“DR Congo: Serge Nawej's Crazy Bet to Unlock the Huge Potential of Congolese Entrepreneurs”
(Ecofin Agency) - Serge Nawej, an international business lawyer specializing in Africa, has embarked on an astronomical feat in his country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo: making the National Commission of Young Entrepreneurs of the Congo a mega-company. His project: to co-ordinate more than 30,000 young Congolese entrepreneurs to collectively benefit from the tremendous business potential of their country. Their membership card: a credit card. Their common tool: a large commercial platform for communication and services. Their targets: the mines, agriculture, ICT and banks.
Ecofin Agency: What can push a world-class business lawyer to take the lead of a structure like the National Commission of Young Entrepreneurs (CNJE) of DRC ?
Serge Nawej: The luck of meetings and the fruit of the recognition of a certain reputation. To tell the truth, I did not spontaneously choose to take on this task as I already had a lot on my plate. From a professional point of view, I was already collaborating with Nicole Sul and her exceptional work with a group of businessmen and women called MAKUTANO. I was indeed among the first to think with Nicole about this concept which today is becoming more and more important in the Congolese business sector, and taking on the leadership of CNJE was a natural next step. From a more personal point of view, I think that this opportunity fulfils my desire to bring some of my international and local work experience that I believe to have marginally accumulated, and that I could bring to bear in the context of the DRC which is particularly misunderstood, even by Congolese themselves.
This title of "President" is for some a prestigious line on a resume, but for a person with like me an aversion of the titles, without questioning the prestige, it is an empty shell that I must fill, shape and perpetuate , beyond my person. This role comes with other responsibilities since I am also a director and member of the executive committee of the Federation of Enterprises of Congo of which CNJE is one commission.
My vision is not exactly conventional, but of that of the entrepreneurship and the development of the “affectio societatis” within the very organization. I admit that with this vision, I take risks in the Congolese environment, but I conceive, even if it had to be wrong or against wind-tides, the CNJE as a particular commercial project (aspiring to be commercially profitable), and then as a subsidiary company of an organization called upon to renew itself in the most effective way possible. I therefore attach a degree of autonomy which, to this day, is not called into question by the "Mother".
In fact, it is an additional challenge from which I will personally grow up or lose feathers, but will undoubtedly have accumulated knowledge for my next businesses or assignments. Failure does not absolutely scare me because it always serves a purpose.
This undertaking is also an opportunity to test the will of my fellow men to move from words to deeds, to test our ability to work together behind a vision that can be enriched at any time for a collective success. It is a b bit like forming a government. On this subject I have already learned a lot about the will, the motivation and the intention of each other. The CNJE must be a collective work of which I will gladly take responsibility if we fail, while sharing any successes with the FEC and my colleagues. As such, I will take the time it takes to establish a solid foundation and build an effective platform that is well recognized and sustainable, with the same dedication and outcomes of what drives you to consider me as "a lawyer of international caliber".
Ecofin Agency: How can we do business in the DRC in the political context as tense as uncertain, which prevails for more than two years?
Serge Nawej: I usually refer to what a Belgian entrepreneur, Flemish more precisely, once told me, which I paraphrase:
"It has been 40 years since I hear that Africa is in crisis. If a crisis is so long, it is that there is no crisis but a state of fact or, in short, a normal state. I have been making money in Africa since I understood that. I adapted and it works very well.”
Doing business, for me, means to taking risks. Our modern societies have so objectified the commercial nature of business to reduce it to mathematical equations, cold or insipid statistics, thus reducing the notion of risk, loss and responsibility to what is more cautious.
The question should be asked differently for the DRC: why are rational individuals not rushing or forming critical masses to invest and invest in the DRC?
Politically, we can see that this does not prevent some families, even recognized mining companies, from investing, or from directly or indirectly benefiting from their investments in the DRC. The question of the political context is basically a false problem for me. It's all up to our culture, to you and me, very francophone, and probably to our inability as a francophone to organize, what I say, to coalesce to make large-scale investments in this country. The truth is that we simply do not have the capacity and therefore we prefer to blame the political context, or even a single individual.
That said, it is clear that the context or the dramatization (of Congo not being a favourable environment to investors) that is made is not conducive to the realization of many international and domestic projects. But what do these projects really represent in terms of the number of transactions? The truth, without making a statistical study, is that these projects are marginal. But 80 million people have to dress, feed, communicate, despite the political situation. The resulting transactions are as important as those that attract the attention of the media and they generate more jobs. As Congolese, we have to understand this, and the visa policy and other restraints on travel to Europe has made us, for many, realize that we have no choice but to innovate and create an environment that works for us. I can perfectly do from Kinshasa what I did from Brussels or elsewhere in my capacity as a business lawyer. It's a bit more expensive and you have to relearn how to be patient with human resources and the internet, but the gratification of seeing people evolve and acquire the know-how is also part of my personal motivation.
