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The Return Of The Technocrat

Taiwo Otiti, who runs IBM in West Africa, is back home and sitting pretty at the helm.

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Taiwo Otiti and his twin brother had plans of settling and pursuing their careers in Canada, after completing their studies. Their father, a former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, had other plans in mind—that his sons would return to Nigeria. Otiti embraced the advice and left his brother behind: a decision he does not regret.

Otiti is now the country general manager of International Business Machines (IBM), in West Africa. He joined the technology and solutions provider in August 2010, four months before the firm’s centennial celebration. It was also the time when the firm was experiencing a decade of slow growth. The firm traces its roots to the 1880s, when a group of inventors who designed and patented breakthrough tabulating machines and punch clocks came together to form IBM. The firm’s success was accelerated by the construction of the legendary Watson Research Center. This marked the start of research labs throughout the globe that churned world-changing products in the technology space. For years IBM became synonymous with innovation. However, the emergence of venture capital backed entrepreneurs, such Bill Gates, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg, in the past two decades, overshadowed the post-World War Two success of IBM.

However, there is a dramatic shift today. Evidence is increasingly showing the dwindling growth of the venture capital-backed start-ups and the comeback of former technology giants. Scott Anthony, contributor to the Harvard Business Review, wrote, “…Apple’s inventiveness is no anomaly; it indicates a dramatic shift in the world of innovation. The revolution spurred by venture capitalists decades ago has created the conditions in which scale enables big companies to stop shackling innovation and start unleashing it.”

Because of its resources, IBM is able to embark on projects that many venture capital-backed startups cannot afford. Leveraging on past innovations, IBM strategists (or catalysts) are taking over were the blue chip start-ups have left off. IBM’s master inventor, Colin Harrison, is a pioneer strategist who recalibrated the company’s philosophy. He and fellow catalysts in the company conceptualized ‘Smarter Cities’ which is part of IBM’s ‘Smarter Planet’ initiative. The ‘Smarter Cities’ initiative saw IBM providing solutions in Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, Beijing, Dublin, Singapore and New York.

“…the company would offer infrastructure and services that will help cities save money and improve lives by managing energy, water, traffic, parking, public transit and other resources,” wrote Scott Anthony.

The Smarter Cities concept has become the hallmark of IBM. In 2011, the company invested $50 million in the three-year Smarter City Challenge, as part of its commitment to its expansion strategy in growth markets. In July, the technology and solutions provider dispatched a team of top employees from around the world to Accra, under its Corporate Citizen Corps program. The team spent a month with the Accra municipality officials consulting on making Accra a smarter city. A white paper report, based on the recommendations of the service core team for a smarter city, will be released in the first quarter of this year. Lagos and Cape Town were the only cities in Africa selected for the 2013 Smarter Cities Challenge grant.

Beyond these initiatives the firm is continuing to invest significantly in growth markets to expand capacity, develop talent and deepen its research and development.

“IBM spends just over $6 billion in R&D every year [excluding other expenditures such as marketing] and there is nobody that spends that kind of money,” says Otiti.

This investment is driven by a strong cash flow, which stood at $16.6 billion in 2011. Part of the research and development expenditure was allocated to Africa and the first IBM research lab was built in Kenya. It is expected that this lab will support the science and technology skills base in Sub-Saharan Africa. This investment is justified by the constant revenue increase from growth markets. Cumulatively, these markets have contributed 22% of IBM’s geographic revenue in 2011, up from 11% in 2000 and company is expecting a further 30% growth by 2015.

In Nigeria, Otiti has expanded IBM’s market share through the diversification of company’s brands, which include services, software, information technology system, and research except finance services.

“Today, we control 70% of the high-end servers that run all the banking hosts in Nigeria, which gives us control of 80% of the transaction volume in banks. We have basically taken out SUN. There is only one bank remaining on SUN and four are running on HP,” says the optimistic IT expert.

The firm also partnered with Bharti Airtel to provide mobile services across 18 Sub-Saharan countries. In this partnership IBM runs the IT system of which Nigeria accounts close to a third.

IBM’s success is being buttressed by the decentralized structure that embodies creative leadership.

“IBM is a matrix organization. Under me, I have the four main brands, which is hardware, system and technology group (STG), software group, global technology services (GTS), which run things like strategic outsourcing and managing services and lastly the consulting group GBS (global business services). They report to me and they also report to verticals. The strength of IBM is the cross brand placement. We can actually provide solutions across board from consultancy down to delivery,” says Otiti.

Otiti is not a newcomer to the IT industry, having plied his trade with many banks in Nigeria. When he returned to Nigeria in the mid ’80s, the banking sector was going through major transformation. Over three decades, he moved from bank to bank. He first worked in the IT department for Citi Group. During his four-year stay, he started the software development work as part of the group’s localization program. He joined Fidelity Bank for three years and later Society General for a brief period.

The highlight of his career came with his appointment at First Bank: the oldest and one of the largest banks in Nigeria. His first task was to put in place a real-time online plan to centralize the bank’s 300 branches operations.

