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Land of his fathers

Updated: 2013-03-22 13:01
By Cecily Liu ( China Daily)

 Land of his fathers

Ozwald Boateng, a British fashion designer of Ghanaian descent, devotes the same passion to Africa as he does to the fashion world. Provided to China Daily

Land of his fathers

A feeling of responsibility for his ancestral home has fueled one man's desire to help Africa

Ozwald Boateng has made his money making suits, and now he is shedding sweat helping to stitch Africa's disparate parts together.

The British fashion designer of Ghanaian descent, who is known for putting a trademark twist on classic British tailoring, has invested considerable time in helping the continent his parents came from. And he believes China presents a "fantastic opportunity" for Africa to develop much-needed infrastructure.

"Chinese companies have a lot of experience in infrastructure building, which Africa needs," he says. "And we need the best that China has to offer (such as) the Bird's Nest and the CCTV building. Building infrastructure is important to Africa's development, because it allows Africa to move from a position of receiving aid to a position where it can generate income through trade."

Born in north London in 1967, Boateng developed a passion for men's fashion and became the youngest tailor to open a store on Savile Row, a London street synonymous with custom-made men's tailoring.

His innovative approach to fashion has attracted high-profile collaborations with Johnny Walker and Virgin among others, and his creations have been worn by politicians, sportsmen and celebrities, including the actor Will Smith and the Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson.

His suits cost on average 2,000 pounds ($3,060) but the most expensive designs can cost up to 20,000 pounds a piece.

Today, Boateng devotes the same passion to Africa as he does to the fashion world. In 2011 he and a Nigerian businessman, Kola Aluko, in collaboration with the Nigerian oil and gas company Atlantic Energy, set up the Made in Africa Foundation, which raises money for feasibility studies on infrastructure projects in Africa.

He says the initiative was inspired by a sense of responsibility to help his ancestral homeland, which his father instilled in him at an early age.

"There are a lot of investors interested in Africa, but they do not know how to find profitable projects to invest in. Therefore, we hope to increase the visibility of opportunities by funding feasibility studies for specific projects," he says.

"The feasibility studies will allow African governments to see the value of these projects better, which gives them confidence to negotiate better terms with contractors."

Another purpose of the studies is to examine opportunities across Africa as a whole, so that individual infrastructure projects can better fit into the continent's overall development.

"One problem with Africa's development is the lack of central planning," he says. "For example, different countries may be building roads at the same time, but the roads do not join up because they do not know what each other is doing."

He says this is a serious problem because a key way to promote growth in Africa is to develop regional infrastructure, allowing countries to trade with each other.

Boateng says the foundation aims to raise $400 million for feasibility studies, and Atlantic Energy has already agreed to give $10 million to initiate the foundation's work.

The foundation has also formed a relationship with the World Bank to receive information about projects that have applied for funding. And it has local contacts in Africa to propose projects for feasibility studies.

Feasibility studies it has conducted to date include a master plan for a 65-hectare "future city" development in Uganda.

"We funded the feasibility study for the project to make sure it is built using the right technology and right attitude to the environment. We want it to be a development the rest of the world marvels at," he says.

Boateng is also keen to get involved with Chinese developers.

"If there are Chinese developers and construction companies that wish to work with us then let's collaborate."

A big breakthrough for Boateng's work in Africa came in 2007, when John Kufuor, then president of Ghana, invited him to organize an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the country's independence.

"The event was attended by political leaders of many African countries, and I used the opportunity to share with them a vision of what Africa could become in the future. The point of the event was to inspire, and for the leaders to realize the potential they have on the continent.

"Africa is at a stage where decisions have to be made to change things, because there needs to be a transition from Africa being a charity destination to a trade opportunity. Africa is unimaginably wealthy with resources, but it is important to develop it in the right way environmentally."

The event allowed Boateng to form relationships with many African political leaders and build connections for future feasibility studies in their countries.

The continent's greatest need is roads joining the different countries, he says. In Tipping Point, a research paper published by the foundation, three projects are identified as key investment opportunities.

The first is the North-South Corridor, which links eight countries in eastern and southern Africa, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The second is the Beira Corridor, which is a channel for the movement of goods from the interior of the southern Africa region to the port of Beira on the Indian Ocean, mainly to serve agricultural trade.

The third is the Northern Corridor, which links the land-locked countries of East and Central Africa - Burundi, Congo, Rwanda and Uganda - to the port of Mombasa in Kenya.

Although there has been progress on each of these projects in recent years they still provide considerable opportunities for international investment, he says.

To promote investment in them, Boateng hosted a conference in Britain in 2009, in partnership with the then British foreign minister, David Miliband.

Boateng is positive about Chinese infrastructure investment in Africa, which he believes is helping local companies to extract previously inaccessible resources. But he also has some words of advice for Chinese companies operating in the continent.

They could improve their impact by sharing the workload with African companies and transferring construction expertise in the process.

"This is a trade between China getting the raw materials and the opportunity to help Africans build their economies and giving Africa experience in developing infrastructure projects.

"There needs to be longevity in the partnership because Africa needs infrastructure development for the next 30 years or more. To build a long-term plan in Africa, it is best for Chinese companies to work with local partners."

Chinese investment in Africa also suffers an image problem with some projects accused of being in poor quality, he says. This is partially a communication issue which could be overcome by Chinese companies with the best record putting more resources into the continent.

He hopes the foundation's feasibility studies will help the best Chinese companies see value in Africa's infrastructure, and also help its government to develop greater confidence in working with the best companies from all over the world.

"Many of Africa's nations are now where China was 20 years ago: the take-off point where a developing state becomes an emerging one.

"Our leaders will look now to work with partners for growth and those that wish to help them build strong economies. this is good for everyone as it promotes global security and it will pull tens of millions out of poverty. What we want in Africa is what the Chinese want at home."


(China Daily 03/22/2013 page21)

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