Home East Africa Interview with Jendayi Frazer, Managing Partner, African Exchange Holdings (AFEX)

Interview with Jendayi Frazer, Managing Partner, African Exchange Holdings (AFEX)

Interview with Jendayi Frazer, Managing Partner, African Exchange Holdings (AFEX)

By Dave Ramaswamy, Africa Agribusiness Magazine

Jendayi Frazer is the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, heading the Bureau of African Affairs from 2005 to 2009. She is now Chairman of the Board of East Africa Exchange, building agricultural commodity exchanges in Africa.

Dave: Please tell us about the East Africa Exchange. What are its goals? Who are the partners involved? What is your implementation timeline?

Jendayi: East Africa Exchange (EAX) is our regional commodity exchange. It aims to serve the East African Community and is based in Rwanda. We’re moving to Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and eventually to Tanzania. Africa Exchange Holdings (AFEX) owns EAX. AFEX is the parent company with three partners — Tony Elumelu, Nicolas Berggruen and myself. AFEX has one other subsidiary, AFEX Nigeria, which seeks to be a commodity exchange in Nigeria.

Dave: What are the goals you would like to achieve through this commodity exchange?

Jendayi: The vision of the partners is to transform African agriculture through market-based solutions. Our approach is through commodity exchanges and through warehousing.

The agriculture sector is important to Africa’s prosperity because it employs so many people. Some 65% to 85% of the population in most countries is in agriculture, so it’s a strategic sector for the continent and for most countries. If you want to have a transformative impact then agriculture becomes a key sector. The vision is to help formalize agriculture. It’s a sector that has many small-scale farmers, with fragmented landholdings. It’s a sector that is a key input into agro-processing and industrialization.

How can smallholder farmers capture the most value? How do you introduce reliability in food security and ensure food safety? How do you have quality inputs into agro-processing? The agriculture sector then becomes key.

We bring value in three ways. First, through the commodity exchange, we support price transparency. The small-scale farmer can then know what the true value of her output is across the market as a whole. She can compare this price with what she is offered by a middleman, at farm gate, after harvest. And in most cases the exchange will offer a price premium, which means a higher income for her.

Second, we build warehousing. That helps to address the issue of spoilage. So much of the food that’s produced in Africa never gets to market. It’s spoiled and we lose tremendous value there.

Third, through our warehousing, we help farmers build collateral as they deposit their crops. So, you can get banks involved to lend against that. We do that through warehouse receipts. This receipt certifies that the crop in the warehouse is safe and meets standards.

Overall, we want to increase incomes for smallholder farmers and build a vibrant agriculture sector. We’re doing it in three ways:

— Through commodity exchange, which increases price transparency,

— Through warehousing, which reduces crop spoilage, and

— Through electronic warehouse receipts, which increase bank lending.

Dave: Why was Rwanda selected as a launch country, since you mentioned countries like Kenya, Uganda and Burundi for expansion?

Jendayi: It’s the ease of doing business. The business environment in Rwanda is attractive to investors, and the government moves fast. We went to all of the countries in East Africa. We first approached the East African Community (EAC), and we entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with them. This stated we could be the regional exchange, working with each EAC member state. The EAC member states comprise Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. We’re working with the EAC as a community, at the secretariat level.

We approached all the EAC member states in parallel. Rwanda moved the quickest to establish an agreement with us. We were able to register our company and become operational faster in Rwanda. So, the business environment in Rwanda was most receptive to getting started.

We see Kenya and Uganda as essential markets for us to participate in. Uganda is the breadbasket of the region. Kenya is the financial hub and also one of the largest markets there. Tanzania is quite important as well since it produces significant food product.

Dave: What are your planned investments in this first phase? I know Rwanda just launched. How do you see your investments evolving over the next two or three years?

