Exclusive interview with Gavin Serkin, Managing Editor, Frontier Funds Consultancy, & author of ‘Frontier: Exploring the Top Ten Emerging Markets of Tomorrow’ (Bloomberg/ Wiley), UK. At the upcoming African Utility Week, Gavin is a keynote speaker and special consultant on the program development for the African Energy Finance & Investment Forum.
1) Let’s start with some background about yourself and Frontier Funds?
I’ve been covering Africa and the wider world of emerging and frontier markets for the best part of two decades as a journalist, most recently as Bloomberg's Editor at Large. My book, Frontier, was a chance to reflect on years of information gathering and storytelling through investment travelogue. I created the Frontier Funds Consultancy in 2015 to help fill the gap in big media for constructive news and information on countries that too often make headlines for the wrong reasons.
2) What is the most exciting project you have worked on in Africa so far?
Besides African Utility Week, which I’m sure will surpass everything to date, my book was both the toughest and most rewarding of projects so far. I focused on the 10 frontier markets that some of the biggest and most successful emerging market investors are most excited about for the coming decade, and then visited each country with the 10 investors. Four of the 10 picked were in Africa. During my journey, I witnessed police brutality in Nigeria and was detained by police in Egypt for chronicling a dead body off Tahrir Square. Chronicling risk is a big part of the book.
3) What did you learn from the investments that did not do so well?
There is always idiosyncratic risk. The important thing is to balance your investments so others will compensate. Kenya and Nigeria are great examples. For the markets, last year was Kenya’s. This year may well be Nigeria’s again.
4) What in your view is the biggest misconception that people have about investing in Africa?
The perception that Africa is “backward" is being shattered again and again by high-profile mobile technology that has outpaced what’s available in the so-called developed world. I can do more on my phone with money, health services and insurance than I can back home in London.
5) Which countries on the continent are doing the right things? Where are the opportunities?
When you compare against the UK and US, most of Africa is doing the right thing! It’s all relative. Among this year’s early highlights must be the incredibly smooth handover of power in Ghana and the pan-African pressure that eventually forced Gambia’s election-losing ex-President to exit. The biggest opportunities occur where there is opportunity to scale access by consumers to services taken for granted by the rest of the world, and in this respect nowhere comes close to Nigeria.
6) How are you involved in African Utility Week this year?
I have the honour of providing a keynote address, and moderating the quick fire session on the biggest deals looming. To be frank, this is my most daunting task as I have to tell 15 African project developers each describing their project to shut up after 2 minutes. If I don’t get lynched, it should be one of the most useful sessions, as it’s immediately followed by rotating one-on-one’s so people can speak directly with the deals, dealmakers and investors that interest them most.
7) What can attendees to the Finance and Investment Forum expect at AUW this year?
Ice cream, fireworks and the most credible group of experts I’ve encountered in this industry on tap to explain — at a pretty critical juncture in global development — what’s coming down the pike. I’m really interested to hear from the US side, for example people like OPIC on how the Trump administration is changing, or not, their outlook and involvement in African utility projects. That’s going to be crucial for laying the landscape for the next few years.
8) Anything you would like to add?
A fine Cape wine, what else?