Basically it's almost a political act to continue to fight for business to happen regardless of the political context. We cannot be held hostage by opinion makers or politicians, from whatever background they may be. As a Congolese I feel it as an obligation, although I must admit that some countries are much easier, and sometimes more accommodating to my activities. But you're never better than when you are contributing to the development of your own home.
It's my philosophy; like it or not.
Ecofin Agency: What is today the main obstacle to business development in the DRC?
Serge Nawej: I will quote the following interrelated points which are global obstacles as well as those unique to DRC::
- Academic and vocational training (including the absence of recognized modules of continuing education);
- Lack of knowledge or lack of mastery of the legal rules whose consequence is the persistence of the informal nature of our economy and the breeding ground for ubiquitous judicial or administrative decisions;
- Access to finance and understanding of the financial system. Banks mainly do not play the role that could be expected of such institutions in other contexts. Private equity / venture capital remains tentative but will become increasingly important as the economy becomes formalized, which is, in any case, favored by new technologies;
- The tax system is particularly complex and unsuited to the challenges of entrepreneurs, and contributes, through its instrumentalisation, to limit the will of entrepreneurs to take the step towards a formalization which in theory is the first base to hope to finance beyond the limits encountered by self-financing (personal or family);
- The search for ease, society does not value the work, but puts forward the money (easy) that should be, in my design, the fruit of a job well done or at least satisfactory. The result is a "small commissioner" mentality among potential entrepreneurs as well as state officials;
- Human resources are also a subject when looking for specific and sustainable qualifications. Indeed, beyond training, the lack of consistency, as well as the mentality of "primary assistants" (or uninhibited fatalism) that are found in all layers of society are a real problem for the realization of a long-term work. This in itself is good news for expatriate workers or for truly qualified Diaspora (I do not say graduates) able to resist the sirens of ease;
- The absence of incentives for locals.
The classic answer to the question would probably have been to mention corruption. As for money, it is in my opinion only a symptom of the disease, one of the easiest to diagnose, difficult to treat, impossible to eradicate completely. By treating the underlying disease as best we can, however and at best, avoid its recurrence in the most severe forms.
Ecofin Agency: And the main benefit?
Serge Nawej: The opportunities and the quasi-monopoly nature of certain sectors of activity, or at least the possibility of creating this character when one succeeds in penetrating a given market by the effect of a proposed product, a service, or the quality of the latter, which sometimes will create a niche that can be preserved relatively long, by demonstrating a certain skill. It is in this that some are delighted by the common perception of the country because they preserve their niche of serious competition.
Beyond this, how can we ignore a market of more than 10 million people in Kinshasa and 80 million people throughout the country (just think, conceptualize and offer a product or service (even digital) that would sell daily at 10% of the population hoping to generate unimaginable sums and create jobs, generate taxes, promote the establishment of infrastructure ...)? How can we ignore the agricultural, mining, aquifer and human potential of such a country if not through some bad faith or targeted ill-intentioned (let them get tangled up to recover their riches at a cheap price)?
Ecofin Agency: How many entrepreneurs are members of the CNJE so far?
Serge Nawej: For me to have entrepreneurs who do not have only the name, but the quality also, I need tools or a value proposal that will allow me to have those entrepreneurs who meet my criteria but also those commonly accepted at the FEC.
We test the tools in question and should start the enlistment of our entrepreneurs around a value proposition that we will specify. We plan, according to our forecasts to record +/- 30K young people, entrepreneurs or eager to become one. We already have databases thanks to the remarkable work of the National Commission of Women Entrepreneurs led by its very effective President Eliane Mukeni, also Vice-President of the FEC.
To the extent that I intend to implement a commission that would survive individuals, I am absolutely in no hurry and take criticism with as much pleasure as hindsight, for those who believe that we are not moving fast enough. I have, since taking office, conceptualized my vision and my plan of action, traveled to South Africa, Romania, Greece, Portugal, USA, via Brazil and Doha, in order to lead well my job of building an organized, connected and efficient institution. We also benefited from the wise advice of key people, including three African and American " billionaires " who are mentors and others whose names we will mention in good time but who are recognized worldwide for their work.
Ecofin Agency: What means does the CNJE have? Are you financially supported by private or public partners?
