Black Affairs, Africa and Development
Interview: Barbara Njau, a media star on the rise
Barbara Njau, you are Senior Reporter and Markets Editor of ‘Foreign Direct Investment’ (fDi) Magazine. What does your job entail?
fDi magazine is part of The Financial Times Ltd. It is a specialist title. I report on cross border greenfield investment trends and global foreign direct investment flows into markets in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. I interview political and business leaders about economic and investment issues in these markets, and I write features and in-depth special reports for fDi magazine and its online portal, www.fDiIntelligence.com. I also represent the Magazine at international economic summits, industry events and country-specific conferences, acting as a panellist, moderator and speaker.
What are some of the places you’ve visited in the line of your work?
I have gone to Morocco, China, and the United Arab Emirates to write special reports for fDi. Two notable events I really enjoyed attending was the African Development Bank’s summit last year in Arusha, Tanzania, and the International Monetary Fund’s summit held in Tokyo, Japan. I have also travelled to speak at several conferences including Tunisia’s first investment forum after the ‘Arab Spring’, the ‘Tunisia Investment Forum’; Dubai’s ‘Annual Investment Meetings’; Kenya’s ‘African Caribbean Pacific Special Economic Zones’ summit and Malaysia’s ‘Special Economic Zone’ summit. I represent the magazine at all these conferences and I draw from our greenfield investment database called ‘fDi Markets’ to discuss foreign direct investment trends in locations. I also project some sector-specific outlooks, based on our specialist database.
Do you have a favourite town, city or country that you visited or worked in?
Each region has been extremely unique and I definitely do not have any favourites. However what I can say is I have had a few memorable occasions! For example I went to Franceville, which is a little city outside of Gabon’s capital (Libreville) to interview the President of Gabon. I also went to Chengdu in West China, known as ‘panda capital’. My hosts were kind enough to let me hold and cuddle a baby panda, which was enormous. I am also a great lover of food, so I found the cuisine in Malaysia, when I was staying in Kuala Lumpur, very memorable!
You are a thorough professional, nevertheless, your work could sound like “it’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it”. How do you manage the balance?
The job is not super easy, however I do not want to over-state the difficulty or try and put myself across as a superwoman! I honestly believe if you are well organised, and sometimes if you sacrifice some sleep, when the workload gets particularly heavy, you can have a good work and life balance. I am not a workaholic and I think If I worked all the time I would burn out. As I have gotten older, I have started doing a few things that have helped me increase my efficiency at work during the day, for example turning off my phone, staying off facebook, and so on. I also never take my work home with me, unless it is an exceptional emergency. When I leave the office that means it’s ‘me’ time and that’s when I turn my phone off, make time for friends and family. My weekends are always rest time for me!
How did it start for you, this drive to get to where you are today? Where the signs there from an early age?
I would like to say that I have always been driven but that has not been the case. When I really started striving to achieve more is when I begun university studying a Law degree, because I thought it was a ‘safe option’. I hated the course, and it was the first time in my life that I was consistently getting fails in my grades. I ended up dropping out of the course after about four months. I was quite miserable as a lot of people told me I would not go ‘very far’ in life without a Law degree. I have always found current affairs interesting so I decided to give Politics a chance as a degree. When I started the degree in Politics, I remember meeting a tutor and telling them I wanted to become a diplomat. The tutor turned around and told me I should lower my expectations and aim for a less prestigious role because I did not appear to have the aptitude for very competitive jobs.
I think all the negativity I received at this stage of my life woke me up and I decided to prove a lot of people wrong. I guess the rest is history.
Was there ever a time when you doubted the path you had chosen or are you one of those people who doesn’t entertain the word ‘doubt’?
I had doubts all the time! Not having a sense of direction in terms of ‘what next’ did create a lot of doubts in me, and I think part of my drive to always seek out new opportunities came from a fear that I would fail.
Do you feel you’ve ‘arrived’, reached the top of your profession? Or are there many more mountains to climb?
Absolutely not! Nelson Mandela once said “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” I completely believe that and there are even bigger mountains to climb. My journey is only beginning!
Many young folks look at you as a role model. Is that a mantle you feel comfortable wearing?
I honestly do not see myself as a role model. I am always happy to provide advice when asked but I am nowhere near perfect. I find it flattering when I am approach by people my age or younger, but I would definitely also say that I am a work in progress.
Speaking of ‘fighting poverty with business’, what are some of the practical ways this can happen?
I will speak from the perspective of sub-Saharan Africa. Firstly, I believe foreign profit-making firms have a huge role to play in fighting poverty with business. When foreign investors come to a region, they create local jobs for people who are otherwise unemployed. They bring their technical know-how and their experience of working in other more developed markets, and they transfer these skills to the local workers. Africa suffers from underinvestment and low human capital and foreign firms play an important role in developing this.
