The Future of Work in Africa

09/01/2020
Yasmin Kumi
Yasmin Kumi is an entrepreneur who founded the Africa Foresight Group AFG in 2016 at the age of 27 to follow her passion of fostering economic value creation in Africa by creating the leading platform for freelance consulting services on the continent. Hailing from Germany and Ghana, Yasmin worked at the Berlin office of McKinsey & Company for 5 years prior to founding AFG. She holds an MBA degree and an MSc in African Studies from the University of Oxford.
The Future of Work in Africa

Much of the conversation surrounding the staffing industry and the future of work has been centered on the US and Europe. Today, Paul is speaking with Yasmin Kumi, founder of Africa Foresight Group (AFG), and Rasheeda Seshie, AFG’s partner and chief people officer.

AFG is the leading platform for freelance consulting services on the African continent. Over the past three and a half years, the organization has evolved into a fully female-led business that runs a network of more than 100 consultants, helping midsize and enterprise companies.

Yasmin and Rasheeda, who both held prior roles at McKinsey, speak candidly about their vision for AFG, how the organization came to be, and why talent networks are uniquely positioned over traditional consulting to address the needs of the African continent. They also speak to how AFG is working to attract and nurture key talent and the opportunities available to those engaging in the talent economy across the continent.

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Transcript of this episode

Yasmin Kumi:

We've come to make a choice where we see that there's so much work to do on our continent, also to just achieve prosperity and wellbeing for our people, that we can’t only make professional choices that maximize economic wealth; it also has to be about maximizing the impact our work is having.

Introduction:

There is a revolution taking place right now. Talent and intelligence are equally distributed throughout the world, but opportunity is not. The talent economy, the idea that at the center of work is the talent, is the individual.

Paul Estes:

Companies today face a global war for talent, and high-skilled talent is demanding flexibility around the way they work and the way they live. This podcast brings together thought leaders, staffing experts, and top freelancers to talk about the evolving nature of work and how companies can navigate these changes to remain competitive, drive innovation, and ensure success. Welcome to the Talent Economy Podcast. I'm your host, Paul Estes. Today, I am speaking with Yasmin Kumi. She holds two graduate degrees from Oxford and spent years as a McKinsey consultant. She's the founder of the Africa Foresight Group. And she's joined today by Rasheeda Seshie, AFG's chief people officer. AFG is a leading platform for freelance consultant services on the African continent. Over the past three and a half years, the organization has evolved to a fully female-led business that runs a network of top consultants, helping midsize and enterprise companies. Both Yasmin and Rasheeda joined me today for a discussion about their passion for fostering economic value creation in Africa, the future of work, and supporting companies across the continent and achieving sustainable growth. They're efficiency-driven by amazing talent.

Yasmin Kumi:

My name is Yasmin Kumi, I'm half German, half Ghanaian. I am based in Accra - lockdown in Accra, too, because our borders have been closed for more than six months. And I am the founder of Africa Foresight Group, which is the largest talent network for freelance management consultants in Africa.

Rasheeda Seshie:

I am Rasheeda Seshie, I'm the chief people officer and a partner of Africa Foresight Group. I am also based in Accra, in Ghana, on lockdown with Yasmin. So as a professional adviser, I support our clients with long-term strategy, but as a chief people officer at AFG, I think about a long-term plan and what to do with our people, identify new ways to attract and nurture talent in Africa.

Paul Estes:

Well, I want to thank you both for joining me today. As what we were talking about right before we hit the record button, I'm fascinated about what's going on in Africa just over the past 10 years and the growth and the number of companies that are moving to Africa to figure out the talent economy there. But before we get started - Yasmin, I ran into you because I read an article that you published: Why Africa needs talent networks instead of more consulting companies. And when I looked at your profile, you've spent a lot of years at McKinsey as a consultant. And so, it was a very interesting article. What inspired you to write that article? And tell me a little bit more about how you think of talent networks versus traditional consulting, especially since you came from McKinsey.

