Each year at CDC, our Board members visit one or two of the countries where we invest. It’s usually a packed schedule, with multiple meetings and visits per day, but it means we can make the most of our time with our investee businesses and partners. This year of course things had to be a little different. Our virtual three-day ‘Board visit’ last month took us to Nigeria and Ghana, meeting businesses and partners and even taking virtual car trips together, all from our own desks.
I wanted to share a few of my reflections from the experience.
First, we discovered that virtual visits do not have to mean less detail and less insight. In total we met over 20 of our investee companies as well as partners from across government and experts based in both Nigeria and Ghana. And we found that in many ways the virtual format offered us more opportunities.
For example, we were able to bring more of our CDC colleagues into discussions in a way that just isn’t possible when meeting in person. This meant they were able to share their expertise with us to inform and deepen our discussions. Video tours, pre-prepared by our portfolio businesses, meant we met their staff and could see their work in a COVID-safe way. Having an opportunity to learn more about the history and culture of our host countries is a key part of our usual visits, and this was no different during our virtual visit, which amongst other activities even included a live dance performance from Nigeria.
Second, the meetings highlighted that it is clearer than ever that economic development across Africa, and in Nigeria in particular, will be driven by entrepreneurs. The country’s entrepreneurial class is ambitious and in many cases innovating to meet the challenges of COVID. As a Board we asked ourselves what CDC can do, in partnership with governments and private capital, to support these businesses. Not only through the uncertainty caused by the current crisis, but in a way that ensures they are well positioned to participate in and contribute to sustainable economies.
For example, our virtual experience included a visit to the offices of Interswitch, an electronic payments company headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria that we invested in, through one of our fund partners, nine years ago. We saw the results that can be achieved when entrepreneurs are encouraged with the right investment and regulatory environment. The company began in 2002 and has since broadened its product offering, services and reach across Africa.
Third, it was a timely reminder of the work we do and how much more needs to be done. The impact of COVID on the continent cannot be understated. The World Bank has warned that the economic downturn resulting from COVID will increase the number of Africans living below the international poverty line by 13 million. At CDC our COVID response focuses on three pillars – ‘preserve’, ‘strengthen’ and ‘rebuild’ – and while there is still a long road to recovery, we are already making investments under the ‘rebuild’ pillar of our response. The meetings we held with partners in government and businesses over the three days reinforced the importance of collaborating to support businesses and economies to rebuild from the pandemic with a lasting, positive impact on people’s lives.
In Ghana for example, we saw how the Government’s framing of national development within the context of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals has already catalysed targeted funding programmes to support business owners and entrepreneurs. At a time when the challenges brought about by COVID risk reversing the progress made towards the SDGs, this kind of commitment will be more important than ever.
While I was apprehensive about how a virtual Board visit would work and whether we would be able to learn as much as we have from past experiences, my concerns were misplaced. The experience gave us valuable insights from visiting our partners and colleagues and reaffirmed our commitment to CDC’s mission.