Up Close with Desi Lopez, Former Board Chair of JA Africa

For Global Entrepreneurship Week, JA Africa interviewed the former Board Chair of JA Africa. Desi Lopez Fafie served on  the JA Africa Board for many years and was Chair for some time, leading the organization through a time of change and growth during which the Africa portfolio was consolidated into a 14 country program. In this interview with JA Africa CEO, Elizabeth Bintliff, conducted near his home in Accra, Ghana, Desi shared his knowledge and experiences from decades in business as well as his passion for entrepreneurship. I believe that our students stand to learn a great deal from Desi’s experience and wisdom.


EB: Tell me about your background. Who is Desi Lopez?

Desi: I’m an Auditor and an economist. I worked 10 years for audit firms. Right after high school graduation I started at a bank a summer holiday job and I convinced the bank to hire me fulltime. I was 17 years then. I worked at the bank during the day and I studied in the evening. This took me a few more years to graduate but when I graduated I had 10 years of working experience in addition to having my degree. So that’s how I got started.

Just about before I graduated, I left the audit firm that I was working for by then and became the Director of Finance for a university in Holland where I managed their finances and reported to the ministry of education. As part of my job I had to select a package to automate the financing of the university and the vendor that we ended up selecting, hired me as a consultant and that’s how I made the switch to IT. I spent the next six years with MSA after which a headhunter approached me to work at Oracle.

I started as a sales consultant then very shortly after that they made me team leader. Next I was put in charge of sales for applications for the Benelux, the Middle East and Africa. I was offered the post of  managing director for Africa after that and I was promoted to Vice President in 2006.


EB: I’m curious, which languages do you speak?

D: I speak Spanish, English, French, Dutch, German, Italian, and Indonesian.


EB: What are the things you would say served you the most in your career? What helped you? What skills, what attitudes…?

D: What served me the most was my eagerness to understand people. I’m genuinely curious. I may be sometimes too curious but I really am curious. When somebody says no to me, I don’t take that as an offense. There are no crazy people according to psychiatrists; you just didn’t study them well enough. But if you do then all of a sudden they are not so crazy. Curiosity helped me to appreciate the different cultures. I’ve learned that the more you think you understand, the more questions come up. And all of a sudden you realize how little you know. So I think that’s the other thing. Curiosity should not fade, because the moment you think you know everything, you should retire. You have to have a willingness to always be learning, always be studying because our journey here is one big learning exercise to gain understanding.


EB: How did you become involved with JA?

D: Once upon a time my manager called me and said, we have a request from JA for somebody to represent us on the board, would you be interested? That was while I was at Oracle. Helping youngsters and education are passions of mine, so those were motivators.


EB: So how do those two passions intersect? What role does the private sector have in development?

D: Let me put it very bluntly:  there is no development without a private sector. John F. Kennedy said it already “don’t ask your country what it can do for you, ask yourself what you can do for your country.” He captured it and as far as I’m concerned it’s still valid today. I am currently involved in innovation partnering program initiatives where the private sector and academia are joining hands to develop innovative ideas aiming to create employment. The role of government is to be a facilitator, to create a supporting environment so that the business initiatives that we are suggesting will succeed and that the chances of success will increase.

It is the NGO’s role to find the matching partner, the missing link, the complementary skill that needs to be added to the mix for that to grow. It is another task of the NGO to provide the inputs that would get these people to that level of excellence. If that is done by a couple of dusty teachers who are uninspiring, unpassionate, then the students will be a copy of that and they will be uninspiring and unpassionate.

Go back to your own education history and think about how many names come back to your mind of teachers who you remember for being amazing. I can think of one from my high school days but many from my INSEAD days. Most of their professors consult top companies around the world and teach with passion. If I look at the JA teams that I have met; at the top there are a lot of good people that have a sense of direction, they have a vision of where they want to go.

Whatever it is you do, if you don’t like what you do then do something else but give it your very best. You have to be passionate about what you do. Only then will you be successful.


EB: What do you think young people need to know about entrepreneurship, about success? What are some key lessons for them?

D: For every a Google, 1000 companies failed, 1000 business ideas failed. There are statistics to prove that. And this is true even with an environment where there’s no room for excuse. You have law firms, venture capitalists, Stanford University right across the street, people from all nations; very bright people from the valley who help build this. So the whole ecosystem is in place. In spite of having an almost perfect ecosystem, the success ratio is but 1:1000.

This is a wakeup call for Africa and Asia namely: Why is Silicon Valley still successful?’ It’s because failure is not stigmatized. You fail and that is great because you’ve learned something. If you go to a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley and you say “hey, I have this business idea” they say: ok and ask for your resume and if on your resume it shows that you haven’t failed at least a couple of times, they would say “so you want to try this with our money? Go and try it elsewhere. Fail and then come back”. They are actually looking for “have you tried before?” The majority of cases are that you failed three or four times, you learn something and eventually you succeed.

