Africa is the perfect place to do well and to do good. Think about it. It’s an underestimated continent with 54 countries, 1.4 billion people, a treasure chest of investment opportunities and a market valued at more than $3.1 trillion US, and an estimated 430 million empty bellies (including 100 million facing acute food insecurity and 300 million facing varying levels of food insecurity). Agriculture corporations have a tremendous opportunity to seize this challenge and win both in terms of financial success and social impact. Amandla Ooko-Ombaka fleshes this out in this conversation with Anne Pratt. Amandla is a McKinsey Partner and a Leadership Council for Harvard University Center of African Studies member. In this episode, she talks about the untapped opportunity to reach the last mile and help the poorest of the poor in Africa’s rural communities achieve food security. She shares how she helped a multinational agricultural company double revenues and target Africa’s billionaire club with increased impact. How her moral courage within McKinsey redefined some of her clients’ operating systems. Plus, her “Mandela Moment,” a moment in a cold Boston winter when she had her own Nelson Mandela Mini Long Walk to Freedom. Tune in for all of these and more!
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“Africa’s Food Glorious Food” with Amandla Ooko-Ombaka in Kenya
Agriculture Corporations Do Well and Do Good to Reach the Last Rural Mile
In this episode, joining us in the East African country of Kenya is a bold Kenyan national who has traveled to more than 50 countries on 5 continents. She has worked in more than fifteen countries in Africa, Europe, and the USA. She is a super smart McKinsey Partner, frequently interviewed in the media, and is shaping Africa’s agricultural sector, food security systems, and digital designs to transform the sector. She is a member of the Leadership Council for Harvard University Center of African Studies member—an Economist by training, a proud African, and leading initiatives to reimagine the continent.
Stay with us as we dig deeper and learn how this proud and powerful woman chose her name, what she did to help a multinational agricultural company break into Africa’s Billionaire Club, and asserted her moral courage within McKinsey to redefine the operating system of her client. We also listen to her ‘Mandela Moment,’ a moment in a cold Boston winter when she had her Nelson Mandela mini ‘Long Walk to Freedom.’ We warmly welcome Amandla Ooko-Ombaka.
Amandla, I’m super excited to be having this conversation with you. It’s wonderful to have a woman of your caliber and passion. Thank you for joining this conversation.
Thank you so much for having me, Anne. You’re far too kind in your introduction. It’s such a pleasure to be able to speak with you.
I was struck by your name, Amandla, which has great significance in South Africa, meaning ‘power.’ I wondered what the significance of that name was. They often say we act out and become the name we were given, the name we choose for ourselves. I was curious.
I always say my parents had no expectations for what I would do with my life in naming me Amandla. My father was a freedom fighter in Kenya during Kenya’s post-independent struggle to be a multi-party democracy. I was born around the time of the movie ‘Cry Freedom.’ Denzel Washington came out talking about Steve Biko’s story. There were many parallels between his struggle with apartheid and my father’s struggle for multi-party democracy in Kenya. The name resonated with my parents, but my mom told me that every time they said “Amandla” in the movie, I kicked (in her stomach). I picked my name. It’s a great story, and I’m sticking with it.
I have a feeling there’s a lot of truth in that story. You did pick your name. You’ve had a remarkable career in agricultural transformation and the use of technology in transforming that sector. You’ve also worked with governments in Africa and internationally, the private sector, and agriculture and food companies. Perhaps a great starting place would be, in your mind, what is the current space and challenge in terms of the agricultural sector not only in Africa but if you share a global perspective, where are we in the world and Africa in terms of agriculture as a sector?
That’s a big question about the state of agriculture in the world. My answer will be over-simplistic to many, but the biggest challenge in agriculture is agri-food systems because we’re talking much more about food systems. It’s not just about putting products into the ground, pounds (of beef), or the cattle we raise. It’s all about how it gets to the end consumer and how that influences our health and nutrition.
For me, the biggest confluence of factors we’re facing acutely in Africa and other places around the world is the issue of food security. There are multi-millions worldwide that go to bed hungry every night. When you think about that alongside this massive catastrophe of climate change, which is exacerbating weather patterns, it means places where you expect rain and no longer have rain or places that were relatively dry and have too much rain.
In places like Africa and many other parts of the world in India, where there’s smallholder farming, the confluence of these two factors is the biggest challenge of our time. The fact that in Africa, more than 70% of people make some living or earn some income from agriculture but cannot make a dignified living out of agriculture is a travesty of our time.In places like Africa and a lot of other parts of the world where there's smallholder farming, the confluence of the issues of food security and climate change is the biggest challenge of our time. Click To Tweet
I spend a lot of my heart, passion, and soul trying to figure out, number 1) How can we increase agricultural productivity with our land resources and current technologies, including digital technologies? We’re talking about better seeds and inputs. How do we get more food out of the ground? Number 2) How can we keep doing this for generations to come?
It’s from a sustainability point of view.
Particularly in the face of climate change, that makes that much harder.
That’s an interesting intersection. In addressing the issue of agriculture and agricultural transformation, what do you think the big transformational challenges and opportunities are?
When discussing agricultural transformation, the biggest lever to transform agriculture to make it more productive and vibrant is moving people off the farm and creating off-farm jobs supporting the agriculture ecosystem. Consider who provides farmers with seeds, fertilizer, and crop protection, and who are the transporters from the farm to retail markets? What does a retail space look like? How can we get people to design the technologies we put on farms?
