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Cover Story Interview Special

He is known for his flamboyant fashion sense and his perfectly tailored suits loved by the rich and famous worldwide including Hollywood royalty Will Smith and entrepreneur extraordinaire, Virgin boss, Richard Branson. But as he reveals to our deputy editor reGina Jane Jere in this exclusive interview, Ozwald Boateng is taking on a new mantle and its far from glamorous.



olive-green suit which I presume is one of his own, its easy to concur with the widely-held public assumption: the menswear designer Ozwald Boateng is a walking advertisement for his brand. As I am ushered into his office with my photographer (who is politely asked to leave by his PA because the interview appointment said journalist only) I am drawn to the massive oil painting (also in green) of Boateng himself which hangs imposingly just behind his gleaming, clutter-free desk. I am tempted to ask about the painting, but Boateng is, on this day, a man in demand for press interviews and there is no time for such pleasantries. I have 30 minutes to find out why the man famous for designing suits for the rich, famous and for Hollywood royalty, as well as being the youngest and only black man with African roots on Londons famous and exclusive Savile Row is suddenly making headlines in the name of Africa. One British newspaper even described him as an activist for Africa. What is all that about? Really? Activist? Like George Clooney is an activist? he reacts, somewhat perplexed, when I put that to him. I understand the word activism, but that is not the right word for me. I dont see myself as an activist. I see myself as someone
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who is just very passionate about where Africa goes, and should go. But I am not alone on that. There are so many thousands, even millions of Africans who feel the same way, he says rather collectedly, but with a tinge of excitement. At only 27 years of age back in 1994, Boateng made his name when he became both the first black tailor to open a store on Savile Row. Born in London to Ghanaian parents in 1968, the awardwinning designer was obsessed with sewing and fashion from a very young age. Indisputedly, today he is one of the designers of choice for everyone from Hollywood stars to the British political elite. His cheapest suit comes at no less than 1,000 and can cost as much as a mind-boggling 20,000 a piece. But I am in his opulent office which is buried in the basement of his exquisite store (No 30, Savile Row) not to talk about the glam and glitz of fashion, or his label. As he sits down opposite me, next to his PA, who gives him a small nod that says, you are ready, his gaze as he looks directly at me commands immediate attention and I go straight to the crux of our interview his interest in facilitating what many are calling Africas Marshall Plan, spearheaded by infrastructure development plans on an unprecedented scale. Infrastructure building is Boatengs other great passion outside his fashion business. At the moment, the African Marshall Plan buzz is in over-

Cover Story Interview Special

Boateng, with fellow diasporan guests, speaks at the 2007 Ghana AU Summit. Below: Aliko Dangote (l) and Patrice Motsepe (r) have been invited to join his initiative for philathropy giving


Its hard to argue against Boatengs grand plan. His concept reads like something from Brunels brain: A self-nancing, high-speed rail network with state-of-theart sustainable cities as economic and regional hubs along the route; Use of green technologies, and energy both as sources and as revenue to open up new economy streams and enable social development; The increase in the land price alongside the track is to be used as security, and land value appreciation captured to leverage sustainable maintenance and security; Land along its periphery will be cultivated with nitrogenxing oil-producing crops such as Pongamia, for energy production or other agricultural biomass; Power will come via solar farms along the railway in desertrich regions Use of innovative nancial instruments and alternative capital ows to nance the initiative, including: tradeexport credit systems, carbon credits, and military offsets.

