Sunday, 18 July 2010

Fela!: From Broadway to the Olivier Theater in London

While the West End has been home to the commercial runs of many successful Broadway musicals, the nonprofit National Theater in London announced a rare undertaking for its stages: a production of the new Broadway musical 'Fela!'. The show - A heart-pounding, energetic mash-up of African dance, singing and live music conceived by Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis, the musical chronicles the life and times of the 20th century music pioneer Fela Kuti, exploring his controversial life as artist, political activist and revolutionary musicial and the origins of his signature Afrobeat style: a blend of West African rhythms, Funk and Jazz mixed with thought-provoking political messages that challenged the corrupt Nigerian dictatorship of the 1970s.

As a British-Nigerian with a childhood in Nigeria, like most, I grew up with an intimate expsoure to Fela and his legacy. I was doubtful of the Broadway caricaturization, expecting something in the realms of the Lion King, commercialized beyond the point of recognition. My initial impressions were subsumed by the raucous of the opening scene. Fela led the crowd with his hips making his entrance through the aisles amid a human locomotive of shoulder-rolling men, identifying that pelvic motion as “nyansh,” what you hear — and feel — in the bass. The audience was blown away as the band kicked in and the 20-odd members of the cast and crew took the stage, giving themselves over to spontaneous dance. The audience was welcomed into the extravagant, decadent and rebellious world of Afrobeat legend, with “Nyansh" - Afrobeat’s foundation, over which are layered elements explained in a number called “B.I.D. (Breaking It Down),” tracing the musical education of Fela from his youth in Lagos (where highlife jazz dominated) to his student days in London (where he listened to John Coltrane and Frank Sinatra).

Mr. Kuti, who died of AIDS in 1997 at 58, was the king of Afrobeat, a musky hybrid of African rhythms and American jazz and funk, and his songs — 15, 20, 40 minutes long — have coaxed many feet to the dance floor. Defiant and irreverent in politics, he also used his music and fame to denounce corruption and ridicule those he called the world’s “vagabonds in power.” That he was repeatedly jailed and beaten for his opposition only quickened his route to becoming a modern African folk hero. The onset of the interval, a respite from the music revived my initial scepticism. I scanned the crowd now awakened, electrified by the distraction of the lights, buzzing from the scantily clad dancers, risquee scenes and taboo punch lines, but no real interest in the message which had sombered me. There were no Africans or world-music aficionados, the audience knew little about Fela and the show was doing little to educate them, neither the show nor the cast, nor the venue. It suddenly felt like the symbol of an era had been hijacked, proccessed and exported to a mass audience.

As the curtains were raised for the second Act, I began to look beyond the flailing dancers and drumer's beats, beyond the saxophone faking and yeah-yeah'ing of the crowd, the booty shaking and stereotypcially bright colours. This was not the celebration of a legacy of a remarkable and controversial man who used 'music as [his] weapon'. The audience had no notion of the symbolism of his life - a life dedicated to ideals, values and passion for common humantity, and the artistic spontaneity and fusion of Afrobeat - did not really translate at all. If anything it reinforced the steretoype that West African dance is about empty (or at best, sensual) bootyshaking rather than teaching the concept of a body flowing to the beat of a drum and at the urging of spirits and ancestors and tradition. The show ended with all the dancers literally stacking coffins on the stage to symbolize their willingness to give up lives for promises of truth and freedom - in the same vein of Dr. King and words of Malcom X and Ghandi.

The leaders of the National said in interviews that they had decided to pursue 'Fela!' after seeing the Broadway prodcution because the music and choreography of the show - about the Afrobeat star, featuring dancers in the aisles of a theater decorated like a Nigerian nightclub - was unlike anything now in London. My personal recommendation is that you see this production, if not for the story, then for the performances, vibrant music and the fact that it is a spectacle that may expand your worldview. Try not to lose sight of the fact that Fela sought to be a man of revolution. This is not The Lion King. It is a story about one man's freedom struggle, in a war that still rages on the African continent.