Serge Nawej: At this stage my wallet suffers and my wife makes the accounts ... More seriously, beyond any expressed willingness to work as a company, I think that the CNJE has no choice but to embrace an entrepreneurial mentality and to be credible, to demonstrate that it has been able to overcome the barriers faced by the young people we want to attract. We will only be more appreciated.
In this regard, we have started a collaboration with Keza Advisory Services, led by international development professional Leila Akahloun, who has experience in fundraising, in order to identify international sources of funding available to young people and women.
We have also benefited from the assistance of the company Papersoft which assists us in setting up our commercial platform, communication and services (value proposition). We have tested the model and are relatively confident about the relevance of our "revenue sharing" approach with our co-branded banking partners or card issuers. The CNJE membership card will be a credit card, co-branded or even sponsored. The idea is to confront young people to the world of finance starting with banking products and the history they will be created, being more easily known to their bank or financial institution. Our model is based on revenue sharing but also viral and based on a unique and proven Papersoft onboarding client technology, we will also allow several young members of the CNJE, also generate income or even build real banking agencies (based on the Agency banking model), initially dedicated to CNJE & Co. products and services
Part of the revenue generated by the CNJE will be devoted to its operation, but also to finance a fund that will be proposed to the management of professionals in the business. In this way, we want to finance youth activity in specific fields such as agriculture, new technologies, mining, insurance and banking.
At this stage, however, we operate on equity and the meager resources that my vice-presidents and I allocate. We can however quantify the sums invested to more or less 100KUSD since taking office and we have an immediate need around 250KUSD to start our activities, which will be profitable, according to our plan, as soon as we reach 30K members, paying a annual fee that we will initially ceiling at 50USD per individual performing at least two operations. In my opinion, these are sums that should be easily collected in an institution like the FEC.
Of course, to return to the platform, services are envisaged such as the provision of a virtual data room, training, benefits (loyalty program), first-rate legal services (first free consultation), a ranking companies ... The resulting database can be consulted by third parties for a fee, and a matching platform will be put in place.
Members may, subject to automated payment, if necessary, have their documents certified by duly selected law firms or notaries. The objective is to allow reliable investigations and due diligence by any person or entity that would be interested. Of course access to the secure data room that we offer to our members will be validated by the data owner, especially for data that is not publicly available. The certification, it will provide additional comfort to all parties.
The vocation is also to take participations in certain projects through one or more investment vehicles that will be created in due time and according to needs and even outside the DRC.
One of the objectives, with the implementation of a tool promoting the organization, referencing and promotion of companies, is also to work on the foreshadowing of what could lead us to a trading platform. We have informal discussions with stakeholders in South Africa through one of my mentors I referred to above. Mentoring in this is important.
The good news is that technically we are ready, but my desire to impact effectively pushes me to always delay the official launch of our field activities. My intuition, since business is also that, is confirmed given the enrichment experienced by our project. I am hopeful to raise the funds that would allow us to work calmly very soon, and I am interested to associate any local or international actor who could recognize in our approach.
Ecofin Agency: What can the CNJE bring to a young entrepreneur who wants to get started? help him to prepare his project? to find funding or partners? train him in management?
Serge Nawej: I see that you follow me perfectly, it is precisely all this that we wish to bring but in an effective way. We are not the first to have attempted the adventure, but we owe it to ourselves to have a significant impact in terms of the nature of the organization from which we emanate and the quality of the executive members of the commission.
Having presided over the success in the DRC and Africa of several projects and companies, or prevented investors from sinking into Congo Bashing because of their misunderstanding of the local environment, and thereby their unpreparedness or inadequacy, I have, in my little notes, wrote a recipe that I apply personally and that I will implement for the collective good hoping to impact usefully.
Technology is central to this approach, especially in a country where infrastructure is poor. My wish is to work not only with the MNOs (telco) but also with institutions like, for example, the Post Office which, I believe, is determined to revive in a very relevant way. We can be complementary. Privileged access to our resources, offered to our members, is essential, even in the absence of data. Let's bet that this could be a way for MNOs and ISPs to fulfill their CSR obligations. We will test their good faith.
We also want to give young people who want to be educated access to resources for this purpose. We will negotiate in good time with organizations like African Leadership University and other universities, Anglo-Saxon and Francophone. The idea is to offer tutorials, literature and even help get scholarships for these universities. We will negotiate for this purpose with Addictest and others.
I will start, with the help of Papersoft and Shawej, an investment vehicle to which I am linked, the phase of road show and contracting, now that we close with satisfaction the testing phase of our platform. The latter will of course be evolutionary and will expand as we implement our value proposition.