That transition into high-value jobs around the agriculture value chain is what we mean by agricultural transformation. Number 1) In increasing productivity, yields across many African countries are woefully below where they can be. We have fantastic soil and climate. Farmers cannot always afford improved seeds resistant to pests, even if they are willing, which are hardier when we think about some of the droughts we discussed. Also, better use of fertilizer and crop protection. How can we get more out of what we put in the ground?
Number 2) Creating access to markets. In my experience working with smallholder farmers across several African countries, we’ve been farming since time memorial. Many farmers cannot always make the investments required to get better output because there’s no guaranteed market. My choice as a smallholder farmer is, “Do I spend money on fertilizer or school fees?” It is oftentimes for boys and not girls; that’s a different story. If those are your choices, you could see why we don’t have optimal fertilizer use. Ensuring guaranteed market access and that the markets operate and work sustainably is a second big factor driving the agricultural transformation.
The final thing is 3) I’ve focused a lot on smallholder agriculture systems, which is a reality across Africa, India, and several emerging markets. We need to increase production as a whole. Increasing production creates jobs. It’s jobs in agri-processing factories for people, retail, and online commerce. It’s jobs in exports and trade. It is also important to ensure we can still have large-scale commercial production, even if smallholder farmers and contract mechanisms feed it. It’s those three things that I would focus on.
The other thing that struck me about what you’re doing, which is valuable, is this relationship between the government and the private sector and how we build these alliances. If you think back to some of the older models, farmers historically have been incredibly subsidized by governments. What are the current challenges of this partnership between the government and the private sector?
I don’t think any progressive agriculture system in the world doesn’t subsidize farmers. The CAP subsidies you have in Europe are among the biggest subsidies for farmers anywhere. Part of the reason is the price of wheat. It’s very hard to compete in wheat because of the subsidies in Russia and the US.There is no progressive agriculture system in the world that doesn’t subsidize farmers. Click To Tweet
Subsidizing agriculture is part of the political economy of how we work. The question is, “How are we more efficient with how subsidies are deployed?” In Kenya, I spend much time working with the government here. The government in the Ministry of Agriculture doesn’t like to call them subsidies. They prefer the terminology e-incentives, their incentives for farmers to increase their production. There should be a timeframe for graduation from the e-incentive program in place.
The big question for me is how to make it more efficient. Number 1) How do you digitize the incentive system so that a farmer receives an e-voucher and can purchase whatever products they want from whichever provider they’d like to purchase and then get lots of agri-dealers into the system to try and make that work?
The role of the government there in providing efficiency in the delivery of services to farmers is quite important. A lot of the service providers, even if you think about digitizing e-incentives, are private sector. We’re moving to eWallets on your mobile phone in Kenya and many other African countries. Who is a telco provider? You would want the telco provider to be able to provide their services commercially.
There’s a bunch of data involved that we’re exchanging with the farmer registry. Data provides an interesting nexus for public-private partnerships because that data in the hands of a telecom provider is many millions, sometimes billions, if we think about the whole continent and potential consumers. It’s about finding the right government and public sector collaboration incentives.
In my experience, the companies across Africa that have been around for many years, very large companies, have done well by doing good. There’s a commercial e-incentive to operate in these spaces. Eventually, it has to make sense. To your shareholders, it has to make sense for you as a financial operator to be running your business. There’s an element of finding the right e-incentives to work together with the government and offer scale to your business. More importantly, to touch the lives of millions of Africans with affordable products and services.Very large companies have done well by doing good. Click To Tweet
In the digital space, you alluded to eWallet. Can you share how the eWallet is used within the agricultural sector? How does that become a tool for empowerment within the sector?
There are lots of different ways I’ve seen eWallets used. I’ll share an example of how it’s used here in Kenya. Number 1) The major product in this eWallet is the incentive we talk about. Ostensibly, what you end up doing is as a farmer in your eWallet, which is on your mobile phone, you see all the products and services that you have access to. The government will provide some of them—for example, the incentive.
Some will be loans you apply for from mobile or telco operators or even other financial institutions. You can see in one place all the ways you could use your eWallet and deploy funds digitally. On the back end of that, there are many places where you can use what is in your eWallet. There’ll be some authentication.
If it is for e-subsidies, for example, you’ll have a unique ID so that when you go to an agri-dealer, the agri-dealer will check your unique ID and verify that no one else has come to claim whatever it is that you’re trying to claim there. They have a record of it using your unique ID. On the back end, the government tries to collect the data to understand, “How many bags of fertilizer were purchased? Where were they purchased? Who was using them? Which farmers can you reconcile across the whole system and deploy that way?”
It’s remarkable. You’ve alluded to some of the profit sector companies that are doing best, those that do well and do good. Given that 100 million people will be acutely hungry at night, what do you think are the big strategic stroke leadership challenges facing the sector? What is it that those private sector companies can do or are doing that is helping to meet this movement?
When I think about companies in the ag sector, there are many different types of companies. Their challenges are quite different because they’re serving different customers and have different inputs. If you were to think of maybe 2 examples, it’s 1 upstream and 1 downstream. We’re talking about upstream. If I think about large fertilizer seeds or crop protection players, the biggest challenge is reducing the cost to serve farmers in the last mile across Africa. It’s different in every country, but most countries have between 70% to 90% smallholder farmers.