The London production, to be staged at the National Theatre, will begin previews on November 6, 2010 with an opening night on November 16. It will be booking initially until December 4th with an option to extend.

i-Muse Educates

Fela Kuti Wikipedia

Fela Kuti's Nigeria

Sunday, 4 July 2010

The Gulf Spill - CSR Lessons For African Leaders

The whole world of recent has been captivated by desperate attempts to control BP's leaking Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest oil spill in the U.S. history. The accident on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20 was a tragedy for the 11 men who lost their lives and created a huge anger and anxiety along the Gulf coast about its potential impact on the environment and local communities. A cataclysmic disaster on this scale calls for more than just wrist slapping, it calls for something more severe, but more interestingly it opens up the debate - were the BP spill not off the gulf of Mexico but in the Niger Delta region what would have been the response? Would British Petroleum be subjected to the same global backlash or would the victims merely be considered as collateral damage with a quick reversion to business as usual.

Ever read the Constant Gardener by le Carre? If you have, then you are probably familiar with the conspiracy theories of multinationals exploiting developing nations, especially African nations. However, these are not merely conspiracy theories - appalling cases of exploitation and human rights violation still occur. Who exactly is to blame for this atrocity? Is it the greedy powers that be at said corporations? Or is it in fact, leaders of said exploited nations? I personally believe it is the latter.

The emergence of free will journalists and human rights activists mean that corporate baddies are more likely to be called to account for their bad behaviour.  The principal risk for companies is reputation and their fundamental objective is to rake in the money. They do not necessarily practise CSR because the fat cats have had an epiphany and a re-scrambling of moral compass. However, if their reputation seems to be at risk, out comes the nun habit, rosary and the whole CSR-spiel. They cannot afford the loss of investor confidence, restricted access to capital and fines that come with a poor reputation. At the very least, these companies should be willing to accept responsibility for the environmental and social impact of their actions. Union Carbide’s chemical gas plant leak in 1984 killed at least 15,000 people and sickened half a million in the Indian city of Bhopal. 26 years on, eight men were found guilty of negligence and have been sentenced to a mere 2 years in prison. 2 years, 15,000 killed, 2 years, 500,000 taken ill, 2 years, thousands of lives/livelihood destroyed... It just doesn’t weigh up.

What is to be said for the leaders of these developing nations? What exactly are they doing while their people and resources are being exploited? For the most part, they are laughing straight to the bank. As erstwhile days when tribal leaders traded lives for a bottle of rum or a mirror, leaders of today trade their people for some stacks of numerically embossed paper. It’s pathetic and it needs to change. Corruption, venality and embezzlement are rife. Rather than invest funds in retaining the intelligent minds of indigenes, leaders would rather buy a house in the swankiest part of town.

As Nigeria is close to home for me, let’s take a closer look at her experiences with CSR and exploitation. Nigeria is the largest oil producer in Africa, and the fifth largest in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (“OPEC”). Oil makes up over 80% of government revenues and over 40% of the GDP. The Nigerian stock market is the second largest in Africa. 98% of all revenues from exports come from petroleum. Voices of protest point out that the world has overlooked the scale of the environmental impact of oil exploration in the region. Activist Ben Amunwa, of the London-based oil watch group Platform, said: "Deepwater Horizon may have exceed Exxon Valdez, but within a few years in Nigeria offshore spills from four locations dwarfed the scale of the Exxon Valdez disaster many times over. Estimates put spill volumes in the Niger delta among the worst on the planet, but they do not include the crude oil from waste water and gas flares." 

As it stands, no organization has emerged with cohesion and vigour since the martyrdom of Ken Saro-Wiwa at the vanguard of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) in the early 1990s, yet protests aimed at oil production take place on a regular basis. Some local communities remain hotbeds of sedition; protesting  the exploitation of what they see as “their” oil—though the national constitution states that all oil is owned by the federal government—without benefit to them or compensation for the damage done to their land and livelihoods. Communities demand compensation for pillaging of their land, environmental damage or employment in oil industry or development projects for their villages; they demand for a portion of the revenue derived from oil to be spent in the region in which it came, and rightly so! On some occasions there has been property damage, theft and incidences of intimidation of oil company staff. Sabotage of oil pipelines and hostage taking is on the rise, though its extent is disputed between the companies and the communities.  In my opinion, their anger is justifiable. However, many of these protests are never reported, even in the Nigerian national press - only when there is a threat to oil production are headlines guaranteed. 