Jendayi: We signed our first agreement with the Rwanda government in 2012, and 2014 was our first full operational year as an exchange. We started with auctions to test the market and get a sense of what the pricing is. It was also a way to introduce ourselves to the market. At the start of 2015 we go to a spot market in Rwanda. Then, we’re looking to organize a regional spot market. Finally, we move on to futures and derivatives trading.

We’re looking at 2016 or 2017 for futures and derivatives for the Rwanda market. As far as the traded commodities, we started with maize and beans. From there we plan to trade cash crops including tea and coffee. Finally, we plan to allow trading of minerals and energy. That’s the progression of the products.

We have been self-financed up to this point. Our principals Tony Elumelu and Nicolas Berggruen have provided the majority of the funding. The investment that they’ve put in over the last two and a half years is about $10 million to $12 million. As far as investments going forward, they’ll continue to contribute, of course. We’ll take shareholders from anywhere in the world. But we would particularly like other East African investors as shareholders. We want local buy-in as we strive to be an East African exchange.

We would like to partner with development finance institutions (DFIs). This is because we face a big capital expenditure in warehousing. Back-end warehousing is critical to formalize this commodity market and allow for spot trading.

Along with warehousing, having collateral management is key. You can have a building and put something in it and it rots inside. With collateral management, we can build a platform for using crops/grain as collateral. This allows banks to lend against that collateral to smallholder farmers. So, we’re looking at a significant investment over time.

 

Dave: What are your implementation challenges?

Jendayi: Some of the challenges are on the trading side. This requires working together with the banks on settlement. What has happened in the past is one seller will offer their crop and the buyer will buy. Then the buyer disputes over crop quality. And then the buyer defaults on the settlement side by not taking possession. We’ve had to establish relationships with banks to enforce the legitimacy of the counter-party to that transaction. This is to ensure that settlement occurs and fairness to both buyers and sellers.

Also there have been cases where the underlying product or collateral wasn’t there. We have to ensure the underlying product or collateral exists. We have to ensure product quality and standards. That is one of the bottlenecks on the trading side.

On the warehousing side, the challenge has been collateral management. So, we need companies that guarantee the quality and quantity of crop in warehouse, and, if necessary, will be there to take delivery of the physical crop or grain.

On the trading side, our strategic partner is NASDAQ OMX. That’s the electronic platform that we’re using so trading can take place from anywhere. In Rwanda we will be rolling out the NASDAQ platform to the warehouse level. This way cooperatives and others can have access to it.

On the warehousing side, our strategic partner is Collateral Management International (CMI). They are the main collateral managers for the South African Futures Exchange (SAFEX). They’re prepared to put their balance sheet behind the product in our warehouses. We have certified warehouses that are exchange-based warehouses.

On the financing, we’ve developed relationships with banks. We also have a partnership with a company called Done Technology which issues our electronic warehouse receipts and does our warehouse inventory management. They do the warehouse receipts for the South African Futures Exchange as well. Our strategic partners are the banks that are doing the financing— Ecobank is one in Rwanda, and there are a couple of others.

United Bank for Africa (UBA) is doing financing of our warehouse receipts in Nigeria. We’re also looking to other partners on the banking side. Of course, the local and national governments are key partners.

Educating the market is also a challenge. This means reaching out to cooperatives, farmer groups and others to give them confidence in the exchange and explain to them how it works. Even reaching out to the ministers. Many African ministers don’t know the intricacies of commodity exchanges. So, the education process is challenging yet critical.

Dave: There is no agricultural investment that survives first contact with rural African reality. You can’t just have a warehouse, you also need electrical power. This is to ensure grain/crops are maintained at the right humidity and temperature and don’t rot inside. In rural Africa, construction standards are different from that in the West, and sourcing materials for warehouses is difficult. Who are the providers or partners you’re working with to overcome these challenges?