The price of a bag of fertilizer can increase between 30% to 50% getting from an urban center into the last mile. That makes it unaffordable for farmers to purchase and then use these inputs, which leads to all the challenges we talked about before. The biggest challenge there is how you effectively serve farmers in the last mile because there are hundreds of millions of these farmers. It is a phenomenal business opportunity if you can find a way to reach these farmers and other producers who need to add value chains. For me, that is challenge number one.
Challenge number two is dealing with the fact that Africa is massive. Fifty-four different countries all have different regulations. If you have a new product and you’re registering new crop protection, the process of getting that approved across multiple countries so you can test, tailor and customize to markets is another big challenge. Government has a significant role in trying to resolve it.
Before the scramble for Africa, we were all chopped up. Fifty percent of the borders in Africa are straight lines. We have a lot of similar agroecology. If something can work in Kenya, then parts of Tanzania and Zambia will work. Opening up the continent as we think about innovating on these products and services is a big challenge for those upstream players.
You say that’s the challenge. Is that also the opportunity?
Every challenge is an opportunity. It’s about understanding who you need to help resolve a challenge. The challenges I’m discussing require the government and private sector, development partners, and foundations to work together. These are thorny. It’s not a single person who solves it. How do you break down the opportunity? Africa is diverse. Even within Kenya, we have 7 or 8 different agroecologies.
How do you cut up this opportunity so that you can go after it, show results and then keep going? Sometimes we try to go too big too fast. I’ve seen companies do that, and then it fails like, “We can’t do this in Africa.” No, you probably started too big too fast. The second part of that opportunity is how you make it small enough to wrap your hands around it but big enough that it’s inspirational for you to keep going.Every challenge is an opportunity. The challenge is to make it small enough that you can wrap your hands around it, but big enough that it's inspirational for you to keep going. Click To Tweet
Could you share a specific example where an organization had a particular challenge? Take us back in time. What was that challenge? What was their light bulb moment? How did they pivot out of that?
I’ll share an example of seeds. It’s a multinational company that has been operating in Africa or various African countries for about 40 years. They were trying to break into the $1 billion rank of companies. There are 430 in 2018 $1 billion companies across Africa. The vast majority of them are local businesses. They’re not all multinational. This multinational was trying to bake into the $1 billion club. It’s struggling to get traction. It’s hard to serve smallholder farmers. Working with big farmers or distributors removes some of your business margins.
When we broke down the opportunity for this client, it was very clear that if you’re going to be in a place like Nigeria, Nigeria has massive untapped potential for agriculture partly because it’s a very large population. People need to get fed. The Nigerian economy has been very focused on oil for a long time. When we did the analysis, it became clear that if they wanted to double their revenues across Africa, they had to be in Nigeria in a big way. We were originally only going to help this company spend 6 weeks analyzing Nigeria and then 6 weeks moving on to other countries. We ended up spending the full twelve weeks getting very granular on what their opportunity in Nigeria looks like.
Nigeria is a massive country. There are 300 different vernacular languages spoken in Nigeria. We broke it down into a way that it was sizable and manageable with local partners, which is what you need operating in many markets, particularly markets like Nigeria, where knowing some is 60% of the challenge. We broke that opportunity down and said, “Focus on these three commodities to start with.” You have these whole portfolios of crop protection, but when we look at what is demanded by agri-dealers, we ran a bunch of surveys.
These are the 3 or 4 actual products to start with. Start in these regions of the country because we’ve mapped demand, supply, and how much people are willing to pay and partner with these three players in each of these regions. We had a very granular sense of the opportunity for them at the end of the day.
How did it turn out?
They’re still in Nigeria. They’ve doubled the number of staff they had in Nigeria. The revenues have not quite doubled yet because of COVID happened, port delays, elections, and a whole bunch of other factors which par for the course of doing business here. They’re committed to taking the long-term view in Nigeria. They will restructure their African organization to have a separate head of division for Nigeria and the rest of Africa, which is quite a big shift. Most people will do South Africa and the rest of Africa, but they’re taking a bit of a different approach in how they’re planning to structure their organization.
We start a strategy and then define the structure and then the people, which leads to the question from a leadership point of view. If you look at that client, what were the biggest leadership challenges? How did they bounce from that? How do they meet the market and the moment?
One apparent fact early on is that localizing talent is important, particularly if you’re customer-facing. It’s hard if you have a retail business. I’ll give a bit of a different example and come back. You’re selling to households soap, paper, and toothpaste. The primary purchaser of those items in the household is the female head of the household.
It’s hard if you walk into a store and you don’t see a female head of the household, see sales representatives who look like you and can empathize with you on that level of being a consumer and a woman, which is important. If you’re consumer-facing, localizing your talent and ensuring that your salesforce looks like your customers are important learning. We could also take that into this ad client I was mentioning.
The second big leadership learning is that different profiles of people are important for different roles in the organization. It seems the word pedestrian in some ways. If you need somebody to sell tomato paste or seeds, what you want is scrappy, like in the last mile somebody is going to take no for an answer, a hustle on a truck, get to the 4th customer and come back 4 times. You don’t necessarily need a college degree to do that.