Yasmin Kumi:

Sure, that article definitely was a really important one to me because it was also an attempt to drive home a few points that we've learned about over the past three and a half years of building AFG, Africa Foresight Group. There are three main points that are particularly important.

The first one is that Africa is a really fascinating continent, as you rightly said, but it's also a continent that has so many gasping, the supply-and-demand mismatches. And I think one of them definitely relates to talent. We have an abandoned workforce; at the same time, we don't have enough employment opportunities for them. South Africa - the article you mentioned was published in a South African magazine - South Africa is particularly hit by that because there are a huge number of millions and millions of young people who are unemployed. They have a youth unemployment rate of more than 50%. And at the same time, we also have the youngest continent. And I think that a lot of Western economies that would have loved to have such a nice youth spot that can feed the economies with enough workforce. So there's a really big mismatch when it comes to supply and demand when it comes to work.

The second thing is that Africa has a very particular history when it comes to how the private sector has evolved. On the one hand, we all know that Africa was colonized, and as a result of that, the early days of most of these economies in Africa… Ethiopia, which you mentioned earlier is an exception a little bit, but most economies in Africa had an early starting point of big multinationals building their footprint here, and of course also adding value, bringing technology, but also capturing an off-market opportunity from local businesses. And what you see now is that there's just not as many businesses in most African economies that are able to absorb this massive workforce we have. There's also not the same policy framework for these businesses to scale that effectively, we don't have any company in the Fortune global 500 at this point.

We don't have any of these mega-companies that make $25 billion of revenue per year. So somehow, there must be a reason why we don't have that. And that's something that has been fascinating me for a long time. The fact plain really is that I think we are at an early development sector still in Africa; it's true Africa has been growing, but we also still have a long way to go. I'm half German, half Ghanaian, and for me, it's always weird to see that Germany has the same GDP as the whole of Africa together. So we are still at a very early stage of our development phase, where you can set interesting goalposts and make very, very important decisions, how you want to structure this economy and grow it where the talent network idea comes in.

So if I aggregate all of these three factors that I just talked about - the mismatch of supply and demand when it comes to work, the low scaling level of the private sector, and the fact that we still have a long way to go until we get to that full economic development stage, then talent networks become really interesting because they are very cost-effective solution to bring talent, top talent to clients across Africa. They are extremely cheap to build compared to building a big corporate structure that has to absorb talent on a payroll basis, and as such can also scale much faster, and they're also totally location-agnostic, Africa is fragmented. So if you want to build something that can quickly get peace across the continent and can cross all these borders that we have here, then you need something that is highly, highly remotely enabled. So these are some initial thoughts. I'm happy to elaborate more on them, but all of that needed very relevant for me to write this article to just bring home that point that talent networks might be a really important model to focus on - not even just for management consulting but also for other types of services.

Paul Estes:

Yeah. And I'll put a link to that article in the show notes. It's worth a read because I think it's very relevant to the evolution and the digital transformation that's going on in the West. But especially in Africa, that doesn't have a lot of that traditional infrastructure where you can maybe start from zero in some places and not carry the legacy. Rasheeda, I have a question for you. So you spent a lot of time at McKinsey, and the interesting thing is you designed go-to-market models for large companies seeking to expand operations in Africa. What is the advice that you give to companies looking to engage this amazing youth talent in Africa? What's different?

Rasheeda Seshie:

I think when it comes to multinational established companies coming to Africa, they are looking like any company to maximize their profits and revenues. But at the same time, they are looking to provide a service that doesn't exist in that market, or at least to show more optimally. And one thing we tried to tell them is, because most multinationals don’t think about it, is usually to also import the talent that comes with the company. So you will see a lot of multinationals coming into Africa with line managers from their home countries, and that doesn't always work out.

And if you have seen in the news, a few of these companies have been banned, because then you have people that don't understand the local market, they don't have the context to drive the company's growth strategy. And so what we do is to help these companies. We advise them to identify top talent within Africa already. So they do exist, many of them with the global experience that you're looking for. There's a joke we'd like to make that every Nigerian family has a cousin or an uncle somewhere in the UK or the US who’s worked there for years and is itching to come back home. So if the worry is about someone that has the global context but at the same time has the local context, you can find those people, people of African descendants that work abroad. They really are looking for impactful opportunities to come home to do important work.

