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Africa’s Mr Development

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Armed with international and government expertise, AfDB’s Akinwumi Adesina says growing food is what will help lead Africa out of poverty.

Akinwumi A. Adesina has just got off a transcontinental flight but shows no signs of jetlag whatsoever. He is immaculately dressed in a sharp suit complete with his trademark bowtie –a red one today – and is full of boundless energy. He is the man with substance, style and a sound bite for every occasion.

The 58-year-old cannot let long days or long flights rob him of the zest he needs to run a mammoth development bank in Africa.

“I am somebody who is focused in life. The only thing that gives me satisfaction is seeing people transform and not just in terms of one or two but in terms of tens of millions of people. That is what keeps me awake every day and that is what I do,” he says.

This tireless energy has led to his ascent as President of the African Development Bank (AfDB). He assumed office as the eight president of AfDB three years ago in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.

Adesina’s reputation to deliver targets despite the odds has consistently earned him the moniker of risk-taker amongst his peers.

This was so even in 2010 when he took on as Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development was asked to set targets for his term.

“I said in three years we would be able to produce for Nigeria an additional 20 million metric tons worth of food. And they said that is too high. The Minister of National Planning told the President [of Nigeria], and the President said ‘Akin, you have set such a high target, why don’t you cut it down a little bit’. I said ‘Mr. President, I was not elected, I was appointed. So if I say I can do something and I get all the support I need, then I have no reason to not achieve it and if I don’t, fire me’,” says Adesina.

By the fourth year, he produced 21 million tons of food exceeding his original target.

Akinwumi Adesina. Photo by Kelechi Amadi-Obi.

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In 2013, Adesina won the FORBES AFRICA Person of the Year award for his bold reforms in Nigeria’s agriculture sector.

When Adesina was a student, his professor at university told him he would not gain admission to the prestigious Purdue University in the United States (US) because of his inability to solve a mathematical problem. Adesina cancelled his admission to Cambridge University, where he had already been accepted for his PhD, to take his professor up on his challenge.

“I did not know what Purdue University was at the time so I researched it and it turned out that it was a world-class institution. I decided to go there instead and I came back with a distinction in my PhD. I visited my professor to prove to him that I did not fail and that was my point made.”

At the time, his wife, Grace, had also gained admission to study for her PhD but opted to stay behind and take care of the home while Adesina attained his qualification.

“I am fortunate to have a fantastic wife who grounds me very well and goes through a lot of debates with me about what to do. She is an excellent partner. She is extremely sharp so I cannot debate anything or write a policy document without discussing with her and when I was minister, for example, before I would go to the federal cabinet with any paper, I would have a debate with Grace. Everything I do is a collective effort with Grace. And every success I get today, let’s say I will give 56% of the credit to her,” says Adesina.

That support has been a key pillar in Adesina’s success. His achievements speak of years of hard work.

Poverty was not an alien concept for young Adesina who grew up with four siblings in an area with poor sanitation and inadequate facilities. His deep, abiding connection to agriculture today goes back to his roots, and his ancestors.

His father was a farmer who taught Adesina that class did not matter and the importance of education as a social leveler. Adesina knew from an early age that he wanted to do something for the greater good of society.

“I have a sense of responsibility, that God put me on earth to do something. At the end of the day, I am an instrument. And so I must use my God-given talent to ensure I am able to help others, provide hope for others and make sure we bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Nothing makes me happier than that.”

And to him, agriculture is the most powerful tool to reach that goal. According to Adesina, the African continent is spending about $35 billion on food imports alone resulting in a significant loss of jobs that could have been created had Africa been self-sufficient.

By 2030, the size of the food and agriculture business in Africa will be worth a whopping $1 trillion, he says.

“Agriculture is the coolest thing you can think about. Nobody drinks oil, but everybody eats food. So those that want to be millionaires and billionaires of Africa are going to come out of that sector. In agriculture, I believe that Africa can industrialize. Look at the Netherlands, they only have agriculture and that is one of the richest countries in the world.”

Lessons for life

Adesina earned his first-class honors bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Ife, Nigeria, in 1981. In 1988, he completed a PhD in agricultural economics at Purdue in the US, where he won an Outstanding PhD Thesis Award for his research work. He also won the Rockefeller Foundation Social Science Post-Doctoral Fellowship in 1988, which launched his international career in agricultural development.

