"I Am Passionate about Where Africa Goes and Should Go": He Is Known for His Flamboyant Fashion Sense and His Perfectly Tailored Suits Loved by the Rich and Famous Worldwide Including Hollywood Royalty Will Smith and Entrepreneur Extraordinaire, Virgin Boss, Richard Branson. but as He Reveals to Our Deputy Editor reGina Jane Jere in This Exclusive Interview, Ozwald Boateng Is Taking on a New Mantle-And It's Far from Glamorous
Jere, reGina Jane, New African
IMPECCABLY DRESSED IN A SHARPLY TAILORED, DEEP olive-green suit--which I presume is one of his own, it's easy to concur with the widely-held public assumption: the menswear designer Ozwald Boateng is a walking advertisement for his brand.
As I am ushered into his office with my photographer (who is politely asked to leave by his PA because the interview appointment said "journalist only") I am drawn to the massive oil painting (also in green) of Boateng himself which hangs imposingly just behind his gleaming, clutter-free desk. I am tempted to ask about the painting, but Boateng is, on this day, a man in demand for press interviews and there is no time for such pleasantries.
I have 30 minutes to find out why the man--famous for designing suits for the rich, famous and for Hollywood royalty, as well as being the youngest and only black man with African roots on London's famous and exclusive Savile Row--is suddenly making headlines in the name of Africa. One British newspaper even described him as an activist for Africa. What is all that about?
"Really? Activist? Like George Clooney is an activist?" he reacts, somewhat perplexed, when I put that to him.
"I understand the word activism, but that is not the right word for me. I don't see myself as an activist. I see myself as someone who is just very passionate about where Africa goes, and should go. But I am not alone on that. There are so many thousands, even millions of Africans who feel the same way," he says rather collectedly, but with a tinge of excitement.
At only 27 years of age back in 1994, Boateng made his name when he became both the first black tailor to open a store on Savile Row. Born in London to Ghanaian parents in 1968, the award-winning designer was obsessed with sewing and fashion from a very young age. Indisputably, today he is one of the designers of choice for everyone from Hollywood stars to the British political elite. His cheapest suit comes at no less than [pounds sterling]1,000 and can cost as much as a mind-boggling [pounds sterling]20,000 a piece.
But I am in his opulent office--which is buried in the basement of his exquisite store (No 30, Savile Row)--not to talk about the glam and glitz of fashion, or his label.
As he sits down opposite me, next to his PA, who gives him a small nod that says, you are ready, his gaze as he looks directly at me commands immediate attention and I go straight to the crux of our interview--his interest in facilitating what many are calling Africa's "Marshall Plan", spearheaded by infrastructure development plans on an unprecedented scale. Infrastructure building is Boateng's other great passion outside his fashion business.
At the moment, the African "Marshall Plan" buzz is in overdrive following the African Development Bank's (AfDB) announcement last month, to float Africa's first infrastructure bonds to member nations to raise up to $22 billion for investment in Africa's much-needed infrastructure projects, in areas such as ports, railways, roads and energy. It is a move that has filled Boateng with confident exuberance:
"This announcement is just music to my ears," he gushes and suddenly, his stern-seeming posture relaxes and he radiates optimism. "This is key to unlocking Africa's potential. Lack of infrastructure is one of the major obstacles that has been holding us back.
"I believe everything about Africa today is about momentum. Whereas historically there hasn't been big interest in terms of investment and even interest in culture, fashion and the arts, today there is vast momentum in Africa's favour. One of the key things about the Made In Africa has been to change perceptions about Africa and we welcome and support infrastructural development."
In 2011, Boateng, Nigerian businessman, Kola Aluko, in collaboration with the Nigerian oil and gas company Atlantic Energy, set up the Made in Africa Foundation (MIAF) with a very ambitious plan. But ambitious is a word which doesn't augur well with Boateng. He seems to take it that it connotes "failure".
"Why do plans become ambitious when it's about Africa? Why is it that it's never an ambitious plan when the Chinese or the Russians are building high-speed rail links across their countries?"
The "ambitious" plan we are talking about is the seemingly giddiness-inducing $400m MIAF fundraising mission for master-plans, feasibility studies and other projects to help prepare works for successful infrastructure schemes across Africa.
"The bottom line is that these are not ambitious, but necessary plans and in the case of Africa, it's even more important, we need to stop talking and just get on and do what is vitally necessary. Infrastructure development is beyond an ambition," he insists, adding a laudable explanation:
"It's a well-known statistic that $400m of funding for feasibility studies and masterplans across sub-Saharan Africa would develop over sioobn of infrastructure projects, which in turn would create a trillion dollars of value across Africa. The first step is often the hardest and we have created this Foundation with Atlantic Energy to make that step easier."
