First of all, I think the world will never be the same. However, a big lesson is that things can be done differently. For example, despite the lockdown I am still very busy, if not busier and work is going on, meetings – internal and external – are holding very actively and with good results. My job made me travel a lot before the lockdown but I am finding out now that I can still achieve a lot of things without travelling.”
Mrs. Kanayo Awani is the Managing Director, Intra-African Trade Initiative in Afreximbank. She holds a Master of Public Administration Degree (specializing in International Trade and Finance) from Harvard University (Kennedy School of Government), Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States of America. She also holds the Edward S. Mason Fellowship in Public Policy and Management at Harvard. Mrs. Awani has extensive banking experience having worked for Citigroup in Nigeria for about 17 years in various functions, the last being Vice President and Head of Industrial and Commercial Corporates. She joined the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) to pursue development finance in 2009 as Assistant Director, Trade Finance, and Branches. In her current role as Managing Director, she leads the Bank’s efforts in implementing its Intra-African trade and Industrialisation Strategies. She is also the Chairperson of the Africa Chapter of FCI, a global factoring association.
University, Science or Arts?
I studied Estate Management at the University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus. It was more by default than design and partly to satisfy my father who wanted me to study a professional course at all costs. Initially, he wanted me to study Medicine. However, my mother and I convinced him that I wasn’t cut out for that. Eventually, I made a concession and agreed to apply to study Architecture. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it into the course and settled on studying Estate Management.
What was the biggest lesson from your experience in University?
I think I learned some hard lessons just before University. While I was a top student in primary and early secondary school, I struggled a little bit in the later years of secondary school. I did badly in my final year in secondary school in key subjects. I had to repeat Class 5 at Federal Government Girls College, Calabar. This was very embarrassing for me personally because I had been perfect in my final year and it was tough dealing with the stigma of failure and becoming a classmate of those that had looked up to me for leadership. The experience taught me the value of focus and hard work. I said to myself then that never again will I have to endure such shame. This groomed me, my outlook, and my approach to future endeavours, especially as a student at University.
Your first job
By the time I graduated from University, I found myself in circumstances that demanded that I started to earn a living and contribute to the upkeep of my family. At the time, banking was the “in thing” to do and so I explored opportunities in the financial services sector. I did my youth service in Kaduna, Northern Nigeria, at the institution that morphed into the current Bank of Agriculture. This exposed me to a very multicultural environment and I enjoyed that a lot as well as the diversity of exposure that the NYSC offered.
I then came back south to Lagos. I eventually got a job at Citibank (it was then called Nigeria International Bank). The bank was such an excellent training ground for me. It was a tough environment that offered me many professional challenges and this helped me build a tenacity that has served me well up to this day. I got on the management training programme of the bank and this provided excellent exposure to the various aspects of banking as it offered the opportunity to rotate through the client-facing, middle and back office departments.
Two or three things you have learnt in your career that are not taught on MBA Programmes?
Hardwork, humility, and little things. Hardwork has always helped me implement and attain goals and successes; humility anchored in faith helps me to stay grounded, and there is value in little things and it is often important to pay attention to them.
Who was the greater influence? Mum or dad?
I think they both influenced me greatly in different ways. My father was a goal getter and encouraged a can-do attitude in me and importantly emphasized that as female, I had a voice and I should use it. My mother was empathetic and taught me a lot about sharing and caring for others as well as being inner-directed which I have found to be important in building relationships and influencing people.
What type of music do you like?
In my personal time these days, I almost exclusively consume gospel music which I find very uplifting.
Who are your favourite authors?
So what are you reading now?
None right now sadly. I feel like I am so busy these days that I struggle to make the time.
Who’s your best boss ever and why?
I have had a lot of great bosses over the years but I will say Mrs. Imo Oyewole, my first boss at Citibank is particularly dear to me because of how she helped me navigate the tough culture at the firm. She was a moderating influence. It was a very performance-driven organization, high-pressure zone, and in my early twenties, desperate to survive, she was an inspiration and encouraged me through some very tough times. She was professional but full of empathy. We have stayed in touch over the course of my career and our relationship has evolved from a boss, mentor to her simply being my older sister.
