Leaving a better Africa than the one we found

Kanayo Awani, who leads the Intra-African Trade Bank, came to Afreximbank from a high level commercial banking background. She has used her experience in driving the Bank’s intra-African trade policies and setting up several initiatives to improve and simplify the system. She also discusses how the Bank subjects new plans to its rigorous processes.


This article is sponsored by Afreximbank

Kanayo Awani had already established a solid career with Citibank Nigeria in the 1990s and 2000s, handling multinational and top-tier local corporates in various industries including food and beverages and textiles, when she says she had “distressing experience’ as Nigerian textile businesses crashed due to unfair trade practices and dumping. 

She needed a break from the hard practices of the commercial world and took a year off to study for a Masters in Public Administration at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in the United States. 

“The Kennedy School gave me a lot of insight,” she says. “We were also part of the Edward S Mason Fellowship, which brings people together from developing countries, and from my colleagues in the programme, I found that the problems in these countries were quite similar. For instance, I took a course on the civil service in India and realised that I could easily relate it to the civil service in Nigeria. This was the foundation of my aspiration to work in development.”

Earlier, while still at Citibank, she had worked with Afreximbank when she helped structure a facility from the bank on behalf of a client. She says that the Bank had left a positive impression on her, and so a match was made. 

She wanted a role that would bring her finance experience into something that was more meaningful than the strictly transactional nature of commercial banking, Afreximbank was at the time trying to inject some private sector energy into its operations by recruiting outside the mostly public sector professionals who had been the source of manpower for the bank in its early years. 

“I think I was one of the first few to have joined the bank from the private sector in 2009, when Jean-Louis Ekra decided to go in that direction, having completed the consolidation stage of the bank,” she recalls.

Her role as Director of Afreximbank’s Trade Finance and Branches Department was to drive the Bank’s business development efforts in trade finance across Africa. 

In 2016, however, as part of a restructuring of the bank’s operations by its new President, Benedict Oramah, Awani became Managing Director of the Intra-African Trade Initiative Division – literally a blank slate that she had to build up from scratch. This coincided with the 2017-21 plan dubbed “Impact 2021 – Africa Transformed” which included promoting, facilitating and financing an increase in intra-African trade as a deliberate intervention. 

President Benedict Oramah had given that goal top priority and made it a major pillar of his tenure.  He clearly showed a great deal of confidence in Awani by putting her in charge of the new division. 

With only one other person, the administrator of the division, on her team, Awani co-opted the bank’s then head of strategy and with some help from Deloitte, set about trying to figure out what African trade needed to grow. 

“It was clear that financing was not the only challenge. In fact, when we looked at the challenges of intra-African trade, finance was the relatively easier part,” she says.

The most significant barriers, they found, included the lack of access to market information, the multiplicity of currencies, the high cost of foreign exchange, the lack of infrastructure, informality of trade, and supply side constraints among others. 

For trade to flourish, she knew, required, at its most basic, people to have products to sell and others to know that they do – as well as hard and soft infrastructure to enable that exchange to take place. It was at this basic level that a good deal of intra-African trade had massive deficits. This eventually has led to Afreximbank rolling out initiatives such as the Pan-African Payment Settlement System, the intra-Africa Trade Fair, Trade Information and Regulations Platform, Trade Exchange and numerous others to facilitate trade with end to end solutions that go beyond mere finance.

Moving up several gears on intra-African trade

Meanwhile she successfully led Afreximbank’s engagements in the establishment and implementation of the AfCFTA and helped guide the negotiations that culminated in the signing of the AfCFTA agreement in Kigali in March 2018.

She was also responsible for growing the Bank’s business attributed to intra-African trade from around 3% in 2016 to 28% by end of 2021, disbursing $20bn in support of intra-African trade and investments in five years. 

She also led the establishment and deployment of the Bank’s Intra-African Trade Champions programme, making it possible for major African businesses to expand their operations into other African countries, creating true African conglomerates and multinationals and making ‘Made in Africa’ products available across Africa.  The Bank cumulatively supported over 25 contract awards estimated at over $10bn.