drive following the African Development Banks (AfDB) announcement last month, to float Africas first infrastructure bonds to member nations to raise up to $22 billion for investment in Africas much-needed infrastructure projects, in areas such as ports, railways, roads and energy. It is a move that has filled Boateng with confident exuberance: This announcement is just music to my ears, he gushes and suddenly, his stern-seeming posture relaxes and he radiates optimism. This is key to unlocking Africas potential. Lack of infrastructure is one of the major obstacles that has been holding us back. I believe everything about Africa today is about momentum. Whereas historically there hasnt been big interest in terms of investment and even interest in culture, fashion and the arts, today there is vast momentum in Africas favour. One of the key things about the Made In Africa has been to change perceptions about Africa and we welcome and support infrastructural development. In 2011, Boateng, Nigerian businessman, Kola Aluko, in collaboration with the Nigerian oil and gas company Atlantic Energy, set up the Made in Africa Foundation (MIAF) with a very ambitious plan. But ambitious is a word which doesnt augur well with Boateng. He seems to take it that it connotes failure. Why do plans become ambitious when its about Africa? Why is it that its never an ambitious plan when the Chinese or the Russians are building high-speed rail links across their countries? The ambitious plan we are talking about is the seemingly giddiness-inducing $400m MIAF fundraising mission for masterplans, feasibility studies and other projects to help prepare works for successful infrastructure schemes across Africa. The bottom line is that these are not ambitious, but necessary plans and in the case of Africa, its even more important, we need to stop talking and just get on and do what is vitally necessary. Infrastructure development is beyond an ambition, he insists, adding a laudable explanation: Its a well-known statistic that $400m of funding for feasibility studies and masterplans across sub-Saharan Africa would develop over $100bn of infrastructure projects, which in turn would create a trillion dollars of value across Africa. The first step is often the hardest and we have created this Foundation with Atlantic Energy to make that step easier. But this is not the first time Boateng is courting the infrastructure development dream. In January 2010 his putative Made in Africa organisation proposed an infrastructure project to the then government of slain Libyan leader Muammar al Gathafi, a copy of which New African has obtained. The proposal titled The Great Green Sahara Initiative, a component of a larger scheme dubbed the Tipping Point Initiative, sought funding for what can be said to be one of the grandest rail projects ever considered in post-independent Africa. Boatengs Sahara Initiative (also known as the Africa Crossrail Link) is on paper an extremely laudable project and if executed, will be worth every dollar spent on it. According to this proposal, the project (which Boateng says
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Why do plans become ambitious when its about Africa? Why is it that its never an ambitious plan when the Chinese or the Russians are building high-speed rail links?

is still in the offing), aims to link the port of Tripoli in Libya to the port of Takoradi in his homeland of Ghana, via a high-speed railway, with state-of-the-art sustainable cities built at all stops along the way. Of the many advantages Boateng and co envisage, the railway infrastructure, which would eventually be self-financing, would bring supply and demand systems together more effectively, and connect agricultural, industrial and energy-producing heartlands of western and northern Africa, to global trade routes. The proposed route would pass through Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana. The railway would not only enhance trade cooperation between the nations it went through, by opening up vast swathes of land to industry and development, Boateng believes it would improve economic conditions, due to decreased transportation times and administration costs. With the turn of events in Libya last year, where does the project stand? Were still doing it, he says, but financing feasibility studies to do such an exercise costs millions of dollars.

That has been the major hurdle that we needed to overcome and that is why we set up Made In Africa, which is raising the money for feasibility studies and also to support first-stage funding of infrastructure projects in Africa. And it has been hard to find anyone to actually put that first dollar in, but we are in the process of raising these finances. The Foundations partner the Lagos-based Atlantic Energy were the first donors, and the company is heavily involved. Boateng does not elaborate further on how much money has been raised so far, but he is quick to appreciate the opportunity the AfDB bonds proffer. Each day that goes by brings our vision closer. And this is why the AfDB infrastructure bonds floatation is such a welcome venture. It just reinforces what I have been saying all these years. His only reservation on the AfDB bonds floation is that it is currently only being offered to its member states. Potentially, the $22bn of bonds, which take advantage of the AfDBs AAA rating, would be a more secure investment than

those issued by European states, making the offering one of the more attractive opportunities in the global debt capital markets. And if implemented properly, it would have a positive effect on Africas GDP, raising it by an estimated 2%. The pragmatic consensus, and Boateng also agrees, is that the success of this AfDB undertaking would help lift millions out of poverty. All proponents believe its effect on Africa could be similar to the Marshall Plan, which was a huge stimulus for growth on the European continent in the post-war period. But the European Marshall Plan involved a lot of money and the $22bn is practically a drop in the ocean for such a grand scheme. Yes, concurs Boateng, it has been said that Africa needs something close to a trillion dollars in infrastructure development planning alone. But the fact is we need to get on and start from somewhere and $22bn would be a really good start. He believes, however, the AfDB can do even better, extending the flotation to Africas leading entrepreneurs and businesses as well as those in its Diaspora. Let Africans have the chance to show their belief in their own continent, he emphasises, adding: The global African Diaspora is a trillion-dollar economy already investing $30bn in remittances to the continent every year and the AfDBs triple A rating would provide security and guarantee an excellent return for people. How can they ignore the offering? I think it is great, but it shouldnt just be isolated to African countries, it should be opened to the African Diaspora as well. I think private enterprise should play a key role and Made In Africa will be a great facilitator in helping to make that happen. As a man who knows some deep-pocketed people in high places, Boateng wants to put his good connections to good use too, asking rich entrepreneurs to come aboard the infrastructure