It was at Rockefeller in New York that Adesina would learn one of the biggest lessons in his career. After joining the foundation as a young scientist, Adesina was invited to lunch by his boss on his first day of work.

“I thought we were going to a great restaurant. We got to the side of the road and he saw the guys that were selling hot dogs for $1 and he bought it. He said ‘let us go back to the office’. We went back to the office and he said ‘what would you like to drink’ and I said ‘Sprite’. And he said ‘at Rockefeller Foundation, we don’t have Sprite, we have water’. And he gave me water and that was my lunch. He shook my hands and said ‘welcome to the business of managing a dead man’s assets. Find the sharpest mind you can find in the world, give them money to do great things and then get out of their way’.”

Adesina has never forgotten that lesson. He is passionate about finding the right team and empowering them to achieve greatness. His love for agriculture also led to several innovations in the sector that would empower farmers with financial assistance through the Rockefeller Center where we worked for a decade between 1998 and 2008.

Adesina became even more purposeful about looking for a long-term fix to poverty alleviation in Africa by building a viable and scalable model to provide financial assistance to farmers. When he served as Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development from 2010 to 2015, he implemented bold policy reforms in the fertilizer sector and endorsed innovative agricultural investment programs to expand opportunities for the private sector. Here too, he took risks.

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“We launched what was an electronic wallet system designed to register farmers in Nigeria at scale. I thought to myself ‘what is the most important thing I can do for the country as a minister’ and I felt I had to put farmers at the center of it. I went after the fertilizer cabals in Nigeria and we ended the corruption that was prevalent in the industry for 40 years. It took us 90 days and we took the power of mobile phones and registered about 15 million farmers in Nigeria and we were able to reach them directly to give them seeds and fertilizers.”

Another issue he had to tackle was the issue of bankers lending to farmers.

“If I was a farmer and I walked into a bank, all the banker will see is risk. I felt European farmers were supported by banks and African bankers should have the same privileges and be supported,” says Adesina.

He set up a $350 million lending facility that was backed by the Central Bank of Nigeria, which would reduce the risk of lending to these farmers by commercial banks, resulting in about $3.5 billion of financing for farmers in Nigeria.

Agriculture for continental change

Adesina says he sees himself as an agent for change.

“It is not about me. For example, take a look at electricity; my own philosophy of development or growth is very simple. I believe if I am not ashamed of something, then I am not going to change it. If I am ashamed of something, then I will change it. The very fact that Africa doesn’t have electricity makes me ashamed and the fact that Africa is not able to feed itself makes me ashamed so it is those things that drive me,” says Adesina.

Currently, the total production of power in Africa’s largest economy is about 5,000 megawatts compared to 44,000 megawatts for South Africa. Adesina has had a singular focus on leveraging the power of agriculture to transform the continent for the past decade.

AfDB President, Akinwumi Adesina. Photo by Kelechi Amadi-Obi

Agriculture forms a significant portion of the economies of all African countries. As a sector, it can therefore contribute towards major continental priorities, such as eradicating poverty and hunger and boosting intra-Africa trade and investments, rapid industrialization and economic diversification. Adesina believes this should be the focus for Nigeria, if it is to achieve double-digit GDP growth.

“If you look at China, its ability to [take] 700 million people out of poverty was due to a faster and innovative growth rate. We must grow at double digits for a very long period of time. Secondly, we have to do a number of structural changes in the economy. Simply relying on oil is not good enough because oil prices continue to fluctuate and of course as this fluctuates, over 90% of government income is dependent on the sector, so it affects everything.”

He believes it is not only important to diversify the economy but most importantly, increase the productivity of the diversified economy. Currently, Small and Medium Scale Enterprises (SMEs) account for about 85% of the private sector and the fact that the productivity of that sector is very low is a major cause for concern for the Nigerian economy.

Are Nigerian youth lazy, banking on the notion that Nigeria is an oil-rich nation? Adesina disagrees.

“Nigerians are the most hard-working people I have ever seen in my life, they do not need too much of government help, they just need the government to supply the resources. So if you can fix the electricity problem, Nigeria’s entrepreneurial drive and capacity will work and industries will work.”

