is there a teacher you particularly remember from school?
I have been fortunate to have a lot of good teachers. If I had to pick out one, it would be difficult. I would rather pick out two or three. At Lagos Business School, I was taught macroeconomics by Doyin Salami, who is now Chairman of the President’s Economic Advisory Council. He is probably the smartest Nigerian economist who is still alive and practicing. I also learned from someone who is now the Dean of the Lagos Business School, Professor Enase Okonedo. She taught us Analysis of Business Problems, one of the most important courses I have ever taken in my life. She was a really great teacher who challenged you to think. From secondary school, I will have to pick a Catholic reverend brother named Thomas Ezeaku. He was a very strict disciplinarian and philosopher who taught us many things about what to expect in life and how to always be at your best. Those three teachers are very important to me.
Do you think Nigeria can afford social protection schemes or should we just focus on growth?
As of today, Nigeria cannot afford much of most things just because of the situation we are in. But if we take a blank slate and ignore the current circumstances for a minute, I think Nigeria can afford some kind of social protection scheme. It is a false choice to say social protection versus economic growth. But if you ask me for the most important social protection schemes, I will say that we are focused too much on subsidies which many consider to be forms of social protection. I think those subsidies, especially the way they are set up, are not the appropriate way to offer social protection. This is because they put the government in the position of being a commanding actor in the economic affairs of the country and that creates a lot of inefficiency. I think that we can afford social protection but we have to choose carefully. If I were doing the choosing, most of what I would be providing social protection on would be healthcare and education [especially primary]. We can change how social protection can be delivered beyond subsidies. We can afford social protection but we need to change how it is delivered.
What do you think is the future of remote-working post-pandemic?
It is clearly the future. There is no going back. It is going to escalate how much people work remotely. Every serious business is already thinking of what the remote work environment will look like and its implication on the future of their business, I am not one of those who think this is a fad. People are going to keep working remotely for the rest of human existence.
What would you say is the most tragic economic policy in Nigeria?
That is an easy question. It is the involvement of government in businesses, specifically price-setting. You can have government involvement in business but they should not be setting prices for anything. They should certainly be regulating economic activity which is the case everywhere in the world. But they ought not to be regulating prices even if they can get away with it, and most of the time they can if they wanted to. Prices are an important signal of what is happening in the underlying economy. They are important signals of efficient movement of goods and services in any economy. If you have any instance where prices are being set arbitrarily without reference to underlying economic reality, you will have inefficient resource allocation, corruption and all kinds of economic problems which is what we are experiencing in many African countries.
Where do you like to vacation in Nigeria and abroad?
Right now, I am in Abuja. It is one of my favorite places in Nigeria. It has not always been the case but I have come to like it a lot more in recent years. This is because it gives you a glimpse of what Nigeria could be like if we focused on being better organized. A lot of money was spent on it and the outcome is something that looks like a civilized city for Nigerians to enjoy. You can see the implications on local economic growth, jobs, expansion and development generally. It is just a passing glimpse of what Nigeria can look like if we focused on being better organized, planning things and sticking to plans when we have made them. It is easily the most civilized place to live in in Nigeria.
For vacation abroad, some of my favorite places in the last few years are Cape Town, Mauritius [a very beautiful place], and Livingstone in Zambia.
What’s your favorite Nigerian brand?
I am a huge fan of Guaranty Trust Bank. I used to own quite a bit of GTB shares. I do not own any GTB shares at the moment but I like GTB as an organization that has defined itself clearly: who they are, what they stand for, how they run their business, who they intend to be in the future, how they compete, the kind of people they want and figuring out how they want to expand and grow. They have defined themselves clearly and stuck to that definition through multiple leadership changes.
What is your favorite sport?
I am a big fan of football. I support Manchester United, which is going through a very difficult time at the moment. When you are used to success, it is not easy to get used to failure. But it is happening. I am also a huge fan of boxing generally, the heavyweight category particularly over the years. I am a fan of Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer who ever lived. I also like Mike Tyson, one of the greatest heavyweights ever. These days, Anthony Joshua is bringing back some glamour to the category.
What is the best use of money ever for you?
I think that supporting other people with education is one of the best things you can ever do with money. For me, being able to support other people with school fees and watching the impact of that on them, I do not think there can be any better use of money than that. That has been my experience.
Who would you most like to holiday with?
Most of my holidays have been by myself or with whoever I am in a relationship with. I think holidays are opportunities to wind down and just relax. I cannot think of anyone I would particularly want to holiday with.
Imagine President Buhari calls you to congratulate on the release of your book and asks you what you think is the biggest historical error he should correct before leaving office, what would you recommend?
The nature of historical errors is that they are hard to correct, especially the longer you go with that historical error in place. But there is one that I would pick. It is not within President Buhari’s power to fix. If you look at the structure of the Nigerian state immediately after independence [and this is not about the number of regions], there was a lot of emphasis on local governance. That changed with military rule. The military had little understanding of governance. All they knew to do was how to fight wars and how to direct people. But governance is a much more nuanced enterprise. It is about human beings, understanding, seeing and feeling the people you are dealing with. I think we need to take governance in Nigeria back to the local government level and that has everything to do with taxes and the powers that government officials have. The most powerful officials should be at the local level. Taxes should be collected and resources controlled at the local government level. As I said, it is not something President Buhari can make happen. It has to be a national undertaking for us to understand that the best place or governance is the local government level unless there is an exceptionally good reason it cannot happen at that level.
Where do you see Nigeria in ten years?
I have no crystal ball to see where Nigeria will be in ten years. But I can tell you where I hope Nigeria will be in ten years. A lot depends on the decisions made by Nigerians themselves in elections and day-to-day citizen advocacy. It can go in many directions. My hope for Nigeria, and this is one of the reasons we wrote Formation, is for us to come to terms with who we are as a country and we know what works and what does not work. And this is not just about the elite but for the ordinary people as well to know what works and what does not work. So that when politicians come to them, they are much more empowered to make better educated decisions.
What would you say is the best development model for Nigeria to follow: India, China, Singapore or Malaysia?
There is no such thing as the best development model for Nigeria. There is something to be learned from every development model that has been proven to work in the world. None of them is exactly right for Nigeria but there are certain ideas common across them. I have talked about some of them. Take price-setting for example. You will find that irrespective of the model, prices set by actions of buyers and sellers as opposed to by fiat is a common theme among models that work. I would like us to take ideas that work from all these models of development and apply them to our own context. But, gun to my head, if I had to pick one, I would say India because it is closest to Nigeria in its complexity, diversity and size. I have been to India a few times and it looks and feels a lot like Nigeria. And they are achieving great development strides.