Paul Estes:

I always tell the story about one of the freelancers in my network, a gentleman named Tim, who's been doing work with me for the past year and a half. We had coffee, or I guess it was late afternoon tea in Africa, but I learned more about him, and he had graduated with an undergrad in mathematics and he was doing freelance work because it paid more than the local wages, but also to get his masters in statistics. And it was just one of those experiences that opened my eyes up to the type of talent that is global.

As you guys work on the Africa Foresight Group, what are the types of top talent and the types of clients that are engaging that talent?

Rasheeda Seshie:

When it comes to... I think, traditionally, AFG started by recruiting existing freelancers, people who had done this for a while. And many of them came from the large consulting firms: PWC, McKinsey, Bain, et cetera. But over time, we have been trying to bring in more local talent. So on existing talent platforms, we are bringing in people that have never been freelancers in the past. And this is usually people from the local community. And what we focus on is their ability to deconstruct problems and reassemble the solutions. So it's less about what the experiences have been but what they're able to do. And what you will find is that regardless of where you got your education from, what your experiences have been, you have people that understand at the very core what a problem looks like and how to take that problem apart and put it back together.

And what we have set up is a procedure that allows us to identify such people and bring them into our network. And if you also think about the fact that majority of the people we're now bringing into the AFG network have never been freelancers but continue to apply to join our network, it shows you that there is so much potential in this space, and we definitely have enough people to solve the problem of businesses on the continent.

Yasmin Kumi:

What I'd love to add is we have a very wide range of people because you also said, what type of people. Our youngest freelancer is 21, our oldest freelancer is 69. That's actually quite exciting because when we pull freelancers together, we call them foresighters: Africa Foresight Group foresighters. They actually work on client problems in teams. We don't really match a freelancer one to one with a project or client opportunity.

The reason being that we actually want to create a team environment where people put their heads together to solve a problem in the best way possible. And we highly, highly believe that this is only possible when you have people working together. The reason why we have such a wide age range is because we are definitely in a market where a lot of times to care about the gray hair, and there are also specific industry dynamics that are not that well documented. If you are in the US and you want to find out how the aero industry works then, or the aviation industry works, you'll probably find tons of reports that you could either download for free or against a fee. That's not the case in our environment. So it's actually really important that we can bring in industry experts. Often, people who are retired, who work with the rest of the teams to share their expertise and open up the secrets about the specific industry we're dealing with.

And that leads me to your other point around clients. So we have a pretty wide range of clients, but roughly, you could probably chop it up into three different categories. The first one is African businesses. And when we say African businesses, it's not your small shops, it's actually pretty scaled businesses that make $50-100 million in revenues. Sometimes, also way more than that.

In many cases, they have family ownership and have a very specific culture that you need to understand. They have huge potential, but also have a lot of barriers to tackle in order to be able to scale, which is why our model is very attractive to them because they can afford to use it long term. They are also your various investment funds Africa, and especially the PE industry, have gone through a lot of this cause whether PE or venture capital even works in Africa, I think one thing is that your size is still very small compared to what you would see in a Silicon Valley kind of situation.

So as a result, investment teams here don't have the same bandwidth. They don't have the same capacity when it comes to managing portfolio and closing deals, which is why our model is very attractive to them to expand their own capacity. And then, there are international development finance partners who are heavily invested in private sector development across the continent. They recently also particularly due to the migration wave that happened a couple of years ago that made them realize that they have to invest more in Africa to help create more jobs here. So, that is maybe a bit of an addition to what Rasheeda already mentioned when it comes to the client side of the business, in terms of who hires us.

Paul Estes:

I've been noticing the number of multinational companies, whether it's Google or Microsoft, you just think big tech, even Jack Dorsey at Twitter at some point was going to go spend a significant amount of time in Africa, just to start to understand the space because I think people are starting to realize the untapped potential.