The prevailing narrative is that agriculture is everyone’s business and national independence depends on its development because it enables countries to escape the scourge of food insecurity and it provide employment for the youth. For Adesina, it is imperative to harness the power of this sector in order to achieve economic growth and development.

‘Not looking for a job’

With a distinguished career as a development economist and agricultural development expert with 25 years of international experience, in 2015, Adesina added a new milestone to his illustrious career by becoming the first Nigerian to serve as the President of AfDB against the backdrop of global and regional headwinds, including depressed commodity prices and the derailing Ebola epidemic that reduced tourism revenue for many economies in West Africa.

“When I was sworn in as president, I said to them I am not looking for a job. I said this is a mission to create prosperity for the continent, bring a lot of resources for the continent and make the continent happy,” he says.

And that is exactly what he has been doing for the past three years. Under his leadership, Adesina launched the ‘High Fives’ initiative which includes light Africa, feed Africa, industrialize Africa, integrate Africa and improve the quality of life of Africa.

“It sounds simple but the United Nations just did an analysis and concluded that if you focus on these five things, it will achieve 90% of the Sustainable Development Goals,” he says.

During his tenure so far, Adesina has restructured the AfDB as an accelerator for Africa’s Sustainable Development Goals while simultaneously leading big reforms at the bank. First on the agenda and perhaps most critical was ensuring the AfDB remains Africa’s premier development financial institution. The bank currently maintains a ‘Triple A’ rating by all four global credit rating agencies since Adesina took over as president.

This was swiftly followed by tackling the issue of declining income. In 2015, before Adesina joined the group, the bank’s income had declined to $492 million. Within a year, income grew and by 2017, it stood at $783 million.

“What really excites me is in terms of the impact we have had on people. In terms of electricity, just last year, we connected about 4.4 million people to electricity. In agriculture, we connected 8.5 million people to get access to better technology and in transport, where we invested in railway, it has helped about 14 million people. Water and sanitation are also very important and we have helped about 8.3 million people to have access to that,” says Adesina.

This has also helped transform the global perception of the bank. AfDB was rated the fourth most transparent bank in the world. His reforms have also improved employee satisfaction by moving it from a score of 82 out of 100 to fourth best company to work with in Africa (after World Bank, Chevron and Exxon Mobil) as per the 2018 Careers in Africa Employer of Choice Survey.

But what really keeps Adesina up at night is how the bank through entrepreneurship development can alleviate the issue of youth unemployment in Africa.

The biggest business in the world

“Sometimes we pass by gold all the time and see gold as dirt. And we look at agriculture like that when in fact it is the biggest business in the world. So for me I really want young people to be in agriculture as a business,” says Adesina.

Africa, the world’s youngest region, continues to be confronted with high levels of unemployment and poverty. According to data from the International Labour Organisation, in sub-Saharan Africa, the youth unemployment rate is at 12% with the African region accounting for the highest rate of working poverty – those who earn less than $2 a day.

According to the 2016 African Agriculture Status Report, the region’s rapid population growth is due to rising life expectancy and declines in death rates, particularly of children. Youth unemployment, vulnerable employment and working poverty levels in Africa are at an all-time high making youth employment an important policy priority in most countries on the continent. Consequently, there are more young people here than ever before.

Adesina believes this must be the focus of greater economic development.

Akinwumi Adesina. Photo by Kelechi Amadi-Obi.

“We have to catch people young. Look at how agriculture is projected in our movies. Every time they are depicted as poor and in villages so it conveys an impression that if you go into that area of business, you will be poor. So one of the things we have to do is to change that perception of agriculture. Some of the richest people in Europe and the USA are farmers.”

The second aspect is in the area of knowledge transfer. There are various business opportunities in the value chain of agriculture including processing, marketing, logistics, transportation and food retail. These represent big business opportunities for Africa’s youth who may not be interested in farming to still get involved in the business.

The third area Adesina believes we need to look at is technology.

“If you take a look at ecommerce today, people used to go to the market and still do but I can tell you in the very near future, most of what is called the open market will go down because people want to have different kinds of healthy food quickly. So people will be delivering food to people’s homes and they are not going to go to the markets anymore.”

