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Managed Growth through Strategy & Culture

Mrs. Kanayo Awani is an Executive Vice-President at Afreximbank heading the Intra-African Trade Bank. In this exclusive interview, she explains how the bank has managed its growth and why processes are key to the bank’s success.

Afreximbank has become the go-to bank for Africa. Under the leadership of Professor Benedict Oramah, President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Afreximbank has increased its balance sheet to over $22bn, doubling in the last five years. The Bank is currently looking to substantially increase its capital base. Its philosophy, from the outside at least, seems to be to ask what’s holding back African development and rapid growth, and then to work out a way to fix it.

The Bank is increasingly solicited by Sovereigns, and private and public sector players, and has become the de-facto institution to help make reality of the opportunity afforded by the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.

What we seek to find out is how the bank operates from within to bring about its growth agenda and to ensure that these ambitions are realised. This, as Mrs. Kanayo Awani explains, is the result of a clear strategic direction from the top, a performance management system that she says has come a long way since she joined Afreximbank from American bank Citibank in 2009, and a work culture that emphasises commitment to Africa.

Mrs. Awani has become a pillar within the bank and a critical cog in the Bank’s AfCFTA initiatives. In June she was appointed as Executive Vice President (EVP) of the Intra-African Trade Bank, a new executive division responsible for driving all the Bank’s intra-African trade activities and AfCFTA implementation engagements. She headed the Intra-African Trade Initiative Division (as Managing Director) that led the establishment of the Intra-African Trade Fair, launched in 2018. EVP Awani was previously a Director of Afreximbank’s Trade Finance and Branches Department, driving the Bank’s business development efforts in trade finance across Africa.

Awani sits on several committees within the institution including the risk and strategy committee, and Assets and Liabilities Commitee. She chairs the Business and New Products, and industrialisation committees. She led the Performance Improvement Levers Committee, which which was instrumental to re-designing the performance management system of the Bank across its activities, a key component of its execution strategy.

When it comes to performance, Awani says that it really does start at the top. The bank’s strategy has been clearly articulated which means that the objectives are clearly defined with a clear road map under a balanced scorecard approach that is used to measure performance. The president of the bank was explicit about what the bank should focus on and that their work is directed ultimately by their five-year strategy. “President Oramah was clear about the direction he wanted to take for the Bank, and it coincided with the 2017-2021 plan of Impact 2021 – Africa Transformed. If you listen to that inaugural speech, which focused on growth of Intra-African Trade, it was clear that he wanted to make that the arrowhead of his mandate for those first five years.” The current strategy Impact 2026 – Extending the frontiers, has a similar mandate in terms of focus on accelerating intra-African commerce through strategic interventions and investments across borders towards ensuring the successful implementation of the AfCFTA.

Have the internal systems contributed to the banks effectiveness? EVP Awani credits the Bank’s success to a number of factors. She attributed part of the bank’s success to the commitment of staff to Africa such that people don’t see working for the bank as a job but rather as a vocation that sees them invested in their jobs and in the cause.

It is also a result of the commercial mindset and entrepreneurial approach they bring to the table. Even though the bank works with policy makers to overcome bottlenecks and correct market failures, its commercial approach brings with it a result-oriented mentality. The diversity of staff is important here also, she explains. They have many staff who have worked in government and public institutions but also many others who have come directly from the private sector. All staff go through an orientation process to imbibe the values and culture of the Bank.

The executives of the Bank, she says, have also instilled a can-do attitude to everything. “If it cannot be done, it is our role to see how we can do it, and we do it…these are the drivers behind PAPSS [a cross border payment solution] and MANSA [a due diligence platform to provide market and counterparty information to help bring about greater transparency to enhance cross border trade] or even the Intra-African Trade Fairs (also instrumental for achieving greater access to trade and market information), and many other initiatives and programmes of the Bank.”

The performance management system is also key to implementation. “This has evolved over the years. Using the balance scorecard approach and Bank’s strategy that are set at enterprise, department unit and individual levels ensuring ownership and accountability. It is now the object of a case study at a business school. So, success I would say, is having the right systems in place as well as the right mindset. Having introduced this system, it has now become systemic to help staff to achieve results. We may have a strategy on paper, but this has brought in a new dimension to esuring implementation.

Focusing on the Intra-African Trade Strategy, she noted that it is hinged on three and a half pillars. The first, facilitate capacity for expansion of production and processing capacities, in other words interventions that support local manufacturing and local value addition. The second is to act as a connector, identifying key agents to “connect the dots”, linking buyers and sellers in the intra-trade value chains across the continent. The third is to intervene to support the delivery of efficient and cost effective distribution channels within the continent. All this is tied together through a robust monitoring and measurement mechanism which is the ancillary pillar (measure). “We are clear that we do not want to just talk, but to walk the talk.”

When Mrs. Awani was asked to lead the Intra-Africa Trade Initiative, it was like being handed a blank cheque and it was effectively just her and a Personal Assistant at the outset. “We just got to work and looked at what was needed to implement the strategy that the Bank had researched, developed and honed. We started to build internal capacity, introduce products and develop concept notes to effectively deal with the issue of finance and facilitation. Finance was not necessarily the main issue. We saw that the main drawbacks holding back Intra-African trade were issues of lack of access to trade and market information, infrastructure, multiple currencies, supply side constraints, standards, transit costs and other non-tariff barriers, and structural constraints.”

The Intra-African trade division has two departments - trade finance and trade facilitation which she heads. As part of trade facilitation, we have the Trade Fair and also a number of other programmes such as the Creative Africa Nexus (CANEX) to drive greater investment into the creative sector as well as the Diaspora initiatives.

The Bank is also decentralising some of its operations and expanding its regional footprints. They currently have offices in Yaoundé in central Africa, Abidjan and Abuja for West Africa, Harare for Southern Africa and in Kampala for Eastern Africa as well as their headquarters in Cairo, Egypt. The idea is to get closer to where the business is and as the Bank grows its capital base, the best way to grow its balance sheet, explains Awani, is through more local presence. “It helps build specialisation, helps our risk management, and supports the commercialisation of our products into new markets.”

Capacity building is a big part of what the Bank does to enhance trade and to bring in new products such as factoring and supply chain finance into different markets. There are also capacity building initiatives to support our industrialisation agenda, for example, the workshops held in Malawi and eSwatini to build capacity around project preparation, industrial parks, and Export Trading Companies.

There is talk that many EVPs will be leaving the Bank in the next three to four years, having reached retirement age. Is this something that is of concern? “With my own team, and elsewhere in the Bank, succession planning is an integral part of management. We have Directors and Heads of Functions that are sufficiently empowered to step into leadership roles. They are being groomed. The idea is to ensure that there are people who can take over the mantle, who can run the Bank’s affairs and who can deliver according to our mandate. “These identified leaders are part of the management and strategy meetings. They are definitely part of the conversation.” The bigger question of succession planning at the President level, that is a question for our president, Prof. Oramah.” But there are structures and processes to deal with this, she explains.

What’s next for the Bank? “We are capital raising now to be able to expand our work in support of Africa’s development. We also have to make sure we have the right skills in the right areas. We have a strong team, and occasionally we find ourselves stretched. One of the exercises the Bank is going through is to be more scientific in our manning approach, looking at how to be more productive and allocating resources as efficiently as possible. We have many brainstorming sessions and consultative forums to continuously improve on execution. Our job is to deal with the gaps in the market. And there are still many to fill.”


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