Viewers apparently suffered from post-Avatar depression after watching James Cameron’s critically acclaimed blockbuster; humans felt a profound contempt for the treatment of the indigenous Na’vi tribe of Pandora, (whose land was plundered for the rare Unobtanium which could save planet Earth from its energy crisis). As human beings, isn’t it poignant that we are unable to extend these feelings to the plight of our own race? In the religion of my people, Odinani, there is a saying that lies at the foundation of the beliefs:
"Egbe bere ugo bere. Nke si ibe ya ebene gosi ya ebe o ga-ebe." 

Let the eagle perch, let the hawk perch, whichever says the other shall not perch, may it show the other where to perch. 

Simply put, live and let live. This is to say that no one has the God-given right to deny another an anchor on this earth. 

The response to the spill in the United States should serve as a stiff reminder as to how far spill management across Africa has drifted from standards across the world. They have been accepted due to the lack of laws and enforcement measures within the existing political regimes. The Gulf spill should force our Leaders to reflect on and raise the standards imposed on foreign companies operating in our backyard, in order to preserve the basic rights of our people and communities.

Shell Foundation: Backing Middle Africa

An avid spectator of the evolution of Private Equity as an asset class across the African continent, the invitation to attend the inaugural PE Africa Seminar was well received. The event was oversubscribed, the atmosphere electric. On the panel, sat the usual suspects: investment professionals from DPI, MediCapital, Clifford Chance and unexpectedly The Shell Foundation - the social investment initiative of the oil major, Royal Dutsch Shell, launched in 1997 to promote sustainable development. Not oft is Shell, the international magnate associated with social entrepreneurship especially given its sour history with the African Continent. The initial skepticism was overwhelming, merely an attempt by Shell to distract us from it's past by portraying itself as a model of corporate social responsibility. However by the end of Chris West's (Director of the Shell Foundation) presentation it was clear that this initiative had to be shared with i-Muse followers.

“The Shell Foundation and GroFin act as venture capitalists in the development space. The problem is not a shortage of entrepreneurs in Africa, it has been to give these people the necessary investment and support to help their business grow. We provide a return on investment by helping SMEs to succeed using an enterprise-based approach.” 
(Chris West, Director of The Shell Foundation)

The Challenge – The Missing Middle
In OECD countries small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and microenterprises account for over 95% of firms, 60-70% of employment, 55% of GDP and they generate the lion share of new jobs. This sector is even more crucial in developing countries, nonetheless accounts for less than 10% of GDP in Africa. The under-funding of this engine of economic growth and job creation is a key impediment, with the lack of business skills, collateral and access to finance frustrating the start-up and growth enterprises in the region. The phenomenon is now termed the ‘missing middle’.

The Solution – Sustainable Solution To The ‘Missing Middle’
Traditionally, plugging the so-called ‘missing middle’ – the gap in financing that exists between micro-finance and commercial financing because local banks see SMEs as too risky an investment - has been the domain of development agencies and charities. But these efforts have failed to generate any large scale impact. The ‘Growth Finance’ sector has thus arisen to address the challenge of finding financially viable ways to solve this market inefficiency – so that entrepreneurs can grow their businesses and create sustainable employment.

What makes growth finance different from either microfinance or private equity is that it integrates the provision of vital business skills assistance with the provision of risk capital and assesses the viability of a business, rather than its collateral or track record. This is the recipe which has enabled African SMEs to grow in a sustainable manner and generate local wealth.