Then finally comes the all-important issue of finance. One of the things Adesina did to tackle this was to set up a program, ENABLE Youth, to help youth focus on agriculture. Last year, the AfDB invested some $300 million in eight African countries to support young people to enter agriculture as a business, with a proposed roll-out to a further 30 countries on the continent.

Coming up in November is the first-ever Africa Investment Forum (AIF) in Johannesburg, South Africa, where Adesina will unveil plans of $120 billion as bankable projects for the African continent.

“It cannot be business as usual, it must be business unusual,” he had said when announcing the AIF in May.

Amongst African leaders, Adesina is a rarity with a forward-looking view of Africa.

What is the legacy he would like to leave? His answer is evocative and inspiring.

“I have always been proud as an African. I will live an African, die an African and resurrect as an African. And in the case of Nigeria, I will live a Nigerian, die a Nigerian and during the resurrection, opt to come out as a Nigerian as well with the green-white-green flag in my hand.”

A pioneer, he turned down the best international jobs to return to Africa because his heart was set on his homeland.

Adesina is the new face of investment on the continent and a man on a mission to change Africa, with style, substance, and a master plan.

Mohammed Dewji, CEO, MeTL and Africa’s youngest billionair as per FORBES.

“In his short period in office, Dr Adesina is already trailblazing. It is clear he has a demonstrated commitment to unlocking the potential of agriculture in Africa. I applaud his continued effort for creating sustainable yet innovative paths out of poverty for many of the continent’s rural inhabitants. I wish him continued success as he carries the very heavy portfolio of investing to transform Africa’s economic, agricultural and industrial sectors.”
— Mohammed Dewji, CEO, MeTL

 

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Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa

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Mastercard knows only too well that technology can drive inclusive financial growth with simpler and more efficient ways to do business and life. And Raghu Malhotra, the man spearheading this trajectory in Africa, is also focused on social progress.


In many ways, Raghu Malhotra is like the brand he works for, leaving his footprints in different parts of the world, and in some cases, the most unlikely corners.

On a scorching summer’s day in June 2016, Malhotra traveled 100km east of Jordan’s capital city Amman, to a camp with white tents named Azraq built for the refugees of the Syrian Civil War.

In the desert terrain and hot, windy conditions, people had to queue for hours on end for plates of food handed out of visiting trucks. But some of them, displaced and homeless overnight, expressed their gratitude to Malhotra, President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa (MEA).

Mastercard, a technology company that engages in the global payments industry, had distributed e-cards, as part of a global collaboration with the World Food Programme, to the refugees that they could now use to purchase food and other supplies from local shops.

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 “I spoke to the people myself and saw what their lives were… Even those who were doctors with their families and were displaced… They said to me ‘you have restored dignity to our lives; you have no idea how demeaning it is to queue up to be given food’… We actually digitized how that subsidy for food was given. Some of these things go beyond economics,” says Malhotra. 

Beyond economics.

That very simply sums up Malhotra’s mandate for Africa as well.

The New York-headquartered Mastercard, ranked No. 43 on Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Valuable Brands, with a market cap of $247 billion, which connects consumers, financial institutions, merchants, governments and business, is fostering key partnerships across the African continent to help drive inclusive economic growth.

The idea, Malhotra says, “is to get our global skill-set to operate in its most efficient form in every local economy, at the same time, we must do good, and it must be sustainable.”

He calls Africa the next bastion of growth for various industries.

“As a company, we have stated we are going to get 500 million new consumers globally. And Africa plays a big part of that whole story… We want to be an integral part of various economies here,” says the man responsible for driving Mastercard’s global strategy across 69 markets.

Raghu Malhotra President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

“It probably took us over 20 years to get the first 50 million new consumers, in my part of the world, which is the Middle East and Africa (MEA). It took us probably five years to get the next 50 million, and last year alone, we put over 50 million consumers [in the formal economy] in MEA. That is part of our whole African story, so this is just not rhetoric; we are actually building our business on that basis.”

Home to four of the world’s top five fastest-growing economies, Africa has the fastest urbanization rate in the world, the youngest population, and a rapidly expanding middle class predicted to increase business and consumer spending.

It’s a continent of opportunity for global players like Mastercard with an eye on the potential of a booming consumer base and small and medium entrepreneurs, most of whom are still not a part of the formal economy. A large proportion of Africa is still unbanked. There is enough business opportunity in offering people digital tools so they can lead respectable financial lives.