I argue college degrees don’t have the level of ‘scrappiness’ required during field sales. The maturity and the perspective to say we need to recruit different profiles is an important leadership lesson. I observe the client go through and then understand who can recruit that profile of a person. The third thing then, and maybe the last one I’ll talk about, is it’s powerful to align the time the top management team spends on where you’re creating value in an organization.
I’ve seen CEOs often focused on urgent things but things that are not necessarily important to the value created in an organization. Doing a mapping of, “Here’s your organization. Here’s my top team. We’re creating value, and value might not be shareholder value.” Each organization defines that in a different way. We’re creating value in the sales part of the organization. If you’re a company like McKinsey, all your values are the people who are part of the organization.
As the CEO, you want to spend 80% of your time on people, recruiting, and retention, and then letting these amazing people you’ve recruited and retained earn the money. Taking that value approach, how the organization is structured is another important leadership lesson because then you make some difficult calls about whom you need to stay in the organization. As you’re going through a growth phase, it’s who may not be fit for growth even if they were the best person to have on your team as you were starting up an organization, business unit, or a new product.
As you’re talking, it reminds me of quite a lot of the work we did when I was still running one of the top search firms in South Africa and Africa. We did a lot of work with companies like MTN across the continent. A lot of what you’re saying makes absolute sense in terms of, on the one hand, how do we open up these borders and remove some of these barriers, but on the other hand, how do we localize in terms of having the right types of leaders and people on the ground who can connect the local markets? That’s a step back if you look at some of the big issues in the world. What are three big strategic challenges in the world that keep you awake at night and concerned about where the world is going? What do leaders have to do to look at the moment in the world?
The biggest thing to me is income inequality, which only grows and exacerbates due to COVID. It breaks my heart that the world has chosen to deal with this issue of vaccinations very differently than what’s going to cause or what is already causing massive social unrest everywhere in the world. This is not an African thing. It’s obscene that people can spend $200 billion or $300 billion, and then you have 100 million people going to bed every night acutely hungry.
To me, that is a massive challenge that we need to address. Different models are going to work for different countries. I don’t profess to say we all take the same redistribution of income model. We all need to figure out every people who live within our borders because there are a ton of refugees around the world who’ve been displaced not because of any choice of theirs. It could be you or me, the circumstance of our country at that time.
Every single human being living within our borders can have a dignified living. It is challenge number one. Challenge number two for me, which will only worsen inequality, is when I think about this digital wave we’re going through, and maybe we’re on the fourth industrial revolution wave. Maybe there is a fifth. It’s so important to make sure that everybody has access to technology.
It will only widen the inequality gap and add a massive gap in knowledge and access to knowledge. With so much knowledge available and effectively democratized, people who do not have access to the internet and mobile connectivity are another big challenge in bringing down the cost of devices and data. For me, it is maybe the third big challenge.
Having gone through COVID, the rise of social media, and the fact that we’re still in civil wars across so many parts of the world, we have a mental health crisis on our hands. When I talk to people at every social strata level, we do not care for our mental health. That’s scary in terms of the level of suicide rates we have in schools, people in high school and elementary school for the shootings in America, and there’s the whole world.
We all need to care for our hearts, souls, and minds. It’s not a bastion of the elite. To do this, everyone needs to be able to wake up and go to bed every night with some level of peace and knowledge that they’re part of a larger community that can help them. That third one is another big thing we must watch out for each other.Every single person needs to be able to wake up and go to bed every single night with some level of peace, knowing that they're part of a larger community that can help them. Click To Tweet
It’s quite daunting to get boss raises their thoughts about how we are approaching these problems in the world and the systems that we have. It’s calling us all out for a rethink and to approach us in a very different way. Coming back to more of a personal side, is there a particular moment in time that you can take us back? You’ve described yourself as an economist with a public sector heart and a private sector head. That’s a wonderful blend. Is there a personal moment in your life where you were dealing with a very particular challenge that was difficult at the time? What was that moment? When did you discover a different way? How did you manage to shift out of that?
Every day, there are challenges. On the personal and professional side, being a manager and managing people for the first time is always challenging because one is my insecurities about being able to lead troops. Sometimes that’s what it feels like when we go to work every day and battle with our laptops. I was added a transition period in my career.
Part of what I’ve always prided myself on as an individual and why I chose to work at McKinsey, a values-based organization, is the ability to dissent and bring an independent perspective to every situation. It doesn’t matter if that perspective is wrong, but we owe it to each other to battle it out, put different perspectives on the table, and make big decisions.
On this particular project, I was working with an agro-processor. I’m in a tough situation. It’s a private equity-owned firm. They operate the business. There are always a lot of situations and leadership. In this particular situation, I felt like I was being asked to parrot information that this is what the business reports look like. I had run my analysis and came to different conclusions, which didn’t sit right with me.
I remember it Saturday morning when the team had worked 7 days a week for 2 weeks straight. I sat there, and I wanted to rewrite the whole board meeting presentation because it was at a place where I didn’t feel honest with the reality of what we were seeing in the data. Honestly, we will not do a service to our client by not bringing this independent perspective. They might be a manager now. They’re all going to regret bringing this up, but I had to speak up and say, “We’re going to go into a meeting with two different perspectives. This is the perspective of my team and the management. Let’s debate in the board meeting because if we don’t reveal some of these truths that we’re seeing in the data and from our observations, then I’m doing everybody a disservice.”