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Cover Story Interview Special

development bandwagon. However, he negatives, da da da da! Those stories have believes, the spirit of philanthropy should been running for over 50 years now. The be their driving force. But he is starting agenda now should be, lets get on with with Africas own billionaires. the job. And as a non-believer in foreign aid The Africa of today, he adds, does which Africa has been on the receiving end not have the same issues as 50 years ago. of for the past 50 years, but which by and We are all understanding more what the large has amounted to nothing in terms of value of opportunity is. We are begindevelopment Ozwald says philanthropy ning to believe more that if we control by Africas burgeoning private millionaires more than 50% of the worlds rich natural could go a long way in filling the aid gap. resources, we cannot be poor. Because of Aid is not the answer. Its very importhis one fact, Africans can no longer aftant that all of Africas top entrepreneurs ford not to believe in themselves and their are actively involved in the development of capabilities. But the question is, how do Africa. We have been talking to everyone we unlock that belief? But shouldnt all this be accompanied in regards the importance of infrastructure development. We have approached by good governance and political aptitude? big entrepreneurs such as Aliko Dangote I think the issue of governance has in Nigeria and Patrice Motsepe in South Joint philanthropy can been overused, he argues dismissively. bring together the best Africa. There seems to be always a big reason Ozwald is keen to discuss the impor- of the best of Africa why no one invests, or should invest in tance of philanthropy. Its all about phiAfrica, or why Africans cannot do better and move the continent lanthropy. Our role as top entrepreneurs for themselves. Come on, lets just get over also has to be charitable. I personally feel forward. this now! If anyone believes corruption and very strongly about the idea of key entrebad governance arent issues around the preneurs and companies donating to the world and are a just a preserve for Africa, then they dont live on planet earth. Marshall planning of Africa. It should be Africas no different in experiencing these issues than many our way of giving back. He also believes philanthropy makes commercial and economic other places in the world. Thats a fact, but unfortunately the sense as well: From a commercial point of view the positive problem of underdevelopment in Africa is more visible because realisation of these plans creates a value chain eventually. But of the continents lack of infrastructure. Its a big drawback, he the initial steps have to be taken from the hearts of key African explains. Is he turning a blind eye to bad governance and corruption? entrepreneurs. What this also demonstrates is that Africans can work together. And this coming together of all of us as top busiCritics will say what they want to say. But personally I unness people, is a crucial key to the development of our continent. derstand critics unfortunately in the world of fashion, we live He has good reason to believe in the power of philanthropy. with critics every day. However on the scale of what we have to Opportunity in Africa is so vast that even the most successful achieve for Africa, its time we moved on to matters that make African is still only niggling a little bit on it. If we worked together a huge impact on development and I believe the way forward is and turned the quantum around, imagine what sort of structure not to keep on about the same old issues that have held us back could come out of it. I strongly believe that joint philanthropy is and implement instead, large-scale projects. a very important start, it can bring together the best of the best In fact what I am proposing should not be seen as really of Africa and move the continent forward using our own. large-scale because they are not. This is what every other country Our coming together is key, he emphasises. We need to does. This is what they have done in China, they do it in Rushave a vehicle for development which we can call our own and sia, and they do it in Europe. But when Africa wants to do it, one that will actually transform the current scenario and create they suddenly become these large-scale projects. Excuse me? In a major masterplan that will change Africa for ever. But we need the meantime everywhere else, they are enjoying the benefits of building high-speed rail links between their borders and within to do this together we cant do this as individuals. He concludes: Imagine what could be achieved if all top en- their countries. I mean, what do we say to that? These are necestrepreneurs worked with 100 other people like them. The gains sary infrastructure developments and not undoable large-scale for this type of partnership are unimaginable for all of us and developments. this enormously rich continent. Therefore the attitude again is, lets get these plans working, What does the role of good governance in Africa play in all lets engage the world with all its knowhow to build the infrathis I ask while his PA takes stealthy glances at her watch. structure for Africa, and make it one of the best, not just in the My advice is, park the criticism and lets get on with the job 21st century, but for all centuries to come. As I throw in a question on the fashion business in Africa, I of making it happen. Yes there are going to be challenges, yes things will go wrong, and the task is huge, but we cant continue know my time is up. But there is a lot you can get out of half an with the same old stories of corruption in Africa and many other hour with Mr Boateng.
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