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But it is in knowing that financial inclusion is not just about technology, but more about solving bigger problems, as the World Bank says in its overview for Africa: “Achieving higher inclusive growth and reaping the benefits of a demographic dividend will require going beyond a business as usual approach to development for Africa. Going forward, it is imperative that the region undertakes the following four actions, concurrently: invest more and better in its people; leapfrog into the 21st century digital and high-tech economy; harness private finance and know-how to fill the infrastructure gap; and build resilience to fragility and conflict and climate change.”

And in order to enable financial access, Mastercard has a balanced strategy in place, with the right partnerships for inclusive growth on the continent, Malhotra tells FORBES AFRICA.

“Every emerging market has different segments of people and you need to get the right product for the right segment. What we do is a balanced growth strategy across the continent based on timing, opportunity etc… Of course, because the bottom of the pyramid is much bigger, I think what we need is to adapt things differently; that is where the inclusive growth story comes from. That is where the opportunity is, but there is a second part to it…” And that, he summarizes, is advancing sustainable growth, doing good and bringing more transparency and efficiency.

The new pragmatic dispensation of governments in Africa towards ideas, technology and innovation has surely helped open up the stage to newer segment-driven products, especially as Africa already has such global laurels as Safaricom’s mobile money transfer and micro-financing service M-Pesa that took financial access to a whole new level. Also, sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the fastest-growing mobile markets in the world.

READ MORE | Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

Malhotra says he finds African governments consistent in how they are rolling out their digital vision, and in trying to collaborate towards creating better ecosystems for their economies, though each is unique with its own dossier of problems.

“When I speak to various governments around Africa, I see a commonality of what their needs are and I also see a commonality in how they are trying to respond. So I think a lot of them realize running cash economies is a very inefficient way of doing things… Also, the consumer base is much more open to new technology because there is no bedded infrastructure or legacy infrastructure. I think where governments need to start thinking a bit more is how much do they want to do completely on their own.”

Part of this transformation on the path to financial progress is alleviating the burden of cash. Cash still accounts for most consumer payments in Africa. Mastercard, which started out as synonymous with credit cards, continues its efforts to convert consumers from cash to electronic transactions, and move beyond plastic.

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Pioneer For Women In Construction Thandi Ndlovu has died

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The cover of the August (Women’s Month) edition of Forbes Africa beautifully captures the essence of the woman I interviewed only a few weeks ago. Gracious, soft-spoken, brimming with life and energy. Dr Thandi Ndlovu impressed the entire Forbes crew on that afternoon cover shoot with her broad smile, and open yet powerful demeanor.

It is with great sadness that Forbes Africa heard of the accident that took her life on Saturday the 24 August 2019.

READ MORE |COVER: Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

She had given so much to South Africa and its people – through the apartheid years and during the 25 years of democracy, literally building a better future, first through her medical practice at Orange Farm and then through her company, Motheo Construction Group and the scholarships for tertiary education granted by her Motheo Children’s Foundation.

That sunny winter’s afternoon, I asked her if she, at the age of 65, was considering retirement, and she laughed. A lively, amiable laugh. She told me she was healthy and strong and easily worked 12 to 13 hour days.

READ MORE | WATCH | Making Of The Women’s Month Cover: Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

She loved hiking, and has climbed Kilimanjaro twice, reached the base camps of Mount Everest and Annapurna in Nepal. At the time of the interview, she was training to climb Machu Picchu, the famed ruins in Peru’s mountains.

One of her biggest passions was to make a difference in people’s lives and to motivate people to achieve the best they could. The other was to redress the racial tensions that still remained in South Africa.

Dr Thandi Ndlovu, South Africa is poorer for your passing.

-Jill De Villiers

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Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

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Thandi Ndlovu and Nonkululeko Gobodo, moulded by South Africa’s apartheid past, tore their way into male-dominated sectors , leading them boldly through a quarter century of democracy. Failure was never an option.


On a sunny winter’s afternoon in a quiet suburb of Randburg in greater Johannesburg, a second white Mercedes-Benz pulls up in the driveway of a photographic studio, and finds a shady spot to park.