Finally, the goal is also to guide young people. Everyone will not be an entrepreneur. Some are dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs and must support with them in the collective interest. As such, we hear from entrepreneurs, but also from those who want to become entrepreneurs and those who do not have to embrace this path. The latter will eventually be able to find and find employment.
Agence Ecofin: Which sectors do you advise young Congolese entrepreneurs to go to? Digital? Agriculture ? Mines?
Serge Nawej: Naturally, these are the most promising sectors. The advice can be general, but it has an impact only according to the ambition of the person to whom it is addressed. Whoever wants to be part of the list of fortunes of Forbes has interest in finding the product or the service which could enable him to generate a dollar per day and per inhabitant of the Congo at least.
We must therefore be able to define the level of ambition and assist the aspirations, depending on whether we are dealing with traders, heads of small businesses, heads of medium or industrial enterprises, existing or future. The problems or challenges of these categories are sometimes poles apart. However, they can meet through collective initiatives, such as the projects that we will consider, in theory in year 3 of our mandate.
In other words as an entrepreneur, I must also be able to identify myself in one or more large-scale projects that, if they do not benefit my company directly, give me the right to enjoy the success that could result. And corporate and securities law, particularly as laid down by OHADA, offers multiple tools for structuring innovative approaches and truly giving rise to individually gratifying collective approaches.
However, current entrepreneurs are mostly in subsistence rather than entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship in a majority view allows not to rest and not necessarily to build a professional entrepreneurial vision. We want to help change that.
Ecofin Agency: You have established a 3-year action program. What are the main points? What is your goal for 2020 at the end of this program?
Serge Nawej: If I had to enumerate the gains it would be:
- 100 thousand members;
- Have built a mining vehicle that would hold a mining concession in partnership with the government or a Crown corporation. The vehicle would have classes of shares open to different categories of young people;
- To have constituted a similar vehicle for agriculture and banking-insurance. I believe in setting up a bank dedicated to young people that is almost completely dematerialized;
- Have set up an investment fund to support some of the projects initiated by the CNJE and its members.
"In every area, in any case, we have access to first-class partners. They observe us at this point, we will in time to push them to action. "
For each of our initiatives we have thought about models. For example, I am in the DRC with one of my business partners with proven expertise in the oil field, initiator of a model adapted to the local reality which is based in particular on the sharing of production in the mining sector. We can put it to the benefit of the collective as long as the government assists us. In each area, in any case, we have access to first-class partners. They observe us at this point, we will in time to push them to action.
Ecofin Agency: Do you still have time to develop your private business?
Serge Nawej: I was not able to achieve nearly 40% of my projected turnover in my law firm due to my attention being absorbed by these activities, but took the time to reorganize my activities and delegate to the maximum to be more effective. I must continue this task and sometimes even completely change my model because of the chronic inefficiency, even pathological, that we encounter. However, I am responsible for the choices made ... but think it is time for some to look for employment and value the training they received.
To move up a gear, I need to maximize efficiencies. It's also about being an entrepreneur, not being satisfied with the status quo and restructuring when you feel it's necessary.
"The world is changing and the DRC is in the middle of the stakes, it will never be easy. "
The other branches of my activities (IT / Telecom, Supply & Procurement, Mining) are developing well, we are achieving the theorized objectives and consolidating particularly promising strategic partnerships, including in the DRC, but not only since we want to be Pan-African in our approach. We will certainly have the opportunity to talk about it in due course.
Finally, I also make sure to attach the CNJE to my agenda. It's not up to the CNJE to dictate my agenda. She can do this when she becomes professional and can pay the members of her office. At this time, I think it will be time for me to give way to professional managers and no longer to a contractor or strategist a little crazy of my ilk. Just like any other entrepreneur who is a member, the CNJE must give me the chance to develop my activities. It's my philosophy; like it or not.
Interview by Dominique Flaux
Serge Nawej is a lawyer specializing in finance and projects, with a focus on projects related to Africa. It offers cross-border legal solutions and helps clients penetrate African markets. It focuses on sub-Saharan Africa and has exceptional knowledge of the Democratic Republic of Congo ("DRC"). He also works in countries such as Angola, Mozambique, South Africa, Somalia and Zambia. He is also very competent in OHADA law.
Serge Nawej is also an effective business strategist. He has been involved in the successful implementation of a number of companies across Africa (and beyond), but especially in the DRC. He has been recognized as one of the ten most innovative lawyers in the United States by the Financial Times. He also serves on the boards of several companies or organizations and provides strategic advice to both local and multinational companies.