But this is not the first time Boateng is courting the infrastructure development dream. In January 2010 his putative Made in Africa organisation proposed an infrastructure project to the then "government" of slain Libyan leader Muammar al Gathafi, a copy of which New African has obtained.
The proposal--titled "The Great Green Sahara Initiative", a component of a larger scheme dubbed the "Tipping Point Initiative", sought funding for what can be said to be one of the grandest rail projects ever considered in post-independent Africa.
Boateng's Sahara Initiative (also known as the Africa Crossrail Link) is on paper an extremely laudable project and if executed, will be worth every dollar spent on it.
According to this proposal, the project (which Boateng says is still in the offing), aims to link the port of Tripoli in Libya to the port of Takoradi in his homeland of Ghana, via a high-speed railway, with state-of-the-art sustainable cities built at all stops along the way.
Of the many advantages Boateng and co envisage, the railway infrastructure, which would eventually be self-financing, would bring supply and demand systems together more effectively, and connect agricultural, industrial and energy-producing heartlands of western and northern Africa, to global trade routes.
The proposed route would pass through Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana. The railway would not only enhance trade cooperation between the nations it went through, by opening up vast swathes of land to industry and development, Boateng believes it would improve economic conditions, due to decreased transportation times and administration costs.
With the turn of events in Libya last year, where does the project stand? "We're still doing it," he says, "but financing feasibility studies to do such an exercise costs millions of dollars. That has been the major hurdle that we needed to overcome and that is why we set up Made In Africa, which is raising the money for feasibility studies and also to support first-stage funding of infrastructure projects in Africa.
"And it has been hard to find anyone to actually put that first dollar in, but we are in the process of raising these finances."
The Foundation's partner the Lagos-based Atlantic Energy were the first donors, and the company is heavily involved. Boateng does not elaborate further on how much money has been raised so far, but he is quick to appreciate the opportunity the AfDB bonds proffer.
"Each day that goes by brings our vision closer. And this is why the AfDB infrastructure bonds flotation is such a welcome venture. It just reinforces what I have been saying all these years."
His only reservation on the AfDB bonds flotation is that it is currently only being offered to its member states.
Potentially, the $2.2bn of bonds, which take advantage of the AfDB's "AAA" rating, would be a more secure investment than those issued by European states, making the offering one of the more attractive opportunities in the global debt capital markets. And if implemented properly, it would have a positive effect on Africa's GOP, raising it by an estimated 2%.
The pragmatic consensus, and Boareng also agrees, is that the success of this AfDB undertaking would help lift millions out of poverty.
All proponents believe its effect on Africa could be similar to the Marshall Plan, which was a huge stimulus for growth on the European continent in the post-war period. But the European Marshall Plan involved a lot of money and the $22bn is practically a drop in the ocean for such a grand scheme.
"Yes," concurs Boateng, "it has been said that Africa needs something close to a trillion dollars in infrastructure development planning alone. But the fact is we need to get on and start from somewhere and $22bn would be a really good start."
He believes, however, the AfDB can do even better, extending the flotation to Africa's leading entrepreneurs and businesses as well as those in its Diaspora.
"Let Africans have the chance to show their belief in their own continent," he emphasises, adding:
"The global African Diaspora is a trillion-dollar economy already investing $30bn in remittances to the continent every year and the AfDB's 'triple A' rating would provide security and guarantee an excellent return for people. How can they ignore the offering? I think it is great, but it shouldn't just be isolated to African countries, it should be opened to the African Diaspora as well. I think private enterprise should play a key role and Made In Africa will be a great facilitator in helping to make that happen."
As a man who knows some deep-pocketed people in high places, Boateng wants to put his good connections to good use too, asking rich entrepreneurs to come aboard the infrastructure development bandwagon. However, he believes, the spirit of philanthropy should be their driving force. But he is starting with Africa's own billionaires.
And as a non-believer in foreign aid--which Africa has been on the receiving end of for the past so years, but which by and large has amounted to nothing in terms of development--Ozwald says philanthropy by Africa's burgeoning private millionaires could go a long way in filling the aid gap.
"Aid is not the answer. It's very important that all of Africa's top entrepreneurs are actively involved in the development of Africa. We have been talking to everyone in regards the importance of infrastructure development. We have approached big entrepreneurs such as Aliko Dangote in Nigeria and Patrice Motsepe in South Africa."
Ozwald is keen to discuss the importance of philanthropy. "It's all about philanthropy. Our role as top entrepreneurs also has to be charitable. I personally feel very strongly about the idea of key entrepreneurs and companies donating to the 'Marshall planning' of Africa. It should be our way of giving back."