Already seated next to a pool glinting blue in the sunlight, an elegant woman dressed in black and white sips green tea and talks about her early life growing up in the former Bantustan of Transkei in South Africa.

Absorbed in recounting her story, she looks up as a tall, slender woman, also in a chic black and white ensemble, walks towards her. The two women beam in recognition. They are here to be photographed by FORBES AFRICA and to share their unique stories as businesswomen in two traditionally white male-dominated sectors – auditing and construction.  

This year, South Africa celebrates 25 years of democracy. As the country started shaking off the shackles of oppression in the 1990s, both these women embarked on their paths to greatness. Both had been moulded by the harsh final years of apartheid, gaining the strength and conviction to fight for what they believed in.

In the process, they built successful businesses, changed perceptions and became role models.

And as with all stories of achievement, their journeys came with times of adversity.

Nonkululeko Gobodo. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

Nonkululeko Gobodo: The visionary in auditing

 As a young girl, Nonkululeko Gobodo had very low self-esteem. She was shy and quiet and as the middle child in a family of five children, she felt overshadowed by her very outgoing older siblings. Her mother made it clear that she thought Gobodo wasn’t “going to amount to anything”.

Yet, there were factors in her upbringing, at home and in her community, which shaped her and prepared her for a future as a captain of industry.

Her mother was very hard on her. “I’m someone who needs affirmation and she did the opposite of what I needed. Fortunately, my father was doing that, he was doing the affirmative things.”

As an educator, her father was excited when she achieved “goodish” results at school, even slaughtering a sheep in celebration.

“When my parents were running shops, I used to be the one who would help in running the shops during the holidays. And I was quite young to be given the responsibility. My mother was literally taking a holiday, and I would run the shop perfectly, no shortage or anything like that. So, in spite of the fact that she was too hard on me, she must have thought she was nurturing this talent and making me strong.”  

Growing up in the then independent Transkei (now the Eastern Cape province of South Africa), Gobodo was largely sheltered from the impact of apartheid in other parts of the country.

“I lived in this world where you were sort of cushioned from what was happening in South Africa. So you were socialized to be a fighter, to be strong. My parents used to say that we should never allow anybody to tell us there were things we cannot do,” she elucidates.

It was an everyday thing to see black people running a variety of formal businesses like hotels, garages and wholesalers.

“I suppose I was very fortunate in that I was raised by these parents who were in business, who were working very hard during those times and with very strong personalities, both of them. Within the Xhosa tribe itself, although there is patriarchy and all that, Xhosa women are very strong and they are sort of equal partners with their husbands.”

Still very young, Gobodo fell pregnant. Her parents insisted on marriage. The marriage would end several years later, after the birth of three children, when she was 34 years old.

While taking a gap year working at her father’s panel-beating shop in Mthatha (then Umtata), during her first pregnancy, Gobodo discovered her calling. While her parents thought she would be well-suited to a career in medicine, she found joy in accountancy.

The gap year also revealed her innate strength to stand up for what she believed in. For the first time, she encountered racism. White managers remained in place when her father bought the business from the Transkei Development Corporation (TDC).

“They were really so upset by these black people who had taken over this business, and they were just bullying everyone. So I was able to stand up to them and then I realized I’m actually smart, I’m actually not this thing that my mother was saying, that I’m not just smart, but I’m strong, I’m tough, I can stand up to these men during apartheid years and it was not because my father owned the shop, but it was this thing of suddenly discovering who you are for the first time and just waking up to who you are and suddenly knowing what you wanted to do. Oh wow, accountancy, I didn’t know about that,” she smiles.

She was also inspired by the fact that black auditors did the books for her father’s business. They were WL Nkuhlu & Co, owned by Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu. Her father supported her decision to study BCom and she enrolled at the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University).

Gobodo became a star performer at university and her confidence grew. After qualifying, the university offered her a junior lectureship. While there was no racism in the academic environment, it was here that she had her first taste of gender discrimination. A male colleague instructed her to do filing. She thought this was ridiculous considering her position, and she refused. He treated her as an equal from then on. 

“I made a decision to fight the system differently,” she says. “I was sure there was no system that would determine who I am and how far I can go. I used to say this mantra to myself: ‘Your opinions of me do not define me. You don’t even know who I am’. So I never allowed those things to get to me.”