“One of the reasons they recruited me was because I was the first to do the first online ATMs at Society General. I was thus requested to give direction on how to do their channels infrastructure, which included things such as ATMs, Point of Sales (POS) and bankcards,” says Otiti who spent almost a decade at First Bank working on various projects that forever changed the Nigerian banking sector.

The efforts of his team led to the birth of Interswitch, which has enabled organizations and individuals to access their funds across 20 banks in Nigeria and across a variety of payment channels.

In his eight-year stay at First Bank he established an ATM consortium, which licensed Master Card to use its switch, and was also part of the team that negotiated Visa’s 20% acquisition of Valucard (now Unified Payment Services Ltd) and worked with the Central Bank of Nigeria on the vision 2012 payment system. He joined Afribank in 2009 for a short period before the bank’s closure.

Otiti wants the West African region to develop into an independent region like South Africa or Egypt.

“For West Africa to be an independent region, we should be able to generate over $200 million in revenues in the next five year,” says Otiti.

Entrepreneurs

Farmer Forays: ‘Creating A New Line Of Business’

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Shola Ladoja; image supplied

Nigerian agripreneur Shola Ladoja, the founder of Simply Green, says the pandemic-induced lockdown brought with it logistic adversity, but also more local sales.  

With the marauding coronavirus disrupting lives and businesses in Nigeria, the financial stability of a majority of the country’s 200 million inhabitants has been severely affected.

The significant toll it has taken on economic activities has forced many small and medium enterprises to reimagine new ways of staying afloat. Covid-19 is also set to radically aggravate food insecurity in Africa. In spite of Nigeria’s dependence on oil, agriculture remains an important cornerstone for its economy, providing employment for millions especially in the informal sector.

The threat of starvation is so present that in a public address in May, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, urged Nigerian farmers to produce enough for the country to eat, saying that the country has “no money to import” food.

But every cloud has a silver lining. The food shortage has presented some agripreneurs in Nigeria with serendipitous opportunities.

Shola Ladoja is the founder of Simply Green, which is a farm-to-table company specializing in vegetables, fruits, juices, spices and herbs. The border lockdown has meant that many of the retail and supermarket chains can no longer import foreign produce into the country.

But this hurdle created a new opportunity for Ladoja.

“[Previously], I tried to get my juices into local stores in Nigeria but they all turned me down and most of them wanted to buy imported juices. The lockdown meant that they had to buy a local brand like mine because they could not get them from abroad anymore. We are now able to sell a lot more during this time than previous years,” says Ladoja.

On the logistics side, however, Ladoja has also felt the pinch of the pandemic like most business that require consistent movement of goods and services. The lockdown scenario prevented his workers from coming in and as a result, the company’s daily delivery of juices, has come to an abrupt stop.  

Ladoja has had to start thinking outside the box to make ends meet.

“We have come up with a fruit and vegetable box, which we sell directly on our website to our customers. So, they can now buy lettuce, kale and carrots, which we have never done before. So, this period has forced us to think about how we can expand the business and this time we actually created a new line of business, which was not in the plans for this year,” says Ladoja.

According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), even before the Covid-19 crisis, farmers had not been able to satisfy the demands of Nigeria’s population.

“I feel like the government should give out grants and loans and support for small businesses so that they don’t crash. I have friends who have complained they are going to shut down their businesses because they haven’t been paid for two months. A lot of people cannot sell their produce in Lagos because the markets are closed which is going to affect a lot of farmers at this time,” says Ladoja.

Nigeria used to import over a million tonnes of rice from Thailand annually. That number has been significantly reduced with the implementation of high import taxes. This has led to an abnormal increase in food prices in Nigeria since the onset of the coronavirus with the UN estimating the number of people facing acute food security stands to rise to 265 million globally in 2020 as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic.

Nigeria has substantially increased domestic rice production in the pandemic but is still a long way from reaching the levels needed for the country to sufficiently feed itself. Coupled with the decline in global oil prices, it is safe to say the adverse economic impact of Covid-19 on Africa’s most populous country is going to be felt for a long time to come.

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All For Grooming Future Leaders

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Katlego Thwane has had to dip into his own savings, with the Covid-19 crisis, to fund his noble cause, teaching the underprivileged in a South African township.

He is in his twenties, yet turning around the destiny of underprivileged young people around him.

Katlego Thwane, a 28-year-old born and bred in South Africa’s lively township of Soweto, is an educator and founder of the Atlegang Bana Foundation here that caters to primary school learners who struggle to keep up at school and need additional help.

“Our foundation also provides for needy learners from underprivileged backgrounds. One of my biggest campaigns at the foundation every year is to give confidence and motivation to learners for the year ahead,” says Thwane.

He has bagged numerous awards and accolades for his work, as a 2017 Young Community Shaper, 2018 Lead SA hero and featuring on live television show Big Up on SABC Mzansi in 2018.

Growing up, he was a “naughty boy”, as he describes himself, but says many are now astonished at the serious, ambitious young man he has become.

