Interview in Leadership Online with Basil Pietersen, Southern African Group Executive Director, Afrilog.

Please could you provide us with an overview of the company’s history, formation and areas of expertise?

One cannot talk about Afrilog without making reference to the parent company, namely CSTT Afrique De L’Ouest, commonly known as CSTT-AO. What started out as a Senegalese customs-clearing business in 1949 has, under the leadership of its Chairman and Owner, Mr Mamadou Lamine Gueye, developed into what is today referred to as a supply chain business. A number of legal entities, most prominent being Afrilog South Africa (Pty) Ltd., were created from and within CSTT-AO.

The need to establish the business across borders necessitated the need for a ”universal/African” name rather than a Senegalese name. We needed a name, which would be acceptable throughout the continent. And so, Afrilog was born in 2000.

Afrilog South Africa was registered shortly thereafter. Again, this was as a result of the challenges and demands placed upon the company by our clients, as well as the marketplace.

The major reason for the establishment of Afrilog SA was to fulfill the supply chain management requirements for clients and by doing so, streamlining operations and reducing inventory cost while simultaneously improving service levels. The many years of operational experience across the ”Group” companies enable Afrilog to design supply chains. As a Group, our vision is to build long-term sustainable supply chain solutions incorporating ongoing improvements.

What are the sectors the company operates across and, in terms of expansion and locations, please could you tell us more about its global footprint?

We stress the point of ”long-term sustainable supply chain solutions” and to this end, concentration has been on long-term project business and more important, was and is the specialisation/operation and execution on and within the African continent. It could be said that we design and implement and operate complex supply chain solutions throughout Africa and specialise in finding African solutions. We have specialised in the mining sector with the majority of our activities being in West Africa. In addition to the mining industry, we have executed and managed various infrastructural projects such as cement plants, hotels, embassies etc.

Our footprint spans across the African continent with us having our own offices in Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa. In countries such as Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Kenya and a few others on the continent, as well as China and the USA, we have longstanding relationships with reliable, professional and like-minded companies. Our footprint extends across Sub-Saharan Africa as well as Europe with offices in Belgium and France, allowing us to provide our clients with a truly global network.

What are your core service offerings and what makes them so very effective? What is your competitive advantage/value-add?

Too often, the term ‘supply chain’ is inappropriately used and/or misused.

We like to believe that we do offer all the elements of a true supply chain. And moreso, we offer supply chain solutions in the environment in which we operate. Our offerings include everything from strategic sourcing and procurement and/or management to delivery at final destination as well as other elements, such as warehousing and inventory management, freight forwarding and shipping, logistics and transport management, customs clearance etc., not forgetting the chartering of both aircraft and vessels.

We operate in an environment in which we have extensive experience in supply chain management. We believe our distinct competitive advantage is our knowledge of the West African business environment—a challenging environment to operate in.

An appreciation for and identification of clients needs together with a passion to achieve excellence sets us in a league of our own as a service provider. We like to believe that we are excellent in fostering relationships with our clients and, no doubt, this has greatly contributed to our growth and success.

What role does innovation play within the company and why is it so crucial?

We operate predominantly on the African continent where challenges range from little and/or no infrastructure, enormous delays at borders, language, civil wars, health epidemics, interpretation of international laws/rules, weather conditions and the list continues.

Needless to say that as a company and as a Group, we have circumvented all the above-mentioned challenges successfully. Once we understand the challenges, we are able to act immediately, finding lasting solutions by involving all stakeholders. The negotiation is, as always, to find a lasting solution in the interest of all parties, thus demonstrating to all the positive spin-offs of the safe and uninterrupted delivery of cargo to its final destination. Throughout the periods of unrest and/or Ebola, we have been able to operate without negatively affecting delivery to our clients. This showcases the importance of innovative action being taken.

The reasons for innovative thinking and, moreso, action, are self-explanatory—nothing is what it seems and every day brings with it a new challenge. Unless you are well-informed, the results could be devastating.

Your company delivers local solutions to overcome logistical constraints associated with various parts of Africa—what are some of Africa’s greatest supply chain challenges and what are the successful projects you have delivered sustainable solutions for?

Let me state that you do not retain the management of the most successful mining company’s supply chain by delivering a sub-standard service. We have successfully managed the supply chain on the mines from inception—starting with the exploration phase—then the most challenging aspect is the construction phase of the mine (which requires project logistics—the movement of abnormal loads etc.) and thereafter, the production phase. Liaison with end-users, engineers, EPC contractors, suppliers both locally and internationally, understanding the rules that govern investment and logistics in the country of final destination and the appointment of local transporters are all matters that must be professionally navigated. Within the production phase, stock holding is crucial since it has a direct effect on the mines cashflow and as such, requires close monitoring.

Very important is the movement of reagents across vast tracks of poor road conditions while still maintaining and being mindful of the protection of the environment. This requires specialised transport, which includes escorts. Needless to say, we are certified and accredited in the movement of hazardous material and/or substance in West Africa.

We are required to deliver within agreed KPIs and failing could have negative results. We have successfully managed supply chains for a period in excess of 15 years.

As for the supply chain challenges on the continent, the greatest threats are unknown—every time the country has an election, there are the infrastructural problems. That said, it must be acknowledged that a number of countries are working on improving not only road conditions but also developing new and modern port facilities. While some countries are conscious of the need for efficient trade facilitation, there are still those that fail to understand the inter-relationship between that and growth within the country’s economy.

In which ways does Africa offer unparalleled growth to investors and why would you encourage them to invest on the continent?

As Africans, we have, over the decades, watched the growth in other parts of the world and in the last few years particularly, the growth in China. To stimulate growth in Europe, we witnessed the birth of a European Union creating an almost single economy and this has had great benefits for all participating countries.

Personally, I believe that Africa is on the rise and the opportunities for growth is undeniable. Currently, five to six African countries rank in the top 10 fastest growing economies. Investment has primarily been driven by Chinese interest but slowly we are seeing other emerging countries looking to invest.

Why Africa? It is estimated that in 2016, the logistics and warehouse spend on the African continent reached US$28 billion and will continue to grow into the future. If this is the logistics and warehouse spend, can you imagine the actual investment taking place in goods and services, not to mention the investment needed in IT.

More than anything is the need for us as Africans to trade with one another and to prevent the constant outflows to America, Europe, China and the likes. Trade facilitation should be our number one priority. Already, a number of East African countries have joined hands under COMESA to simplify paperwork and border-crossing procedures.

You are the Chairman of SAAFF. What is the association’s core mandate and what has it set out to accomplish?

Briefly put, the objectives of the South African Association of Freight Forwarders (SAAFF) is to represent the collective interest of its members in engagements with organs of state and other public entities on matters affecting the movement of goods with a view to improving compliance, minimising impediments to trade, recommending practical and effective solutions and promoting technological and legislative developments that enhance service quality and delivery.

In addition, it aims to ensure the continued development of practitioners of the future by taking responsibility for vocational training across the supply chain divide.

What does leadership mean to you and what makes an effective leader?

Is there any one recipe? I doubt it but what works for me is that as a leader, I set the example in all things. Firstly, show respect to all and to treat everyone alike. We must always remember that respect is earned. Most importantly, listen to all—sometimes we hear but we do not listen. The art of listening is important when leading people and expecting them to execute on stated objectives.