That was a big reminder to me that being a consultant is a lot of the value of having the privilege of having been to many amazing institutions where you’re taught to speak up and have a voice; it’s important in those moments. When things don’t sit right with me, I will always speak up and risk potentially losing my job, money, and friends. It’s still so important for the truth to be stated.
Tell us what happened. What was your light bulb moment when you asked to challenge what was being presented and go to the board meeting with two different perspectives? What did you do? What was the outcome? How did you figure out that?
I sat there at 8:00 AM on a Saturday and thought, “I can’t stand behind this. I can’t make the whole team work another weekend for an answer I don’t believe in and a fact-based that supports that.” It’s important to listen to your intuition, and I listen to my intuition a lot, but it’s further cemented when there’s evidence or a fact-based behind it. That was the light bulb moment for me.
It was a great board meeting. It meant the team did have to work from two different perspectives. Going into that week, it was much more work for us, where they had a healthy and productive conversation with the board that valued the independent perspective. It was a watershed moment for our operating model because it became clear that bringing this independent perspective was necessary. It was the bar as we advanced. By the end of the project, we had to come together to a consolidated answer, but it changed the course of how we operated the project from then out.
What was that change in terms of the operating model?
Number one, if there were a different perspective between ourselves and the management team, we would always bring the two perspectives to the table. The goal is not to pre-align these super perspectives but to go and have a healthy debate about the pros and cons of the different options, what the evidence was suggesting, and, therefore, what the implications were.
Number two required us to work much more tightly together on understanding the data because then we had the same baseline and came to different conclusions, so that’s a difference of perspective. It’s not a difference in the fact base, but if we have different fact bases, then that’s a different fact base, and then you have to go back and do some of that work again a bit differently. We had more interactions with the board. Getting that perspective in early was an important part of making the decisions faster so we get more work done.
When you talk about the board meeting, are you talking about the internal board meeting before you went to the client, or was this the client board meeting?
No, this is the board meeting with the client.
You also had to sell that to your internal bosses.
No, it was not a very hard sell. If we’re all clear, it is more work, but if we all understand why we’re doing it and we all believe in the value of bringing an independent perspective, it was a fairly easy internal conversation.
From a canned perspective, what was their response?
There is a lot of gratitude for opening up this space to bring up dissenting opinions. When you do things a certain way for a long period, it’s always hard to be the person that says, “Why are we doing this?” It opened up a lot of space for people to bring competing perspectives; even by the end of the project, we needed to come to a plan of action, which can’t go in two different directions. That initial reaction is one gradual opening up of that space but a bit more of inward reflection. It is hard working in client service when people come in and say, “Let’s dig into your data and look at all your ugly.”
With a microscope with all of our Excel, intelligence, and all of that, that can be quite intimidating in some ways. There’s a recognition that a bunch of reflection must be done. We must build our personal relationships to be in those spaces together and clarify that it’s not about attacking any individual’s way of working. It is about figuring out how to help the whole organization function at a level they have the potential and capacity to.
You’ve touched on an important point because it’s often not about what people do but how they do it. Apart from the relationship holdings, were there any other takeaways from that regarding how you got this dissenting message across so the client could hear it, embrace it, and be grateful?
It’s always helpful in a new environment to spend the first couple of weeks listening and then understanding and observing how an organization works. As a consultant, a new person in an organization, or a new team, this is not unique to consultants alone. Speaking the language of your teammates and the team is not just about the words on the page. It’s about whom you talk to in the organization first.
If this person hears about it from Jim or Jane, it makes a difference in how the message is received. Learning all the way is how an organization works. We have to do that. We must understand the person and the power of the CEO’s calendars as their assistant. Making sure that you understand those power dynamics. You treat everybody with respect but be extra nice because that’s how things get scheduled.
People are complex, depending on how much we work. From our age to twelve hours of life, we lived outside work where we were awake and alert. Creating opportunities to get to know people makes it easier to work with and understand their motivations and what this job or role means to them. It’s not that everyone’s work is everything. Certain people are going through a certain phase of their life, or work is 10% of what they’re doing. Understanding that allows you to set expectations well and avoid disappointment on all sides.Creating opportunities to get to know people makes it easier to work with people. Click To Tweet
Shifting gears a little, moving to a leader we both know and respect, Nelson Mandela. Is there a particular moment in your life when he struck a chord with you? Could you take us back in time?
I was at Harvard when Mandela passed away. I was in my first year at HBS (Harvard Business School). I remember feeling a profound sense of sadness. I had not known Mandela personally in any way, shape, or form. I had this incredible name and had read Long Walk to Freedom, as everybody should. There was such a profound sense of sadness because, to me, particularly later on in his life, the concept of what it means to be a statesperson, a statesman, or a woman is something that Mandela embodied in all my engagements on video and books. It’s a real understanding that you need to connect with a human being to make any level of progress because that’s what policy is about, making policy for human beings.
When I interact with high-level officials at dialogues, sometimes we’ve lost that sense of connecting with the individual human, their problem, and what their challenge means to them. Nelson Mandela exemplified that. The profound sense of sadness I felt when he passed away was exactly that. It’s like we’ve lost one role model most people could point to and say that he exemplified that. People will disagree with many things about Nelson Mandela, his personal life, and the cost of being a statesman for South Africa and Africa. Also, the personal cost to his family and family relationships. We’re all complex human beings. That moment when he passed, that sense of sadness was very much around me.