“Teaching has always been a passion of mine. I love seeing change, transformation and grooming leaders, and value their education while being innovative in taking our country forward.”

Thwane has recently established a clothing brand, BANA, under the Atlegang Bana Foundation. He is also currently handing out food parcels to the needy in his community, in partnership with Hollywoodbets.

“The virus has affected us immensely with many parents losing their jobs or taking salary cuts, we are not receiving the financial support as before. This has led to me [dipping] into my own personal pocket and [using it] to buy tutors data for teaching virtually,” says Thwane.

Most schools continue operating online because learners haven’t as yet returned to school, however, this has come with its share of setbacks.

Makosha Masedi, a parent of a Grade 4 learner, says her challenges come with network issues and understanding the tasks given to the child.

“Some of the programs that the work is loaded on to is not friendly for all devices, so submitting and retrieving becomes a problem, as also understanding some of the work,” rues Masedi.

But Thwane powers on, hoping for a better tomorrow, for himself and his country.

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The Mother-Daughter Duo Behind A New Inclusive Community Teaching Budding Professionals How To Better Engage At Work

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Mother-daughter cofounders Edith Cooper and Jordan Taylor launched Medley to help young professionals gain the skills they need to bring their most authentic selves to work. COURTESY OF MEDLEY

Edith Cooper, who spent more than 20 years as an executive at Goldman Sachs, knows what it’s like to stand out in a workplace. Being one of few people of color in a sea of white faces over the course of her career hasn’t been easy. But rather than dwell on this reality, Cooper, who now sits on the boards of Etsy and Slack, has championed her differences. That’s what helped her rise through the ranks at the bank to eventually head its human resources department, an accomplishment she says was a result of her ability to connect with people of all backgrounds.

That quality would continue to work to her advantage: As Goldman Sachs evolved, so did its staff. Diversity was reflected not only in employees’ skin colors and genders, but also in their ages and geographical origins. Cooper was awakened to the fact that if the company was going to thrive, it would need to create an environment wherein its multifaceted staff could feel comfortable embracing their differences and, in turn, learn from them. 

“If you can figure out an environment where people can thrive together, it’s powerful,” Cooper says. But it’s a process that takes time, especially if newer, more inexperienced employees aren’t equipped with the proper skills to navigate this balance between professionalism and open expression. 

That is in part what inspired Cooper’s new startup, Medley, which she launched with her daughter Jordan Taylor, a former chief of staff at Mic and Harvard Business School Baker Scholar, to provide a community in which young professionals can gain the skills they need to bring their most authentic selves to work without fear. In light of the heightened tension surrounding ongoing racial injustice that’s inevitably seeping into workplace communication, it’s an ideal time to learn this skill.

Taylor has also had her fair share of experiences being the “only one in the room,” but as an emerging leader, rather than an established executive like her mother. Graduating in the top 5% of her class and being one the first 20 Black students to be named a Baker Scholar meant she was constantly figuring out how to relate to peers in predominantly white spaces. She figured it out, but Medley is a platform she wishes had been around when she was finding her voice among people whose backgrounds were much different than hers.

Medley groups young professionals in their 20s and 30s with other like-minded members whose workplace values, concerns and priorities align. The professionals that make up these eight-person groups differ, however, in terms of gender and ethnic background, which Cooper and Taylor hope will translate to increased empathy that members can apply within their respective workplaces.

“This idea of people being able to bring their true selves to work and to be able to talk through what that looks like is at the core of what Medley is offering,” says Cooper.

In addition to full access to workshops, panels and conversations led by experts across industries, members commit to a 90-minute virtual meeting each month, facilitated by a Medley-certified coach and focused on addressing and reflecting on ongoing experiences in their personal and professional lives. Cooper credits Medley’s robust network of coaches to the guidance she gained from Merche Del Valle, former global head of coaching at Goldman Sachs and a certified lifestyle, nutrition and wellness coach.

Merging personal wellness and professional development in group discussions is a priority. “You can’t just look at your career in a vacuum,” says Taylor. “In order to meet your potential, the ability to have a more holistic approach is incredibly important.”

To ensure that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds have the ability to join the community, Medley offers a sliding scale fee ranging from $50 to $250, depending on the financial situation of prospective members. Cooper and Taylor are also in conversations with companies interested in partnering with Medley to give their staff reimbursement for membership. 

With the help of investors including Away cofounder Jen Rubio, dtx company founder and CEO Tim Armstrong and MIC cofounder and former CEO Chris Altchek, who contributed more than $1 million to the project, Medley was ready to launch in May 2020 as an in-person membership hub in New York City. Shelter-in-place mandates halted the launch, but also presented an opportunity for Medley to instead be virtual and incorporate international members. The more springing corporate workers that can benefit from the community’s aim to build the next generation of confident, communicative professionals the better, the mother-daughter team notes.

“Medley gives people an opportunity to be a better human in relation to the people they work with and quite frankly in society,” Taylor says.

Brianne Garrett, Forbes Staff, Leadership

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