He also believes philanthropy makes commercial and economic sense as well: "From a commercial point of view the positive realisation of these plans creates a value chain eventually. But the initial steps have to be taken from the hearts of key African entrepreneurs. What this also demonstrates is that Africans can work together. And this coming together of all of us as top business people, is a crucial key to the development of our continent."
He has good reason to believe in the power of philanthropy. "Opportunity in Africa is so vast that even the most successful African is still only niggling a little bit on it. If we worked together and turned the quantum around, imagine what sort of structure could come out of it. I strongly believe that joint philanthropy is a very important start, it can bring together the best of the best of Africa and move the continent forward using our own.
"Our coming together is key," he emphasises. "We need to have a vehicle for development which we can call our own and one that will actually transform the current scenario and create a major masterplan that will change Africa for ever. But we need to do this together--we can't do this as individuals."
He concludes: "Imagine what could be achieved if all top entrepreneurs worked with 100 other people like them. The gains for this type of partnership are unimaginable for all of us and this enormously rich continent."
What does the role of good governance in Africa play in all this I ask--while his PA takes stealthy glances at her watch.
"My advice is, park the criticism and let's get on with the job of making it happen. Yes there are going to be challenges, yes things will go wrong, and the task is huge, but we can't continue with the same old stories of corruption in Africa and many other negatives, da da da da! Those stories have been running for over 50 years now. The agenda now should be, let's get on with the job."
"The Africa of today," he adds, "does not have the same issues as 5o years ago. We are all understanding more what the value of opportunity is. We are beginning to believe more that if we control more than 50% of the world's rich natural resources, we cannot be poor. Because of this one fact, Africans can no longer afford not to believe in themselves and their capabilities. But the question is, how do we unlock that belief?"
But shouldn't all this be accompanied by good governance and political aptitude?
"I think the issue of governance has been overused," he argues dismissively. "There seems to be always a big reason why no one invests, or should invest in Africa, or why Africans cannot do better for themselves. Come on, let's just get over this now! If anyone believes corruption and bad governance aren't issues around the world and are a just a preserve for Africa, then they don't live on planet earth.
"Africa's no different in experiencing these issues than many other places in the world. That's a fact, but unfortunately the problem of underdevelopment in Africa is more visible because of the continent's lack of infrastructure. It's a big drawback," he explains.
Is he turning a blind eye to bad governance and corruption?
"Critics will say what they want to say. But personally I understand critics--unfortunately in the world of fashion, we live with critics every day. However on the scale of what we have to achieve for Africa, its time we moved on to matters that make a huge impact on development and I believe the way forward is not to keep on about the same old issues that have held us back and implement instead, large-scale projects.
"In fact what I am proposing should not be seen as really large-scale because they are not. This is what every other country does. This is what they have done in China, they do it in Russia, and they do it in Europe. But when Africa wants to do it, they suddenly become these large-scale projects'. Excuse me? In the meantime everywhere else, they are enjoying the benefits of building high-speed rail links between their borders and within their countries. I mean, what do we say to that? These are necessary infrastructure developments and not 'undoable' large-scale developments.
"Therefore the attitude again is, let's get these plans working, let's engage the world with all its know how to build the infrastructure for Africa, and make it one of the best, not just in the 21St century, but for all centuries to come."
As I throw in a question on the fashion business in Africa, I know my time is up. But there is a lot you can get out of half an hour with Mr Boateng.
Boateng's africa transrail project
It's hard to argue against Boateng's grand plan. His concept reads like something from Bruners imagination:
A self-financing, high-speed rail network with state-of-the-art sustainable cities as economic and regional hubs along the route;
Use of green technologies, and energy--both as sources and as revenue to open up new economy streams and enable social development;
The increase in the land price alongside the track is to be used as security, and land value appreciation captured to leverage sustainable maintenance and security;
Land along its periphery will be cultivated with nitrogen-fixing oil-producing crops such as Pongamia, for energy production or other agricultural biomass;
Power will come via solar farms along the railway in desert-rich regions;
Use of innovative financial instruments and alternative capital flows to finance the initiative, including: trade-export credit systems, carbon credits, and military offsets.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: "I Am Passionate about Where Africa Goes and Should Go": He Is Known for His Flamboyant Fashion Sense and His Perfectly Tailored Suits Loved by the Rich and Famous Worldwide Including Hollywood Royalty Will Smith and Entrepreneur Extraordinaire, Virgin Boss, Richard Branson. but as He Reveals to Our Deputy Editor reGina Jane Jere in This Exclusive Interview, Ozwald Boateng Is Taking on a New Mantle-And It's Far from Glamorous. Contributors: Jere, reGina Jane - Author. Magazine title: New African. Issue: 522 Publication date: November 2012. Page number: 16+. © 2005 IC Publications Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale Group.