Seyi Bickersteth, National Senior Partner KPMG Nigeria, on Africa's potential to be great


“We [Africa] need to market ourselves more. We have a continent with lots of opportunities for people, we have a young and vibrant population and a growing middle class. We need to let people know that we are open for business and that we are very investor friendly,” says Seyi Bickersteth, National Senior Partner KPMG Nigeria & Chairman KPMG Africa Practice. Seyi has enjoyed a long and illustrious career – one that spans 40 years, in fact – and is no stranger to change. Currently, he oversees KPMG’s business in Africa, and calls his most important responsibilities developing people, outlining the vision for KPMG, and setting the strategy for how the firm will move forward. “Our clients are increasingly telling us they want to succeed in Africa but in order to do that they need a firm that can provide a single point of contact to meet all of their expectations in the region. This guides our strategy.”

How is the role of the CFO taking shape in Nigeria?
"The role of the CFO has certainly changed. I think you need to be very clear on your strategy and on how you get there. So the CFO might still be dealing with financial matters, but it's not just debit and credit anymore. You've got to know your strategy and know your business. The CFO's primary role is raising and deploying capital adequately, but this includes human capital. To do that you must look at the processes and consider whether you have the right resources to pursue your identified strategy. Then the finance part should fall into place."

"You cannot be an exceptional CFO these days without knowing something about strategy and the other parts of the organisation."

In your profession, what are you most passionate about?
"My profession is a consulting profession, which means I'm constantly learning. And not only learning by the rules, because there's a difference between the theory and the practice. You've got to know the theory but it's a moving target. When you're advising your client you must say, here's the rule book but here are the practicalities going forward, and work to achieve what you want to achieve within those rules. I've stayed in this profession because things are always changing - rules and practicalities are changing."

"When you have this passion, as I do, there's no difference between work and play. So you're just having fun. You spend 40 years just having fun."

What are you working on currently?
"Building the next generation and transitioning to the next generation. Part of this is the position of women in our firm. This year in the Nigerian firm we are admitting seven partners, and six of them are women. This makes me extremely proud. These women are wives and mothers, and also have strong careers. That's not an easy thing. Developing those women over the years to get them to partner level has been one of my greatest achievements."

What role do you think KPMG has to play in the advancement of Africa?
"If you look at the African continent, the key thing is to say, how do you develop and how do you ensure sustained development and provide employment for people and lift people out of poverty?"

"In order to satisfy those aspirations, you need various things. You need to grow business, so growing business is extremely important for us as KPMG. You also need to ensure diversity of business and put businesses on a path of sustainable growth. If you help companies to grow, you solve the issues of poverty and unemployment, which is very important in Africa."

"People are also raising capital in order to finance growth. Because of the role we play in the auditing function it's important for us to ensure that people trust the capital markets, and that we provide a fair and true view thereof. Regulation is also important. No matter what you do, businesses must be regulated. So we work with regulators to ensure we provide an environment that helps people and businesses to grow but also takes into account the responsibilities we have to government."

What business and investment opportunities are there currently in Nigeria, and how adequately are these being explored and exploited?
"If you look at Nigeria, as with most African countries, the most important thing is the building up of infrastructure. I mean across the spectrum, so also things like education, roads and rail. The problem is that government just doesn't have the money to do all of that, it is severely constrained. In that regard there are massive opportunities for the private sector to come in and help government to do that."

"Government must create an enabling environment that allows the private sector to come in and do this, and to make a profit in the process. I think government is open to that kind of investment. Their attitude is that we need private investment and are willing to do what it takes to entice such investments."

What do companies need to do in order to participate in growth opportunities in Africa?
"You've got to have the capacity, and this involves many things - setting up a good structure, ensuring you have the financing, ensuring you've got the people. I think you've got to have a horizon that is medium to long term. And you have to be willing to participate fully. To benefit yourself and government it's a two-way street."

Where do South Africa and Nigeria fit into the world economy? Where does Africa fit into the world economy?
"We are talking here about the two biggest economies in sub-Saharan Africa. There's a whole lot of things that those two economies can do. One thing we haven't done well in Africa is promote intra-African trade and investments. We've started; we can see a lot of investments moving upwards towards the rest of Africa from South Africa and are also seeing Nigerian investments moving outwards, such as Dangote, and some Nigerian and South African banks moving outwards, but I think we need to trade among ourselves more."