Early on, she already had a vision to have her own practice, so she was not distracted by her peers complaining while doing their articles. She was determined to take advantage of the opportunity to get the best training she could get. “Those guys never became chartered accountants, so it was a wise thing not to join them,” she smiles.

In 1987, she made history when she became South Africa’s first black female chartered accountant.

Working at KPMG, she grew to rapidly build her own portfolio of challenging assignments.

“It was my driving force right through life to prove to myself and others that there was nothing I couldn’t do. And for me, being black really gave me purpose. I can imagine that if I was living in a world that was readymade for me, life would have been very boring,” she says.

She was offered a partnership eight months after her articles. She would be the first black partner, and the first woman. It was very tempting. But she remembered her vision to start her own practice and taking the partnership would be “the easy way out”. 

So she moved on to the TDC, where at the age of 29, she was promoted from internal audit manager to Chief Financial Officer within three months. Again in 1992, she decided to break “the golden chains” of the TDC to pursue her destiny. But first, she restructured her department and empowered five managers; thoroughly enjoying the work of developing leaders, and setting the tone for the business she runs now – Nkululeko Leadership Consulting.

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 At the time, her father questioned her decision to leave such a lucrative position to take the risk of starting a business. “Everybody was so scared for me and was discouraging me. I realized these people were expressing their own fears. I have no such fears. And it’s not saying I’m not fearful of the step I am taking, but I’m going into this business to succeed.”

The best way to do that was to step into the void without a safety net. So, no part-time lecturing job to distract her from her vision. “If I had listened to them, how would I have known that I could take my business this far?”

She describes herself as a natural entrepreneur. Yet, the responsibility of leading a business is not a joke.

“It sobers you up,” she says. “You realize you have to make this work, otherwise you’re going to fail a whole lot of people. But when you have the courage to pursue your dream, things sort of work out. Things fall into place.”

Eighteen months into the practice, she took on a partner and felt an “agitation for growth”. It came with a “massive job” from the Transkei Auditor General, and things changed overnight. With only four people in their office, they now needed 30 to complete the assignment and they hired second and third year students who attended night lectures at the university.

“At that time, as a black and a woman, you had to define your own image of yourself, and have the right attitude to fight for your place in the sun. And I can’t take for granted the way I was socialized and raised by my parents. My father was such a fighter. And he shared all his stories at the dinner table. He used to say in Xhosa: ‘who can stand in front of a bus?’, so you just have those pictures of yourself as a bus. Who can stand in front of me and my ambitions in life,” she laughs.

This self-confidence, belief in herself, direction, purpose and her clear vision steered her ever further.

“Unfortunately, I had a fallout with my partner Sindi Zilwa [co-founder of Nkonki Inc, a registered firm of auditors, consultants and advisors], and that was a hard one, a very difficult one. I used to say it was more difficult than my divorce, because that happened almost at the same time. First, the divorce started and a few months later, I divorced with my partner,” she says.

“It was a lonely time. It is amazing that out of hardship, we find an opportunity to grow and move to the next level.”

She went on a five -week program with Merrill Lynch in New York in 1994. On her return, she saw herself being cut out of negotiations to establish a medium-sized black accounting firm. While these plans were scuppered now, her vision still survived and no one could take that away from her.

She approached young professionals who were managers at the big accounting firms in Johannesburg to join her. “But you can imagine, they were young, they were fearful. It took about eight months to persuade and convince them.” 

Gobodo understood their fears as she herself had to overcome her doubts about moving from a small community in the Transkei to the big city. But the visit to New York had helped her overcome her fear. If she could make it there, she could make it anywhere.

Gobodo Incorporated was established in 1996. It was the third medium-sized black accounting firm.

The others were Nkonki Sizwe Ntsaluba and KMMT Brey.

She believes that providence has always sent “angels” to her at the right time in her life. Peter Moyo, a partner at Ernst & Young at the time, gave his time and invaluable experience leading to the establishment of Gobodo Incorporated. Chris Stephens, who was the former head of consulting for KPMG, facilitated bringing a fully-fledged forensics unit to the firm. They took up a whole floor at their new Parktown, Johannesburg offices instead of the planned half-floor.

From a small practice in Mthatha, Gobodo Inc. grew to a medium-sized company with 10 partners, 200 staff and three offices – in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. It was an exciting time.