I organized a symbolic ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ from the Harvard Business School to Harvard Kennedy School and organized several speeches from people. I organized this with a fellow South African, a former McKinsey woman, Maria Makhabane. We put the call out, and easily 100 people wanted to share tributes and what Mandela had meant to them. The first international award Mandela received was at the Kennedy School, the Gleistman Fellowship Award.
It felt an amazing way to come full circle and have all these people feel the same way I felt. That’s probably the most profound moment in my experience of Mandela I remember in history happening outside of me, having met him in any capacity as a person. I felt that very strongly. From the Kennedy School, we lit the candles school and walked over to the business school. In Spangler (building at Harvard Business School), we held an event where people spoke and shared words. We lit the candles. It was 1.5 to maybe 2 hours all in. It was amazing to show solidarity not just in the Harvard communities but with people from all across Boston who came to participate. It was incredible.
In terms of diversity, I’m curious about the kind of diversity. Was it intergenerational?
Intergenerational, multiracial, and multidisciplinary. People like Tim McCarthy, who’d met Mandela, spoke about his experience living in South Africa. Other people never met Mandela but heard about him from their parents, women, men, and people of all shapes and sizes. It was winter around November. It was all bundled up, but people still came out. Mandela touched a lot of people, a lot of people’s lives.
I hadn’t heard that before. That’s a wonderful example of the mini tributes paid worldwide. You spoke about Mandela’s connection with human beings and meeting people where they are. In your mind, do you think Mandela’s leadership is still relevant? If so, in what way?
As long as we’re human, that will still be relevant. I hope we’re not replaced anytime soon. We have to start with humans. We have to start with a person whom we’re doing things for. We then have to layer several things on top of it. We’re all unique and special individuals. Scale is important as a business creates products. As policymakers, scale is also important. We must figure out, “When you add all the humans and make a policy, how do you still ensure that it’s relevant and important to an individual?” There’s an incredible book called Invisible Women. The author goes into excruciating detail about when you add up the average when car companies make cars for a man (not a woman).
Airbags are unsafe for women because the airbag will hit you in all sorts of places, damaging your internal organs. You must ask yourself, “When you add everything back up, does it still make sense to the human, and is the individual at the center of it all?” That will be relevant as long as we are human in how we interact with people, particularly as we get more remote in our engagements.
In part because COVID has accelerated work from home and remote working, which for people who can afford to do that and jobs that are structured that way, it is an amazing thing, with a lot of flexibility. That becomes even more important when you can’t, as a CEO, stand in a town hall, and you can’t see all 300 people in your organization if we call it that. We need to keep this level of human connection.
You are spoken about as this person with a public sector heart and a private sector head. What is the challenge and role for private sector leaders to become what Mandela once said, “A good head and a good heart are formidable combinations?” What is the challenge for private sector leaders in bringing head and heart together?
The longest 16 inches to walk is between your head and heart. Whenever I feel the tension between what my heart and mind are saying, I always remember that quote. Many private sector leaders operate in the environment, particularly when considering public markets. Any companies that are listed on public stock exchanges are earning cycles quarterly. Change takes time. If you’re being held to a quarterly accountability standard, the average tenure of a Fortune 500 CEO was five years. If you’re always dealing in quarters and your timeline is less than five years, the incentives for private sector leaders are very much to focus on short-term economic gain as the system is structured.The longest 16 inches to walk is between your head and your heart. Click To Tweet
It’s about realigning those incentives to be much more long-term focused. Delivering shareholder value along the way, people love to make money. This is how business is operated. Unfortunately, there’s capitalism, which is a capitalist society we live in. How can you make sure that there’s shared value being created? When you think about the role of business in driving societal change, it’s critical to me.
When we think about who’s doing the employment, many private sector companies do it. We should care about the schools that are in our communities because the schools that are in our communities are creating the future employees of a company. It makes sense for companies to be invested in the quality of education in their communities.
We all have to drink water, so companies should care about dumping waste into sources of water that go into people’s taps to drink or go into their water for sanitation. To extend this human analogy, corporations and companies serve humans. It’s about ensuring private sector companies focus on longer-term goals and missions. A lot of that comes with partnerships because if you’re working with the government, many of these things will take time, and that partnership will require a bit of a longer-term orientation.
For private sector leaders, this is the hardest thing to reverse. When we’re at a place where the top house of an organization can earn an income of around 300 to 400 times more than the employee on the front line, that can’t work. That’s not a sustainable operating model. Private sector CEOs need to consider the level of inequality created in their companies around pay and value in the organization because that’s problematic. I’m happy to get into it for all reasons, but there’s no way that the CEO is 300 times smarter or works 300 times harder than the frontline worker who gets up at 3:00 AM to make it to work on time.
The economist’s perspective would be this is about supply and demand. If there’s a certain supply and demand, it’s the price tag that good CEOs are commanding. Isn’t that a market force? Shouldn’t there be other policies to reshape that balance? Shouldn’t there be a different policy? I’m interested to know your perspective on this.
It is late at night. My brain is not quite clicking in all the ways it normally does. Michael Sandel at Harvard talks about the moral limits of markets. I don’t think a market mechanism can solve everything. Demand and Supply clearing at a certain price might mean that the market should not be demand- and supplier-based. I always return to the two examples in this book: “We are very okay cutting in line at an amusement park. We’ll pay lots of money to be on the fast track.” That’s a place where you say there is demand for this. “I’m going to hype the prices of your fast pass entry and then help resolve the supply issue on this.” We have incredible problems doing that with organ donation.