The Model - GroFin Model Explained
The Shell Foundation in partnership with GroFin - a specialist business developer and financier - have pioneered a new business model specifically designed to service the Growth Finance sectors, mobilizing the largest Growth Finance Fund in the world to date, and pioneering a viable and sustainable way to plug the ‘missing middle’. The Economist journalist Matthew Bishop summarized it in the following way: ‘ … as Muhammed Yunus and Grameen bank did by turning microfinance into an asset class, the Shell (Foundation) may have kicked off a multibillion dollar investment in ending poverty.’

The GroFin Africa Fund (GAF) provides vital business skills assistance and risk capital – on a competitive investment basis – to SMEs underserved by traditional capital sources investing between $100,000 and $1 million in SMEs operating in various sectors of the African economy - from manufacturing to retail and services. The capital is attained through the use of self liquidating instruments (loan with incentive fee) sourced from a range of development banks around the world, thus providing fair risk reward pricing (equity type returns with no exit constraints).

Through the integrated provision of business development assistance and appropriate finance to viable SMEs, GroFin has established locally managed operations in South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ghana, Rwanda and Nigeria. On the ground, GroFin teams of business development and investment professionals actively work with local entrepreneurs to help them establish sustainable businesses and in so doing, realise both attractive financial returns for investors and a suite of social returns, including job creation.

GroFin’s target net returns to investors are 5 to 10% net after costs and write-offs to investors in USD terms. Performance to date is in line with modelling with gross portfolio returns between 15 and 20% in the different funds. The average IRR achieved on the first 14 exits is 25% proving wrong the belief that risk finance at this level is not commercially sustainable.

The Impact
The Foundation’s support has enabled GroFin to leverage over US$260 million to make risk finance and business development assistance available to Africa’s entrepreneurs making GroFin the biggest growth finance fund manager in Africa.
  • $17 million has been committed to 50 businesses across Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa through in-country investment teams
  • Close to 200 portfolio companies, 28% of them startups
  • Sustainability of companies is 90%+
  • Cost per job created and maintained is low - $13,000
These financed businesses create significant value in the market place.
  • Each transaction creates on average 15 new jobs
  • GroFin portfolio companies employ a total of 4112 personnel with a further 64,500 beneficiaries benefitting directly from the $52 million invested.
  • Write off rate is less than 5% significantly better than the market average and a true indication of the value of the structured finance and the ongoing business development assistance. 
  • These businesses manufacture and deliver a wide range of goods and services and are all formal businesses that contribute significantly to the local economy.
The Future – ‘Vision 2020’ Strategy
On the basis of GroFin’s record of growth, and the experience of micro finance and private equity before it, Jurie Willemse, GroFin’s chief executive, expects this to be a multi-billion dollar finance industry by 2020, aiming to have assets under management worth $300-400m by 2013 and to be a $1bn company in its own right by 2020. 

The Conclusion
Microfinance has succeeded in shifting the development debate away from aid and towards bottom-up, market-based solutions to poverty. But because microfinance mostly deals with the informal sector it will never provide the engine for economic growth or job creation that will permanently lift millions out of poverty. For this to happen, growth finance needs to be recognized as an important new asset class – potentially worth billions of dollars – and receive support from all those with a long-term interest in filling the missing middle.

It has always been my belief that market incentives are critical if not key in providing sustainable solutions to the most pressing social and global challenges modern day economy faces. Aid-based approach to development runs counter to the enterprise ethos needed for dynamic business growth. If Africa and the developing world are to be transformed it will be through economic independence not dependency, via bottom-up enterprise not top-down handouts. The GAFs are investment vehicles offering a means for commercial investors to help unleash grass-roots entrepreneurialism in Africa and promote the spirit of enterprise across the Continent. The Challenge is monumental but the solution elegant in its simplicity.

“The Africa enterprise sector represents an exceptional investment and development opportunity at this time and has illustrated resilience through the economic crises.”
(Willemse, Managing Director of GroFin)

i-Muse thanks Chris West Director of the Shell Foundation and Deputy Director Clare Woodcraft for their support and contributions.