 

Jendayi: In Rwanda and Nigeria, we have partnered with the respective Ministries of Agriculture. In Nigeria, there are a lot of grain stores, warehouses and silos managed by the Ministry of Agriculture. They have given us access to a few of those warehouses. But, we had to bring in the equipment to upgrade them to our standards. That’s a heavy capital investment, but we’re making it.

The same is true in Rwanda. The Ministry of Agriculture provides the physical warehouse structure. We bring in the dryers and all the equipment that we can put inside. We bring the warehouses to a standard so that we can use them. We don’t own that warehouse, but we bring in assets to maximize its utility.

It’s a type of public-private partnership (PPP). The government benefits, the community benefits. We’re looking forward to the same type of model in Kenya. There the National Cereals and Produce Board has significant warehouses. We would like to lease some of them.

We are talking to the development finance institutions (DFIs) to help finance warehouse construction. It’s a public good for the country.

Dave: You spoke of public-private partnership and I want to build on that. Africa has phenomenal agriculture potential. A critical limiting factor to realize that potential is governance. Countries in Africa still have laws on the books that, to farmers, are exploitative and predatory. Many of these laws are a legacy of the colonial era. So, legislators need to make farmer-friendly policy changes. What are the top three governance changes required for agriculture investments?

Jendayi: That’s a great question.

First, uniform enforcement of regulations around food safety. Currently, there’s food getting into the market that’s diseased. It’s got aflatoxins and other harmful organisms. For instance, the testing of certain grains and others is not well done. We had a case where we tested some maize for aflatoxins. Aflatoxins could cause liver cancer. We had to send it to three different countries to see if it was safe for human consumption. It was difficult to verify whether the maize sample was carrying this toxin. You don’t want it to get into the food supply. Yet, people were selling this maize across countries. There are a lot of vested interests do not want enforcement of those standards.

Second, I think one of the challenges of the market is fragmentation. One of the requirements to make African agriculture competitive globally is scale. Every country wanting their own exchange is not going to work. Then, you cannot bring in the needed liquidity to ensure that scale.

I think that countries trying to control the food supply in their territory is a problem. For instance, when there’s a shortage of maize in some countries, they’ll put up export restrictions. They hinder the market in ways that depress prices and compound shortages over time. I think we need harmonization of laws that allow for formal integrated markets. They are already informally integrated. To formally integrate the markets is key to the success of Africa’s agriculture and to make it competitive globally.

Third, is the issue of how governments regulate capital markets and exchanges. Countries are currently struggling with the notion of the warehouse receipt. Many of them are trying to pass legislation around warehouse receipting. A warehouse receipt is just a contract. And banks can lend against that.

Governments need to allow for the exchange to exist as an institution. It can be self-regulating at first, so that it gets started. You allow it to exist on the basis of contract law. The banks will lend to an institution if that institution has integrity.

 

Governments should not attempt to over-regulate the sector with laws that govern exchanges.

Dave: Homeland security starts with food security. Food security in turn requires energy security. If you look at ongoing conflicts in Africa, they have food security underpinnings.

You have helped resolve conflicts in various parts of Africa. What do you think is a good framework for winning the peace that incorporates sound food and energy policy?

Jendayi: I was just in Eastern Congo working on a project in a community dialogue. Different communities have in the past been in conflict and compete for resources. We separated the groups and asked them what would be their top development priority. This is an agricultural area. All the community members said access to the market.

I think that agriculture is such a strategic sector. If you can make it viable as a business opportunity, it can serve as a foundation for prosperity. If you allow farmers to maximize the value of their labor, you will end up having a lot less conflict.

When resources are scarce that’s when people are going to fight the most. Farmers need to have access to markets that provide fair value to their labor and increase their incomes. Then, the likelihood of conflict is much, much less. You can make agriculture viable for smallholder farmers. I’m not suggesting that it stay there. We need to take the way production is organized today and formalize that. Then, we need to ensure that there’s value transferred back to the producers and build from there. Make farming a formal way of earning a living, not subsistence but entrepreneurial.