I do morally. It’s the same principle. You’re saying there’s much more demand for the organ, and there is supply. However, you can get to the front of the line and make it happen. No, it doesn’t. I don’t think the market mechanism works for everything. The way we are describing value to productivity is skewed. There’s a fantastic TV show. I don’t watch much TV, but when I do, I invest in TLC called Undercover Boss.
C-Suite executives have to go and do frontline jobs. If you tell me we’re putting a productivity premium on the CEO, earning 300 times more. Still, the CEO could not do the job at the front line that is creating all this money; there’s something wrong with how we’re measuring productivity without getting your food out of the kitchen on time. Whenever quality is demanded, the CEO would have zero money to make. We must look at when we apply market thinking to certain problems, particularly when they have big ramifications on society. We need to look at how we compensate for productivity.
It’s interesting because we often get those questions as a head hunter (executive search consultant), and how do you justify that? I suppose the other question is not many people would volunteer to have a pay cut or redistribution of their income voluntarily. If the system isn’t being structured and built to reward that kind of behavior, then how else do you create that systemic change?
The history of the world suggests that if people at the top don’t make those decisions, we end up with social unrest. People will come and take it away. It is in all of our best interests, in the interest of the way to live better together and not have class wars being the next frontier of unrest in our communities and our environments.The history of the world suggests that if people at the top don't decide to redistribute wealth voluntarily, then we end up with social unrest, and people will come and take it away. Click To Tweet
Shifting tack (direction) a little, on a lighter note, some ‘Fun Fast Facts.’ What has been one of your favorite books to read, past or present?
My favorite book by Luvvie Ajayi, a Nigerian American author, is Professional Troublemaker. She has built her career by saying what she means and making it very plain and clear, but she does not tolerate it. It is a hidden manual. If you feel you need to stand up, have your voice heard, and remind yourself why you are incredible, awesome, and deserve to be in certain spaces, she’ll hype you up in this book. It’s her second book. Her first book was called the I’m Judging You.
Apart from the hyping up, you talk about The Troublemaker’s Guide. Can you share anything with us about what she suggests once you get into trouble, or is there a whole book about preventing the trouble portion of it?
It’s in the version of ‘good trouble.’ One technique she discusses in the book is creating an oriki for yourself. Oriki is a traditional Yoruba. People will come after me. It’s a Yoruba tradition in Nigeria to present yourself in the biggest way possible. She makes you write your oriki, where you use every adjective you could use to describe yourself and exaggerate most wonderfully. How would you describe yourself if it took up as much space as possible? She makes you write that down and says, “Every time you need to introduce yourself in your head, here’s your oriki, and it will give you spiritual power.” It is where it came from in the Yoruba tradition to be your fullest self.
Another question, can you share one of your special moments at Harvard?
Harvard is an amazing place to be. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have been to Harvard. I’ve been at Yale before that. The Harvard Kennedy School launched a fundraising campaign in my first year at the Kennedy School. There were lots of events around launching the campaign. One of the launch events was called “Leaders on Leadership.” The panel included Ellen Johnson, the former President of Liberia, who is Kennedy School alumni. Also, Felipe Calderón, former President of Mexico who’s also an HKS alumnus, the Dean of Student Affairs at the Kennedy School at the time, myself, and one other student.
It was such an incredible experience to be able to think and structure through this conversation. What would you ask if you had 30 minutes with 2 former heads of state? It’s an incredible opportunity to remind myself, “These people are human beings also.” It was both humbling and gratifying. We can sit on the same seat across from each other and converse. That was an incredible moment for me and my friend Jieun, the head of the Harvard Kennedy School Student Government at the time.
I remember when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf came to South Africa and the Nelson Mandela Foundation. She is a very humble woman, accessible, and has an interesting leadership model in terms of the leadership for Liberia. The last question is can you share one of your favorite childhood memories?
I am 100% daddy’s girl through and through. There’s no mistake about that. I remember my father lost his sight when I was eight years old due to cancer. I spent much time growing up when my dad didn’t see me. It was never something that occurred to me as anything that made him blessed as a human being. We kept going about our lives. I still read the paper to him to help me with my homework. Only in my adult life that I imagine that must have been a traumatic experience for him.
He was on the Board of Amnesty International. They had board meetings every so often. I was around eleven years old, and my mother said, “I have work to do. I can’t travel with your father’s business partners to these meetings. You can go.” I’m like, “Yes, I get to miss school and go on these trips.” I remember one of these meetings was in Rome. My sister used to play the violin. We were looking for a 3-quarter-size violin for my then 9-year-old sister.
I have no sense of direction. Google Maps was not helpful. My father trusted me to look at the phone book, which was in a grid at the time, for a violin store. Amandla was an eleven-year-old leading her father, who could not see, onto a bus outside the hotel. We got to a piazza in Rome. I navigated miraculously to this violin shop. It was a siesta time, so everything was closed.
I managed to navigate us to a coffee shop. He had a coffee. I had gelato (Italian ice cream). We returned to the violin store at 4:00 PM, and they opened up again. We got this violin, magically got a bus, and returned to the hotel. There are so many ways we can explain why that was a ridiculous idea, but it’s one of my fondest memories of my father. We had a great day. My sister got her violin.