"We also need to say to ourselves, these two economies, how are they going to help Africa grow out of the boom and bust cycles of commodities? Because the only way to do that is to add value in the chain, so to go from just exporting crude oil or platinum or gold, to adding value. Because when you take that step you begin to grow your economy."

"I'd like to see those two economies be in the lead, but to do that we need cooperation and understanding between them and between the political leaders of each. We need to say, we are in this together, we are not rivals. This should not be a zero-sum game. Let us cooperate together and be the engine of growth for Africa."

What lessons can South Africa take from Nigeria and vice versa?
"One of the great things about Nigeria is that you go in there and you can feel the energy, the entrepreneurial spirit in the country. And Nigeria is where it is because of this. So one of the things South Africa can take from Nigeria is this issue of having a willingness to do things and to cultivate this energy."
"In South Africa you have a rule of law that is important and to me this lays the foundation for good governance and the sustainability of democracy. If you look at the issue of Zuma going to the constitutional court - that is very big. The fact that you had a group of judges who ruled on that is excellent. Nigeria still needs to learn that and build up those sorts of institutions like South Africa has, in order to ensure our democracy is sustainable."

In your opinion, what is the biggest misconception out there about the African economy and doing business on the continent?
"People say it's a very difficult environment to do business in, that it's corrupt, that you never get to do things based upon rationality, that it's all based upon who you know. They also say that if you get past all of this, there's also the issue of infrastructure to contend with. Those are the things we've got to overcome."

What about corruption in Africa?
"Corruption in Africa is still a problem and it's extremely corrosive. If you look at Nigeria today and the current government of President Buhari, one of the keystones of his policy is to take corruption out of the system. But I think the most important thing to do to target corruption in Africa is to trust the market, because if you trust the market and have an economy that is not based on collections but rather on providing a level playing field, we'll get somewhere faster. I also think it's important in Africa to align crime with punishment - especially for the elites, because they get away with a whole lot of things."

"So if you can trust the markets and put your economy in the hands of people who are truly willing to risk their capital, and also align crime with punishment, I think you'll see a lessening of corruption. You won't totally eliminate it but you'll be moving in the right direction."

What do you feel Africa most needs to improve its brand?
"We need to market ourselves more. We have a continent with lots of opportunities for people, we have a young and vibrant population and a growing middle class. We are willing to respect the sanctity of contract and we are doing something about curbing corruption. We need to let people know that we are open for business and that we are very investor friendly."

What lessons in leadership are needed to ensure that Africa reaches its full potential?
"For me it's about viewing leadership as a form of stewardship: you are building for the next generation. This is the same regardless of whether you are in a corporate environment or leading a country. You have to say to yourself, how can I make it better? Life is finite, nobody is going to live forever. At the end of the day, whether it's a company or a country, it's not your personal holding. So you have to ask, when my life is over, what have I left behind for the next generation? That's the key. If leaders in Africa have that orientation, that kind of vision, that it's all about stewardship and what they've done for the next generation, then I think we'll be in a much better space."

More About Seyi Bickersteth
Prior to being the Chairman of KPMG Africa Practice and National Senior Partner of the Nigerian Practice, Seyi was the Head of Tax and Regulatory practice and served as engagement partner on major tax advisory and compliance projects. He currently plays an oversight and coordinating role in KPMG's delivery of professional services to companies in the countries comprising the Gulf of Guinea including Nigeria, Cameroun, Angola, Equatorial Guinea & Gabon. He also heads the Oversight Committee for KPMG Africa. Moreover, Seyi is a director of the Nigerian-South African Chamber of Commerce and a director of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, a think-tank responsible for brainstorming and articulating key policy and institutional reforms necessary to upgrade Nigeria's infrastructure base. He was involved in Vision 2010 of the Federal Government of Nigeria, which prepared a memorandum on the vision for Nigeria, by year 2010, and also chaired a working group on "Nigerian Tax Reforms 2003 & Beyond" for the Federal Government of Nigeria. Furthermore, he served on the technical committee of the Federal Government which prepared the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) for the oil and gas sector. He has a B.Sc in Economics from the University of Ibadan and an M.Sc in Economics from York University in Canada, and is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN) and Chartered Institute of Taxation of Nigeria (CITN).

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