Being an entrepreneur requires a lot of stamina to overcome all these hurdles that are necessary for you to really understand what you need to do. In Africa and in Asia failure is hugely stigmatized. Young Africans risk their lives to go across the Mediterranean to Europe. Many arrive to realize that it’s actually not as great, they are not qualified, do not have proper education and the jobs are not as available as they thought they would be. The logical thing would be to go back home. But going back home is admitting that you have failed and you bring shame on the family. So there is this huge barrier of going back. Back home, parents have to learn to accept that the child is trying. Parents need to allow their youngsters the time to learn; specially when there are insufficient jobs and people have to create their own jobs. In the same way parents accept that it is through falling that their off spring learn to walk, they need to realize that it is through many attempts that one day an entrepreneur will succeed.

JA has a market here: teach parents of the new generation how to be welcoming parents and bring the notion to them that they will fail in order to succeed. Failure is part of the package. That is important.


EB: You’ve made a point that I’ve emphasized many times so I’m very drawn to it.  

Let’s shift gears and talk about IT. There are great opportunities there but there are real challenges to technology in Africa, practical challenges. Access is not there for everyone. How do you think that some of those challenges can be overcome? What do you think is the game changer?

D: The game changer is the fact that not long ago everything had to be done on a computer. Today people may not have food but they still have a phone. Everybody has a phone. With mobile phone technology, I think organizations like JA have no excuses left to not reach out to youngsters. Radio has been around forever and African tradition is very much about story telling; sit under the mango tree and listen to the elders tell the stories. That is how a lot of communities still function. There’s no harm in using what is there and putting it to your advantage.

I was at the Tony Elumelu Foundation ceremony recently. Tony trains youngsters on entrepreneurship, he gives them a seed capital and then he follows them as they go along. Out of the 1st batch of graduates, there was this young man out of The Gambia who came on stage and said “I got $5,000 seed capital and I worked on my plan, then I got another $5,000 and in the first year I generated $1.6 million of revenue. Now in his second year, he is aiming to exceed the $2 million revenue bar. This is The Gambia. This is a young guy of about 25 years old. Guess what he is doing? He is exporting mangoes. He came to this idea because he saw children playing football with mangoes. Given the abundance of mangoes in his country that end up falling off the trees,  children are playing football with them. He felt he could make better use if that.

We often think that innovation can only come out of IT or biotech or something sophisticated like that. Africa has the potential to be the food supplier to the world. Agriculture! If you look at the industry spread of the beneficiaries of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, if I recall well  30 or 30+% of the beneficiaries are in agriculture.

European and American agriculture models are saturated, so why don’t we then go to where it makes sense and exploit what you have already? You don’t need greenhouses here in Africa, you’ve got the sun and it’s for free. In order for these outputs to be accepted in the world and meet trade or sanitary regulations, farmers need to be sensitized and educated and certain technologies have to be introduced to them because a lot of these people don’t know about these regulations or technologies. These people don’t understand computers. They don’t go online and Google things, but they can listen to radio programs. That content can be managed and kept up to date on a database somewhere in the cloud. Some smart phones can also get audio. All what you need is a simple hand-held device which, which they all have already.


EB: What are you passionate about on a personal level?

D: Well, I come from an artistic family. I’m very fond of arts, music, dance, photography.

E: So let’s talk about that. I was talking to a colleague recently and asked him what are the trends for youth and where do we need to pay attention to. He said just that; the arts are a major area of interest for young people. It is an area that needs high investment. Our music, graffiti, etc. and yet the talent that exists there is not being complemented with business acumen.

D: I think one of the things that are on the flip side of art is the intellectual property. When an artist creates a film, copyright is very critical so that the artist can make a sustainable living out of it. How do you protect that? How do you enforce that it is being protected? That is the kind of thing that technology can help overcome. An artist is entitled to his fair revenue like anybody. Any effort that is put in should be rewarded. Look at Nollywood, how do you take this to the next level? How do you get investors to allocate larger budgets so the quality of those films improves? More money is higher risk and why invest if they know all these movies are going to be pirated and copied. Technology can play a role here as well, and the government has a role to play too: to enforce that artists’ efforts are protected and if people breach the rules there is a sanction. Then I think the artistic output will greatly improve. Picasso came to Africa to get his inspiration for a lot of his cubism. He toured in Africa to get inspired. Look at some of his paintings and see the resemblance with some of the statues you find in Africa.


EB: What would you advise young people in Africa in terms of planning for their future? And o that same note, what would you advise your younger self?

D: I am true to my beliefs. My father wanted me to be a doctor and I said I’m sorry that’s not going to happen. My son wanted to be a pilot. He went to aviation school. At the end of the first year he was not successful. I said I’m proud of you, you tried. I asked him what he wanted to do next and he went into management science and now he’s an auditor for a major airline. So he still ended up in the airline business.

I ask youngsters and my own children “what are you passionate about?” Go with that and don’t let anybody discourage you.


EB: What a great way to end! Thank you.

D: You’re welcome.


Desi Lopes Fafie is the former Vice President and Managing Director Oracle’s African Operations. He has International working experience in Europe, United States, Latin America, The Middle East and Africa in information technology, working for two US based IT companies for over 26 years.

Within Africa he has worked in 35 countries for more than 18 years in sales, and in general management in the Information Technology sector dealing with all sectors. He has a specialty in the Public Sector, Financial Services, Telecommunications as well as Sales and Pre-sales, General Management, Auditing and Tax laws.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.