Gobodo firmly believes that visions are not static. Once a summit is conquered, there will always be another one waiting for you.

The next summit beckoned her 15 years later. Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), a program launched by the South African government to redress the inequalities of apartheid, was firmly established and accounting firms were compliant, and Gobodo Inc. started losing out on opportunities as previous joint-audits done in partnership with the big accounting firms fell away.

She started talks with Victor Sekese of Sizwe Ntsaluba to merge the two medium-sized firms.

Again, people questioned the wisdom of the move. What if the market was not ready for a large black accounting firm?

There was somewhat of a culture clash when the “somewhat older, disciplined, bottom-line” Gobodo Inc. and the “younger, more creative” Sizwe Ntsaluba teams came together.  A new culture combining the best of both emerged. Ironically, while no people were lost during the merger, some were uncomfortable with the culture change and left. 

In the beginning, “a lot of sacrifices had to be made to make this thing work. Like the name. My partners were saying Nonkululeko’s name should be in front because she’s the only remaining founder,” explains Gobodo.

Sizwe Ntsaluba wanted their name up front, and it was a deal-breaker. She decided the vision was bigger than her and she wouldn’t allow anything to jeopardize it. The company name was agreed on: SizweNtsalubaGobodo. The business grew to 55 partners and over 1,000 staff. 

“I think we underestimated how hard it would be,” she says. “Mergers are difficult in themselves, around 70% of mergers fail. People were laughing at us saying ‘ah, black people, they’re going to fight amongst each other and fail’, so we were determined not to fail. Failure was not an option.”

When they did their first sole tender, “you could smell the fear in the passages. There was so much fear”. Then the call came from the chair of the audit committee of Transnet to say the board had decided to appoint SizweNtsalubaGobodo as the sole auditors.

Gobodo had led the way to the establishment of the fifth largest accounting firm in South Africa. Her vision had been realized.

“It was just so fulfilling, really so fulfilling,” says the grandmother-of-three. “So it was time to move this thing forward.”

 She was the Executive Chairperson and Sekese was the CEO. She commissioned partners to find the best governance structure for the firm. Their recommendation was for one leader to lead the firm forward, and a non-executive chair.

“That was going to be boring for me. If I was not going to be part of driving this vision forward, it was time for me to leave,” Gobodo says. “There comes a time that the founders must leave and hand over to the next generation.”

Although she had achieved her dream, it was not easy to let go. The separation took three months.

“I learned a lot about letting go at that time. We have to let go layer by layer. I had to accept that they would do what they had to with the legacy. And here they are now, having merged with Grant Thornton. The dream was to be a true international firm, and now with SNG Grant Thornton, it is still basically a black firm going into the continent. The dream does not die. This is still a black firm taking over an international brand.”

Gobodo now heads Nkululeko Leadership Consulting, a boutique, black-owned and managed leadership consulting firm. Here, she can live her passion for developing leaders. She also sits on the boards of PPC and Clicks. The future awaits her with more promise.

READ MORE : Businesses Of The Future: 20 New Wealth Creators On The African Continent

Side bar: ‘The World Is Not Kind To Strong Women Leaders’

What were the greatest challenges she faced during her career?

“Making a success of your life in the South Africa of the past. As a black person, you always started from a place of being dismissed, as a woman, you always started from a place of being dismissed. So you had to be true to yourself and find yourself for you to be able to succeed. And that was hard. I don’t want to make it as if it was easy.

“The second thing was being a strong woman leader. The world is not kind to strong women leaders. And for me, being a strong woman leader was the hardest thing because both men and women don’t accept a strong woman leader. So you have this big vision, you are driven, you have to move things forward and if you’re a strong man, you’re accepted.

“But if you’re a strong woman, you are not. So you had to grow up and mature and try to find that balance of still moving people forward to achieve your vision, because I realized early that I would not get to the finish line without them. I could not leave them behind. So I always had to find that balance and sometimes, I didn’t do it well.

“Because there was this urgency of moving forward and you have to drag people with you. And they didn’t take kindly to that. Do I regret it? No, not really. I don’t think I would have achieved what I had. I had been given these gifts as a strong woman for a reason. I just feel sorry for strong women leaders, because it is still not easy for them today.”

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