I want to talk about each of you for a second. You were working for McKinsey. And what I know of most of the McKinsey consultants that I've worked with, they're very strategic and they're always trying to figure out the trends and what's next. For each of you, what encouraged you to take the step and tackle not only this big problem but lean into the opportunity?

Yasmin Kumi:

I think for me, there are a lot of angles to this. I see a lot of personal fulfillment for me in this business because of my background. But when I started AFG, there was definitely an area of insights that drove me into thinking through this model. And you could probably really say that there were insights on the demand and on the supply side really that led to the thinking of, oh we might need to have a platform. On the demand side, I was really spending a number of years at McKinsey working for some very big clients across the African continent and also having conducted a lot of research, academic research into the family business sector in Africa. And what I really realized was that there was such a wide gap between what types of consulting services are available in the African market, what demand is actually there. Because the super big tickets consulting projects in Africa, compared to a US market, you can still count them on one hand.

The big demand when it comes to supporting with consulting and advisory services is with the private sector that, as I mentioned earlier, has not yet scaled as much, is not yet a Fortune global 500 company, and striving to get support in scaling up. So, when I worked with family businesses for research, I saw that there were so many businesses that sit on incredible potential. There was this business, for instance, I worked with in Ghana that has been around for more than 60 years. And until today, they have the biggest household brand in Ghana for chicken production. Everybody knows their brands, and when it's time for a good meal or holiday, everybody buys that chicken brand. They have massive potential to scale beyond Ghana, but they have never had the access to the right talent in order to figure out how to do that. And there are plenty cases of that nature, where the businesses have actually matured.

They have a great product-market fit. They've consolidated their market position at home, but they don't know how to continue. And they are just not at the place yet where they can afford to hire a super big farm. So, there's this really big impact side that I saw and got really excited about because I also think from a very philosophical standpoint: Africans need to start seeing how their own brands emerge and become big and go global and become a source of pride. Right now, the only thing people are proud of is if they can afford a Coke, but Coke is not our brand.

On the other hand, there's the whole talent side, both at McKinsey but also in very different professional contexts that went beyond my McKinsey experience. And that's a number of really, really talented young people who are great problem solvers, have incredible skill sets, and are the perfect talent to solve the companies I was just talking about, but there's no platform to connect them.

And the particular observation I have about this type of talent - and I would definitely include myself and Rasheeda here - is that we've come to make a choice where we see that there's so much work to do on our continent, also to just achieve prosperity and wellbeing for our people, that we can't only make professional choices that maximize economic wealth; it also has to be about maximizing the impact our work is having because we are in a particular situation of having had access to great education and skill sets that many others don't and we have to deploy them for our own private sector. So, I saw that there are actually a lot of people who have that kind of mindset and they're looking to find the best way to bring it to work really. And if you now look at our network of about 120 people, it is a lot of people with very different backgrounds, but they're all connected by this. It's really like a tribe. And I think that makes the model work because there's a connection beyond the extra project and what contract and invoice you can sign. So, the early days really were influenced by those two observations, and that motivated me back then and motivates me today.

Rasheeda Seshie:

So, just to add to what Yasmin said, it's true that we don't have a lot of large companies in Africa. However, I think we also underestimate the number of medium-sized to large companies we have. So, there are over 400 companies earning above a billion dollars a year in Africa and almost 1,000 companies with revenues which had on $500 million a year in Africa. What we saw is this gap for companies making, say, somewhere between $50-300 million a year. Those are the most important companies on the continent because they're the highest employers of formal labor. And they need representation more than anyone else because they contribute the most to the growth of the continent. And if we are able to help them, the impact is greater than just helping these companies to scale but also allowing them to scale to the point that they're able to absorb as many people as possible into formal employment, because Africa just doesn't have an issue with unemployment. There's also the issue of underemployment where you have people working in the informal sector, not able to earn a livable wage.

