MUFURUKI'S VISION Tanzanian executive pushes Africa’s leaders for “a better, more dignified life”
Ali A. Mufuruki, one of Africa’s most outspoken business leaders, is chairman and CEO of his family firm, Infotech Investment Group Limited, and a fellow of the Aspen Institute, a prominent international educational foundation. Compass spoke to him about his perspective on the continent’s challenges and opportunities.
Ali A. Mufuruki believes Africa needs a revolution in leadership. Mufuruki speaks about his home continent from experience as one of Africa’s most seasoned executives. “I hold the view that the problem underlying Africa’s chaos is poor leadership,” he said. “Africa’s elite is failing its people, and we need to do more if our children are to have a better, more dignified life than our own.”
Such blunt talk is uncommon from many executives, especially in Africa. But Mufuruki, who lives in Dar es Salaam with his wife and four children, doesn’t mind taking public positions that make people sit back and think. He recently wrote an op-ed entitled: “African leaders who believe Africans are incapable of great things, should go!” It was directed at a local government minister whom Mufuruki believes favors foreign firms at the expense of local industry.
Sara Menker, a former commodities trader in New York who is now Mufuruki’s partner at energy advisory firm Gro-Energy in Nairobi, Kenya, says that Mufuruki’s ability to retain the respect of officials he is often at odds with sets him apart. “What makes Ali unique in the African setting is his ability to garner the respect of people in politics and power while criticizing them. He’s fearless,” Menker said.
While outspoken about Africa’s shortcomings, Mufuruki is also one of its greatest promoters. He recently told delegates at a conference organized by the US investment bank Goldman Sachs that when foreign analysts track African markets more broadly, they will find “what Africa has to offer the world by way of investment opportunities is far bigger and grander than we have ever thought before.”
Mufuruki is chairman and CEO of Infotech Investment Group Limited, which has wide holdings in retail, telecommunications and media businesses in East Africa. He also founded East Africa Capital Partners in Nairobi, known for its savvy investments in other firms; co-founded Gro-Energy, which is advising firms and governments on how to manage East Africa’s newly discovered gas and oil wealth; and serves as chairman of Wananchi Holdings, whose name comes from the Swahili word “citizenry” (Wananchi owns one of East Africa’s largest cable TV networks).
“We are helping to bring about a new generation of African LEADERS.”Chairman and CEO, Infotech Investment Group
Educated as an engineer in Germany, Mufuruki began his career with Daimler-Benz and then moved to Tanzania’s National Engineering Company, where he was an executive until 1989, when he left to start a firm focused on IT. When the computer industry suffered in the 1990s, Mufuruki turned to retailing; he now owns a successful chain of Woolworth brand stores in East Africa, as well as the region’s franchise for Levi’s jeans.
Together with his partners, Mufuruki also has raised US$350 million, primarily from US investors, to start Zuku, which is delivering satellite television to East Africa, along with Internet services by fiber-optic cable. He also has interests in the advertising market in East Africa.
Mufuruki, who extols the benefits of capitalism and hard work, worries that some African countries might be backsliding into socialism as the continent’s mineral resources fill government coffers with revenues. “People believe that now that they control these resources they can go back to a state-run economy,” he said. “They think they don’t need foreign investment anymore and they don’t need capital, which is a deadly mistake.”
In his home country of Tanzania, for example, which had been under the socialist sway of the late President Julius Nyerere for many years, the government adopted free markets only after the country was bankrupt.
“Now people just want to go back to the way things were,” Mufuruki said. “For me it’s just a bunch of politicians who want to keep themselves in power forever, but that won’t last.” He points to Kenya and Uganda as countries that are actively courting foreign investment and being more pragmatic economically.
Mufuruki’s support for western-style capitalism co-exists with his reverence for local traditions. To regain sanity in his busy life, Mufuruki makes an annual pilgrimage to his home village.
“It helps that the village is a very serene place, away from the heat, noise and hustle and bustle of city life,” he said. “The village gives me a sense of standing on solid ground again and inspires me to think much more clearly than anywhere else.”
One Mufuruki fan is Caitlin Colegrove, communications and network manager at the Aspen Institute, a prestigious educational foundation that runs a global leadership network from its base in Washington, DC. Cosgrove said it is rare for global leaders to maintain a connection with their past. “Ali is someone who is able to merge being a global leader with someone who is still fiercely connected to where he comes from,” she said. “He has a kind of authenticity and credibility that comes from that local rooting.”
Mufuruki said he believes the biggest challenge facing African business today is the continent’s lack of infrastructure, particularly electricity. “This often makes it impossible for business to make a profit,” he said. Human resources also are a challenge, with a shortage of capable people to work at an executive level in many different businesses.
While an advocate of free markets, he also believes that business should stand for strong values and ethics “because without them life has no meaning.” Surveying the violence in Africa at the moment, in such places as northern Nigeria, the Central African Republic and South Sudan, he laments the continued existence of extreme corruption and relentless poverty.
In Mufuruki’s mind, Africa’s challenges all come back to a lack of leadership. To counteract it he co-founded an organization called the African Leadership Initiative, which is helping shape the next generation of African leaders. The current class of 20 men and women from Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda consists of about 80% business leaders, with the remainder from civil society and government.
The group meets four times over a two-year period in different locales in partnership with the Aspen Institute, where Mufuruki is a fellow. They also meet with representatives of leadership initiatives from other parts of the globe to discover what works in other regions and what is problematic.
“We are helping to bring about a new generation of African leaders who are effective, knowledgeable, values-driven and enlightened,” Mufuruki said. ◆Back to top