Dave: The Obama administration has announced Power Africa. How do you build agriculture clusters around these planned energy investments?

Jendayi: That’s a good question. My understanding of the Power Africa initiative is that the administration is trying to lock up deals that are already present. They’re trying to take it the last mile to conclusion or to closing. They’re not the initiator of the deal. The market is going to determine where you have these agriculture clusters.

What we need to do with our commodity exchange is ensure that we have warehousing located in strategic locations, so people who are producing crops can store it close to the point of production. Then, we need to have access to the roads and the infrastructure so that we distribute crops to those who are trying to buy or use it. We’ll make the market by formalizing it. But our distribution will follow the market.

Dave: Starting in 2008, African governments offered big land concessions to foreign investors. Unfortunately, after four or five years most of these investments never got off the ground. The ones that did have failed or are close to doing so. There are various reasons for why they failed, but one of the biggest reasons is what I call the “first mile problem.” Governments gave out these land parcels in regions where there was no asphalt road. No power. No irrigated water supply.

Investors thought they were getting food. All they got was a photo of food.

 

Jendayi: Exactly.

Our example of that is in Rwanda. A few of the initial warehouses that we wanted to have access to were based in non-grain-producing areas, so they were not of great value to us. We had to go back to the government and say, we need to get warehouses where the grain is actually produced.

Dave: Reminds me of the joke about a drunk guy looking for his keys where the light is, not where he lost his keys.

Jendayi: That’s right. In our case, because we are building our exchange on the foundation of small-scale farmers, we have less of that challenge.

Our challenge is on the distribution side. If we have grain stored in warehouses, how do we transport that to the city or to other countries?

The way we’re going to do that is through our network of warehouses. That’s where the collateral management comes in. If someone buys a crop sales contract on the exchange, the point of delivery can be in another country. We’ll be able to do it that way, which is why a regional exchange makes so much sense in East Africa. Like I said, there is a big debate right now about national versus regional. We are the first regional exchange, because the market is already regional. There are others who are pushing back saying, no, we have to have a national exchange first.

In the East African Community, there’s not a single country that can have a viable individual exchange that can be sustained from liquidity standpoint. All East Africa has a smaller GDP/market than Nigeria. I think there’s some reality that needs to come into place. The way we’ll do it, like I said, is with a network of warehouses.

We also have the NASDAQ platform which has done regional. You can take national faces and bring it to the regional platform. The NASDAQ OMX platform that we are using did a regional exchange in the Nordic countries.

We know how to do it. It’s a matter of policy makers understanding the necessity from a scale point of view and a liquidity point of view. Africa is changing fast. I can see that exchanges are going to be key to the transformation of the agricultural sector. Some people would argue that maybe it’s too early, the market is not ready. I don’t believe that.

I think that small-scale farmers need institutions that will allow them to capture the value they grow. That’s through price transparency. At harvest time, they’re all flooding the market with their crops, dropping the prices. Now what they will do is they will sell some for school fees and other expenses and then they can hold back some and then try to sell crops when the market is even better. I think we can offer that value to them through the exchange and also the financing through collateral management. I think it will have a big impact.

Dave: Congratulations on your pioneering work.

Jendayi: It’s going to be quite phenomenal. If we make it, it will be phenomenal. I’m sure we will. I can see that it’s truly going to be transformative. We’re not the only ones. If you look at the market right now, if you look at the landscape of exchanges, commodity exchanges, you have SAFEX which is private sector-led, based on large-scale farmers and successful over many, many years.

Then you have the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange, which is government-owned, based on small-scale farmers and in the interim looks successful. There are still some years to go. We have to test it more, but it looks like it’s been a successful approach. We’re right in between.

We’re private sector but working with small-scale farmers. We have to prove a model that doesn’t exist yet.