The economic impact of Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of philanthropy in Nigeria? What’s your view on helping the less fortunate?
I learned a culture of giving from my parents. The truth is that Covid-19 or not, there are a lot of gaps in our society and we all need to do our best to support the less fortunate. I imbibed that very early in life. I am personally involved in several initiatives in Nigeria and Egypt to assist those that need support.
What should be the biggest lesson for all from the Covid-19 outbreak?
First of all, I think the world will never be the same. However, a big lesson is that things can be done differently. For example, despite the lockdown, I am still very busy, if not busier and work is going on, meetings – internal and external – are holding very actively and with good results. My job made me travel a lot before the lockdown but I am finding out now that I can still achieve a lot of things without traveling. I think a new culture around work is being formed and it will be interesting to see how it impacts our professions going forward. I also do feel the need to revert to the basics, re-prioritizing with focus on the little, basic things.
On the role of business in society – what should be the focus of businesses apart from making money?
Well at Afreximbank, our mandate supports the development and the economic transformation of our member states. I think that’s what businesses should be about – have social responsibility towards sustainability However, we should never lose sight of our goal to develop Africa and alleviate its poverty. I think development and enterprise are not mutually exclusive goals.
What’s your perspective on the future of Africa, especially economically?
I think we have reached a point where there is a collective realisation that things have to change and more and more sovereigns are saying enough is enough. The relatively rapid ratification of the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement is evidence of that. It’s clear that Africa must trade more within its borders as an imperative to industrialize.
Do you think that Covid-19 will be a significant stimulus or a setback for greater industrialization across Africa?
I think it will be a stimulus and we will see evidence of that over the next year, especially for healthcare systems and their value chains.
Do you think Covid-19 will significantly change attitudes to working from home?
Yes, but I don’t think we will rule out face-to-face meetings entirely. I think that culturally, we are still built to connect physically but I certainly see major changes coming.
Two things you value the most in a candidate when hiring?
Leadership and attitude. A right attitude means being teachable and demonstrating a willingness to learn. I also think a good candidate should be team-oriented. Leadership for me includes being a self-starter and also leading without necessarily having authority.
What’s your favourite place to go in Nigeria and abroad?
I am very family oriented, so in Nigeria, it will be my village in South East Nigeria. It is rural and slow and I like it for that. The village offers a reconnection with family and friends. I love to go there with my family now and again. Abroad, I love to travel to the United States and France because this allows me to connect with my relatives, and of course offers the opportunities to shop.
Your favourite Nigerian Brand?
Nollywood. It is a story of tenacity, and survival against all odds.
Football or athletics?
Definitely, football. I am a long-suffering fan of the UK-based Arsenal FC. I also like the more successful Spanish team Barcelona. Growing up, I loved Rangers of Enugu, my father’s favourite club. We watched them as kids in Enugu.
Best use of money ever for you.
The education I got at Harvard University for my Master’s degree. It was an opportunity for self-discovery and reflection on my life purpose.
Who will you like to spend a holiday with?
Tea or coffee?
Hot chocolate, the need for sugar is often strong at work
If you found Buhari sitting next to you at a restaurant what would be your biggest policy ask?
We need to fix the economy, especially addressing the power infrastructure challenge.
What will be your top policy ask for your sector (development finance institution)?
Capitalise development finance institutions. They can do so much more to affect the economy if they had more capital.
Where do you see Nigeria in 10 years?
I am a quite optimistic person and I see a much-improved country heading toward a more diversified economy.
Do you think Nigeria should be modelled after India or China?
We need to create our model that leans on our comparative advantages but certainly, we need to industrialise, adding value to our goods and services
Thanks a lot for your time.
The Lunch Hour was conducted over zoom because of the restrictions on public gatherings due to the Covid-19 pandemic.