It is one of the most exciting markets in Africa, with a growing, robust economy and a fairly large population. Everyone wanted to get into that market, and a door had just opened for us. I decided to handle it personally.
“I know the Minister very well,” said an old friend who was an influential businessman. “I can set up a quiet meeting so you can make a pitch directly on your company’s capability.”
We met in a hotel suite in the country’s capital. The Minister was much older than I, but we hit it off straight away. He was well educated, sophisticated and had traveled the world.
“You’re just the kind of guys we want here,” he said. “I like the fact that you guys are African.”
Music to my ears!
We continued to talk.
At some point, our interlocutor conveniently left us alone and then suddenly out of the blue the Minister said: “Personally, I don’t like having shares. I prefer cash. I think $3m is okay. I have a good relationship with the President and I’m allowed to run the show completely. I can get it done in a matter of weeks.”
I was totally speechless! Finally, I managed to tell him that I would need a few days to think and get back to him through our friend. And then I left as quickly as I could shortly after that.
Once out of the country, I never spoke to either again, despite their efforts to get hold of me. I completely stayed away from the country and never considered getting in again, for years.
For weeks and even months after that, I had many sleepless nights. I was really, really angry but not with the Minister and the interlocutor… I was angry with myself!
Every night I would toss and turn thinking about that meeting. And all the while I kept asking myself the same questions over and over again:
”What could I have possibly said in that meeting that could have led that Minister to think that I would accept such an indecent proposal?”
”Why didn’t I just tell him there and then: ‘This is corrupt and unacceptable!’”?
The answer to the second question was simple: fear! I feared that I would not be allowed to leave the country given how powerful he was.
The first question was much more profound, and led me to change the way I approach my own business dealings and meetings with powerful officials of this kind.
I realised that by agreeing to meet him quietly outside his office, I may have signaled to a corrupt man that I had come to do business “his way”. From that day, I was to avoid such meetings, insisting on formal contacts with other officials present.
Going to a public official’s home or meeting them privately outside the office should be discouraged by anyone wanting to uphold their integrity and that of those public office holders.
I went further: I no longer seek personal business meetings even with a Head Of State. I see lots of Presidents and Ministers but I don’t discuss with them my personal business interests anymore. I can discuss broader issues of industry and economic policy. I don’t discuss things that are specific to my company or businesses. If I have a complaint related to my business, I prefer to send my officials or to put it in writing.
More often than not, I prefer to discuss issues of global development, philanthropy or humanitarian interests.
Recently I traveled to Nigeria to see the Head of State and we discussed agricultural development in my capacity as the Chairman of Agra. We also discussed how to get more children into school, in my capacity as a member of the Global Business Coalition for Education.
A few months ago, I led a group of philanthropists to Kenya. They wanted to donate philanthropic money to provide solar electricity to the poor. It had nothing to do with my business interests or theirs. We also visited rural communities and listened to problems they have as a result of lack of electrical energy.
Would you go to see President Obama to discuss setting up a business in America? Of course not! So why the obsession to see presidents in Africa with our own personal business interests?
The fact that so many people do it does not make it right.
This does not mean business leaders should not meet politicians, but we must be careful about why we go, and the perception we create.
For economies to boom and people to prosper at all levels, we need consistent, transparent policies that apply fairly to all engaged in enterprise…including state-owned enterprises.
We also need vigilant citizens who know what those policies are, and do their part to stop the rot if they see it.