From his London office, Tope Lawani (MBA 1995) is taking a lead role in developing financial services, telecom, media, consumer goods, and power generation in his homeland.
Tope Lawani (MBA 1995) is a man on a mission—make that two missions, actually. The cofounder and managing partner of London-based Helios Investments, Lawani says his firm aims to reward investors with "attractive, risk-adjusted returns that at the same time contribute to socioeconomic development."
"I want to demonstrate that in Africa we're no different from anybody else in any fundamental way," Lawani elaborates. "We're just at a different point in our development. There's no reason that we can't apply to Africa the tools that have gotten the rest of the world to where it is."
To achieve that transformation, Lawani believes, investment in the continent is the key. More specifically, Lawani notes, "Any investments we make that promote financial inclusion—especially that help bring folks into the financial-services world of banks, credit, and savings—we think are particularly pro-development."
Founded in 2004, Helios has a number of prominent investors, including George Soros, Madeleine Albright, Jacob Rothschild, and David Bonderman. That's due in no small measure to Helios's success and to Lawani's star power: in addition to his MBA, he holds a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from MIT and a JD from Harvard Law School. His résumé also includes stints at Disney and the Texas Pacific Group.
With some $2 billion invested in more than 30 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, Helios's focus is mainly in financial services, telecom, media, consumer goods, and power generation. Asked to describe an investment that shows the Helios paradigm at work, Lawani, who divides his time equally between London and Africa, points to Kenya.
"Several years ago," he explains, "we invested in a bank called Equity Bank that specializes in providing financial services to the previously 'unbanked' at the bottom of the pyramid. Equity Bank has increased financial inclusion while generating good returns for our investors. In five years, Equity's customer base—its depositors— has increased from about 2 million to 7 million; in Kenya today, some 6 out of every 10 bank accounts are held in Equity Bank. It has the largest ATM network in the country and the best mobile banking service, reaching a large and geographically dispersed customer base. We believe Equity is an example of an investment that has had a meaningful impact on a national scale."
Another interesting activity, Lawani says, has been Helios's acquisition from multinationals of African businesses that, because of changes in strategy or focus by the parent company, have become "non-core" operations and thus essentially orphaned. Examples include Helios's purchase of Africa's largest outdoor advertising company from Independent News & Media, an Ireland-based media company that decided to focus on the United Kingdom, and Shell's downstream fuel business (e.g., gas stations, commercial fuels, aviation, marine) as Shell moves out of smaller countries.
Asked about his experience at HBS, Lawani says, "The School's environment encourages you to dream bigger, to realize that more is possible. I knew I wanted to assist in Africa's development, but HBS helped add much greater clarity as to how I would actually go about doing that.
"I'm too young and too engaged in my work to think much about the years ahead," he continues, "but I realize I may want to do something quite different in the future to work on behalf of Africa and its people. What's important to me now is to feel that I'm using all the gifts I've been given to the fullest."
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