She also led the organisation of the biennial Intra-African Trade Fair, delivering the first edition in Cairo, Egypt in 2018 and in Durban, South Africa, in 2021. The 2021 event successfully brought together 32,541 visitors from 128 countries and 1,501 exhibitors from 69 countries, resulting in the closing of trade and investment deals worth $42bn. Collectively, both IATF2018 and IATF2021 brought more than 2,500 exhibitors and generated over US$74 billion in deals.

In 2022, she was appointed as Executive Vice-President of the Intra-African Trade Bank (IATB). This is a new executive division of Afreximbank responsible for driving all the Bank’s intra-African trade activities, including all its African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) implementation engagements.

Awani says this effort is a fulfilment of not just the vision of the bank’s founders but that of Africa’s first generation of leaders who formed the Organisation of African Unity, predecessor to the African Union. 

Robust systems

Describing how the Bank arrives at policy and implementation decisions, she says that under the hood, there is a robust system of units and processes that are responsible for its successes. 

The bank’s approach in developing new products is very much based on data, intelligence and the results of the Bank’s extensive research and strategic planning. “Our research department is strong in terms of research and macroeconomic diagnostics of the African continent. The Bank operates on 5-year Strategic Plans which enable us plan and set our goals for each period and then equip us with the activities and programmes to prioritise and implement”.

All of these are underlined with Information gathering from our business development efforts, as well as engagements with various stakeholders.

So rigorous is the bank in crafting these plans that it goes well beyond its own resources, seeking and incorporating the views of several stakeholders in the African development space, for Instance, Plan VI (2022 – 2026) – Extending the Frontiers – and particularly relating to the Intra-African Trade Pillar, agencies such as the United Commission on Trade and Development, the UN Commission for Africa, the Africa Continental Free Trade Area Secretariat, the African Union and players from the private sector contributed to the plan and were invited to the review sessions as well. 

Some of our new products are Identified at strategic planning stage and we have in the Bank, an Innovation and Product Development Department that supports new product development effort. The new product, upon development is subjected to reviews by the Business and New Products Committee with cross-functional membership that allows inputs from departments such as Risk Management, Legal, Credit Assessment, Banking Operations, Compliance, among others. 

This, combined with a culture of execution at the bank and continuous monitoring of Implementation plan is responsible for its increasing role and relevance in the continent, Awani says.  

“In addition, we are consistently engaging our clients and partners, gathering intelligence and pursuing solutions for Africa and this is why we have been able to respond so quickly in times of crisis.” 

These responses include the Pandemic Trade Impact Mitigation Facility (PATIMFA) which the bank rolled out to support African states through the Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine Crisis Adjustment Trade Financing Programme for Africa which offered assistance as the continent, along with the rest of the world, was shaken by the impact of the war. 

The wealth of information available to the bank, she says, positions it to respond to not only these events and but also others that may occur. “We now know that we are in a period of multiple crises. That is our new normal, so we have to position ourselves for eventualities. We need not wait for the next crisis. We were able to deal with new Issues as we did with – Covid and Ukraine – because of our state of preparedness and contingency planning efforts.” 

The Bank places a great deal of value on feedback from the market. Awani recalls how the Bank’s African Quality Assurance Centres came about. “We were talking to an African merchant in the diaspora who shared with us about the challenges they were facing in importing ethnic foods from Nigeria, Ghana, and Sierra Leone and how they were confronted with shipment rejections. 

“I was in that meeting with Professor Oramah, and we decided to do something about it. That is the genesis of the quality assurance centres, which seek to serve not just intra-African trade but extra-African trade. It also aligns with our Industrialisation strategy.” 

Sound strategies

Further on systems, she focused and emphasised the organisation’s source of strength as being in its strategic planning, objectives setting and performance management. Since 1996, two years after it began its operations, Afreximbank’s strategic approach has been based on five-year plans that frame and guide its approaches. Awani says the success of these draws not just from the rigorous research and intelligence on which they are based but also the quality of implementation and the mid-period reflections that are used to review and refine the plans. 

After 30 years, she says, the bank’s work is only beginning and there will be no easing of its pace anytime soon. Awani sums up the mission. “We are acutely aware that Africa is way behind – so we have a lot of work to do if we want to leave a better continent than we met. 

“We want to make sure the continent is transformed in terms of components and direction of trade. We want to make sure our borders are eliminated, our resources become a blessing to us and that we join the club of industrialised and prosperous countries, where natural, human and also financial resources are properly leveraged for our progress.”