The fact that I had no sense of direction didn’t stop him from trusting me to get us where we needed to get. It has been formative in how I think about leading teams, giving people the confidence to achieve things they didn’t think were possible. If I can do that with every single person and every single team I work with, if they can have the feeling I had on that day, that’s the greatest gift I could give anyone.
Were they just the two of you in your family, you and your sister?
I also have a brother. My sister insists that my brother and I are the same people. We butt heads a lot. We’re both very opinionated people. I’m the eldest, and then my sister and then my brother.
Any final thoughts about leading boldly into the future and solving some of these big challenges in the world?
Let me share two things on my mind. Number 1) My fellow young Africans need to figure out our sense of identity in the (African) continent we’re building over the next 5, 6, or 7 decades. We grew up in a time of the internet, TV, and radio. We grew up in a time of relative peace for most countries across the continent. We weren’t fighting for our independence like our grandparents were. We weren’t fighting for multi-party democracies like our parents were. The sense of (African) identity and national identity and what that means is one that we need to figure out. When we find humans in our fellow Kenyans in South Africa living within our borders, we’ll know how to help each other.
What I’ve seen from the Arab Spring and the rise of Julius Malema in South Africa are all related to finding our sense of identity. I hope we do because we need it to create a vision for future generations of Africans. The second thing I’ll say is a lesson I learned from Ronald Heifetz at the Kennedy School. “We’re not leaders. We practice (exercise) leadership.” If we ever find ourselves in positions of authority, not to be confused with positions of leadership, we need to keep honing our skills.
Practicing leadership is a practice. We need to get better at managing teams, deadlines, and negotiations. We always need to keep improving ourselves. Be charismatic, being a leader. I would encourage my fellow peers and contemporaries to have a development in how we want to grow in our practice of leadership. Be humble about it if we’re going to make a difference.
That’s incredibly powerful. The adaptive leadership model has many great pearls of wisdom around how we think about and practice leadership. Here’s a follow-up question from the identity question. Are you talking about national or continental identity?
Very much a continental one. National identity is many years ago. We didn’t have these national identities across the continent as we defined them. We had very ethno-regional identities. It’s our identity as an African in an African context as a continent.
Amandla, you are a very powerful African woman and human being. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, pearls of wisdom, and humor.
Thank you for having me, Anne.
Africa is the perfect place to do well and do good. It’s an underestimated continent with 54 countries and 1.4 billion people, a treasure chest of investment opportunities with a market valued at more than $3.1 trillion, and an estimated 430 million empty bellies. Amandla Ooko-Ombaka is a woman who inspires Africa and me. She lives in a world of seeds, fertilizers, and agricultural transformation, helping leading corporations enter African markets. An economist with a private sector mind and a public sector heart. She’s leading a multinational in the agricultural sector that wanted to break into Africa’s Billionaire Club.
With Amandla’s help, their focus is primarily and initially is Nigeria, the second largest economy on the continent, valued at around $1.15 trillion. They are transforming the agricultural sector using digital design, leading-edge technology, and building a sustainable business to reach the poorest of the poor in the last rural mile.
The story took me back to Harvard Business School classes on ‘Business at the Base of the Pyramid’ with American Economist Professor Kash Rangan. Unlike financial success, no clear consensus exists to define and measure social impact. In this multinational, social impact is being measured by looking at the increase in living income of the rural poor, by measuring how much food is coming out of the soil, and by the reliability of rural access to markets.
Multinationals can join Africa’s Billionaire Club by doing well and doing good. Agricultural transformation is about using digital design and leading-age technology and building a sustainable business that will reach the poorest of the poor in the last rural mile.
Until next time. Remember that leading boldly is about making thoughtful, clear choices. Bold leadership is about taking bold action, one small step at a time.
- Amandla Ooko-Ombaka – LinkedIn
- Long Walk to Freedom
- Invisible Women
- Professional Troublemaker
- I’m Judging You
About Amandla Ooko-Ombaka
Amandla is a partner in McKinsey’s Nairobi office and has been with the firm for over seven years. She is a leader in our Africa Agriculture and Consumer Packaged Goods Practices and is pivotal in the McKinsey Center for Agricultural Transformation. She began her career at the firm as a summer analyst in our Minneapolis Office and was an early transfer into our Nigeria office.
An economist by training with a “public sector heart and a private sector mind,” Amandla has served agriculture and food clients in more than 15 countries across Africa, Europe, and the United States with a focus on strategy and implementation— including growth, market-entry, route-to-market, and digital design topics.
Amandla co-authored McKinsey’s acclaimed series on the Economic Impact of COVID-19 in Africa, is featured in various media—including BBC, Africa.com, and Business Daily—and regularly moderates main-stage sessions at high-level continental fora on agriculture and development, including the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) and the Tana Forum.
Before joining McKinsey, Amandla was a lecturer in economics at Strathmore University and strategy advisor to several global S&P and FTSE companies, governments, and startups, including the Kerry Group, GenPact, the Government of Rwanda, the African Leadership Network, and Mums Village. She is currently a Leadership Council member at the Center for African Studies at Harvard University. She is a Kenyan national with experience living and traveling to more than 50 countries on over ve continents.