Dave: At the U.S.-Africa summit held a few months ago, there were some administration critics saying “it’s too little, too late” for Africa. This was a weak attempt by the U.S. to play catch-up with China. How do you see private sector players from the U.S. working in Africa? Some of them feel like they cannot compete with the Chinese government for projects. It’s a multi-polar world, and you see it in Africa as well. You have Indian and Brazilian companies working there. How can U.S. private sector interests form a coalition to fund African development?

Jendayi: Yeah, it’s a great question. First, I don’t think the American private sector has “lost the game” by China’s new interest in Africa. I think that the American private sector should see China’s involvement as beneficial to them. One of the ways in which China is coming in is on the infrastructure side. That infrastructure is necessary for American companies to do business at less cost. It’s an advantage.

The disadvantage that China presents to the U.S. is on the fairness side. That’s the issue of corruption and lack of transparency, because China can play that “lack of transparency” game and American companies cannot.

At this moment in time, it is a disadvantage. Over the long term, American or other companies that operate according to the rules will win out. Chinese companies will have to start operating according to the rules. Africa’s civil society, governments and even the African private sector are going to demand fairness. A lack of fairness could lead to collapsed infrastructure and even lives lost. During economic development, every country goes through this arc where corruption becomes quite expensive.

I suspect that over the long term American companies won’t be in a losing position. I think there are many African countries and many African businesspeople who want to do business with American companies. That’s because they know there’s going to be fairness, innovation and true competitiveness. On the Obama administration and how the U.S. government facilitates companies coming in, I think the U.S. government can do a lot more in Africa, a lot more to help American companies be more competitive.

I think the President’s trip, especially the second trip, and the initiatives that he laid out help. Even the U.S.-Africa summit goes a long way toward that, as well as the summit matching the U.S. private sector up with Africa’s private sector. Now those guys were already matched, let’s be honest. Most of the American companies that came to this summit have already been doing business in Africa, and they’ll be the big players in Africa. It was nice to convene around a set of initiatives that were constructive and needed.

I think the Obama administration has stepped up its game in the second term and I think that is positive.

 

Dave: What are your key messages to investors waiting on the sidelines to enter Africa?

Jendayi: First, he who moves fast and first usually wins the day. So don’t wait too long, or you’ll be locked out. But otherwise I don’t mind investors sitting on the sidelines because we move fast and first, so let them sit there. Second, go big and grow bigger than the problem. There’s a lot of opportunity in Africa. The perception of Africa versus the reality is so different. It’s so huge. You can do business in Africa, and people make good money doing so.

Dave: What can the U.S. and the world learn from Africa? What are things that you have seen with your experience that serve as a role model to other parts of the world?

Jendayi: Africa has a lot to teach the world. The old paradigm that people put forward is long since history.

The ability to run a lean operation in the face of lean resources and build it and scale it up is one of the good things you will see in Nigeria. In the face of weak, low-capital markets and huge barriers, you still see success stories of indigenous firms growing to compete with multinationals.

In agriculture and health, Africa has a lot to teach the world. There’s a public health crisis in the world, with chronic disease linked to the modern diet. The traditional African diet has a huge diversity of foods. This includes dietary crops like cassava, millet, sorghum and teff grown without fertilizers or pesticides. And meats consumed from free-range livestock.

That mix of foods kept—and still keeps— people quite healthy. Some of the tallest people in the world are in Africa—people from tribes such as the Nuer, the Dinka, the Maasai. With their traditional diets, these tribes average over 6 feet 2 inches in height with lean physiques. Height is a proxy for good health. Then there are these very tall Rwandans.

You can’t just focus on a few foods, you need a diversity. Africa has had human continuity for thousands of years because of this food diversity. Because, as you know, many civilizations that have collapsed excessively relied on a particular crop. When the rainfall patterns were disrupted due to climate change, the whole civilization was wiped out. Traditional African food and dietary diversity has allowed humans to survive for hundreds of thousands of years.

Dave: It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thanks for your time.

Jendayi: Thank you.