Secondly, their entry expands the growth of some sectors, for example this manufacturing firm will develop the host’s manufacturing capacity, through building their offices, establishing the technology that will enable more products to be locally manufactured.
Thirdly, both local and foreign firms should work in a closer relationship with the government to engage in public and private partnerships (PPPs) that both enhance the economic capacity of the African state. The problem with a lot of African countries is that their formal private sectors still remain relatively small, due to decades of underinvestment into important things like infrastructure and education. This means that with every little bit of growth, capacity limits are reached. Governments should issue more PPP contracts into things like road construction, railways, and so on, where the private sector can invest in part ownership and thus increase the capital available to complete the project.
I feel the onus is on the government to make the opening. Governments can increase FDI into their regions and access more capital by issuing more debt to local and foreign investors. We saw this with Zambia’s government which issued its $750 million dollar-denominated bond that was heavily over-subscribed. This is one of the ways governments can access the needed cash to engage in development projects, while on the flip side, foreign companies can make a profit which is not to the detriment of the local economy.
Finally, education systems really need some reforming. Tthis is a huge business opportunity for private profit-making educational institutions. A lot of private employers complain there is a pipeline problem where the supply of graduates does not necessarily meet their demands. Not enough are taught to focus on private sector work. Aid workers and senior governmental posts (both in the public sector) are over-glamourised and this can be reversed through private investors who specialise in education, setting up more private schools and universities that focus on say, aeronautical engineering, ICT, and other specialist roles.
We see many commentators talking about ‘the rise of Africa’. Are there practical signs that this is happening?
I agree – look at the statistics over the last decade. The fastest growing country between 2001 to 2010 was Angola, which topped China’s growth. Nigeria, Ethiopia, Chad, Mozambique and Rwanda were among the top ten fastest growing economies, over the same period. Between now and 2015, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Congo, Ghana, Zambia and Nigeria are among the top ten fastest growers globally.
And we also have Kenya, which is now building what is going to be East Africa’s first “Silicon Savanah”. In Machakos, they are building a ‘Technology City’, which will be worth $10 billion, to be completed over ten years. This will transform both Kenya, as well as sub-Saharan Africa as one of the world’s business hubs. Even in more remote regions like the DRC, the population of Lubumbashi, which is located in Katanga, close to Zambia, stands at around 1.5 million people and they are becoming wealthier. The Russian firm, Renaissance Capital, is constructing luxury apartments in the city, as its population size is expected to rapidly grow in the coming years. These people are not the ones you see on TV, who are impoverished and running away from militia. They are hard working, middle class consumers, increasingly able to afford more. I expect this growth story in Africa to continue and I am really optimistic.
Do you have any heroes/heroines/role models in or outside of your family, in life or in business?
I really admire the Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and if I can achieve a fraction of what she has done in life, that would be amazing!
Have you ever wanted to do something else, be someone else in a completely different filed to the one you’re in?
Not really – to be honest the moment I want to be ‘something else’ is the moment I sit and re-assess what I want from that ‘other’ life. Once I pinpoint what it is that I am missing, I decide to work towards getting it.
Any tips for any Promota readers thinking “I’d love to do what she does”?
If they are thinking that, I would say go for it. My advice is if journalism is what you want to do, begin by interning as much as you can at newspapers. If you cannot get into the big mainstream papers, go for the smaller ones or for start-up student papers or independent journals. You could also start your own paper, or intern elsewhere. It is less about where you intern, and more about the experience and the skills you acquire, and how you can illustrate that you are hard working, driven and entrepreneurial, in your own way. For example, I interned in two non-governmental organisations as a researcher in Senegal and Cameroon. This helped me get my big break, when I got onto an internship as an Editorial Researcher for another Financial Times publication called ‘This is Africa’. It was while I was there that I searched for opportunities and landed my role with fDi Magazine
Do you have any favourite African country? And do you care to tell us about your family roots?
I have no favourite country, I have rather memorable experiences. Each country I have been to in Africa has had a real special factor about it. The only country I hope to go back and live in at some point later on in my life is Senegal. I lived in Dakar while I was interning in an NGO called ‘Africa Governance Monitoring and Advocacy Project’. The weather is beautiful, the people are extremely friendly and their history is very rich. They have an island called “Goree Island” which is a UNESCO-protected heritage site It was used by Portuguese and French slavers during the ‘first scramble’ for Africa, to hold captured slaves before they were shipped off to Europe or the Americas. It is very haunting but very beautiful.
As for my heritage – I am Kenyan. I was born and raised for the early part of my life in Nairobi, Kenya, before we moved to the UK.
Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us here at Promota. Any message you’d like to send to our readers or ‘words of wisdom’?
Never limit your dreams or think them too ludicrous. When you want something, go for it and dedicate your energy to it. However, while you strive for the top, also never forget to remain happy. Don’t get caught up in the process and let unexpected setbacks change you or darken your outlook. Keep dreaming, work hard, and most of all stay positive and optimistic!