Paul Estes:

The idea that small and midsize companies can't get access to talent but that talent is readily available and underemployment are global challenges that I think many people are facing, albeit more acutely in Africa. But what does success look like for you in five years? And I know in this time and age, five days is a long time, so I know it's a tough question to answer.

Yasmin Kumi:

But luckily, we are resilient as freelancing businesses, right? I think we are not luckier than many other businesses in this particular time. I think for us, we are currently really trying to make sure that we consolidate the opportunity we see in Africa. We believe to be the pioneer with this idea and the work that we're doing because of the unique combination. We offer us the platform, the talent platform model, combined with an impact focus and strong quality management. We are very keen to make sure that by the time it's 2025, we are the unique provider of that particular service. So, if you're looking for a highly skilled team that can solve your business problems remotely or on the ground (both should be possible at some point again), AFG is the address that you’d be going to. At the moment, we have specific markets where we are the strongest, and those are Kenya, Ethiopia to an extent, Nigeria, Ghana, and South Africa.

But we have redefined to make sure we consolidate way beyond that. I think in five years, we'll probably also have started to look into other ways how we can further facilitate the creation of what we like calling the new world of work in Africa because we know that what we're currently doing is one response to the youth unemployment and private sector development challenge, where we think there's a lot more. You can think really big when it comes to flexible work and future of work in Africa. There's the whole question of how you can help companies to actually make use of more technology, to be comfortable with flexible and remote work models, more so than they are today, for instance. There's also the question of how the African talent market can become accessible to the global industry, but I'm happy to chat more about that once Rasheeda added her thoughts to this one.

Rasheeda Seshie:

So I think for me, success in five years looks like companies in Africa knowing that there was a place where they can get the kind of talent they need when they need it. If our focus partnering this big commitment to Africa at AFG, where the focus is helping what we call the hidden champions to grow. And right now, I don't know if these companies know that they have the potential or even know where to find the kind of help they need. And it will be great in five years’ time, such organizations across Africa know that there is a thought partner out there that isn't going to cost them an arm and a leg to help think through their long-term strategy that can be successfully implemented. But I also want a situation where talent in Africa able to embrace freelance and more and understand the flexibility that it brings to you because we will be able to provide very interesting and very impactful work that they will actually enjoy in engaging in and something that allows them to contribute effectively to the overall growth of the continent.

Paul Estes:

Amazing insights from you both. And like I said, I was very excited to have this conversation because another CEO who was starting a consulting company in Africa had reached out and asked for some advice. And it was the first time, about six months ago, that I really started understanding all of the change that has happened while I was busy in college and working on the stuff that I've been working on. And places like Ghana and Ethiopia and others, they've built amazing cities. And the opportunity, like you said, due to the youth population just seems enormous, and people like yourselves who are engaging and providing your time, the most valuable thing you have, to this mission is important. So, I thank you for your time. If somebody wants to reach out and learn more about Africa Foresight Group, or each of you individually, what's the best way to reach out?

Yasmin Kumi:

We have a website where you can fill a contact form, but you can also easily reach us on LinkedIn.

Paul Estes:

Thank you so much for your time and I wish you the best of luck and I'll be following your journey.

Yasmin Kumi:

Thank you so much.

Paul Estes:

I'm your host, Paul Estes. Thank you for listening to the Talent Economy Podcast. Learn more about the future of work and the transformation of the staffing industry from those leading the conversation at Staffing.com, where you can hear from experts, sign up for our weekly newsletter, and get access to the best industry research on the future of staffing. If you've enjoyed the conversation, we'd appreciate you rating us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts, or just tell a friend about the show. Be sure to tune in next week for another episode of the Talent Economy.

Yasmin Kumi
Yasmin Kumi is an entrepreneur who founded the Africa Foresight Group AFG in 2016 at the age of 27 to follow her passion of fostering economic value creation in Africa by creating the leading platform for freelance consulting services on the continent. Hailing from Germany and Ghana, Yasmin worked at the Berlin office of McKinsey & Company for 5 years prior to founding AFG. She holds an MBA degree and an MSc in African Studies from the University of Oxford.