Big Audacious Goals : Introducing Project Black Elephant
by Ayodeji Balogun, CEO AFEX
2019 was the year we closed the investment with Consonance Investment Managers. It was also the year we designed Project Black Elephant — our next five-year strategy.
We started 2020 with the launch of ComX by AFEX in January, then we had our Strategy Retreat led by Andrew S. Nevin, and Doyin Salami. You can bet we gleaned some incredible insights from these special three days. We also had the International Conference on Commodities Exchange hosted by the Securities and Exchange Commission just before the formal lockdown. It was there that the official launch of #ComX happened, unveiled by the SEC Director-General, with Jude Abaga cheering us on! I believe we had real parties in 2020 until the lockdown happened.
I recall sending a Board Memo in April 2020 with three scenarios. My worst case had a projection of half our revenue, and included that we would cut the cost by 25%. None of these happened. Despite #COVID, we had the best year ever! We closed the year with an 11 digit bank balance.
It was such a year of gratitude for us Xperts at AFEX Commodities Exchange. Our year also ended with bonuses and promotions. As always, we remain excited and cautious at the same time.
We are excited about the opportunity for profit, people development and impact. We are also cautious because growth brings new challenges, and risks too. We are curious about our new unknown-unknowns and continue to build agile and flexible operations.
One of my key tenets in management is not to plan for the long term. Yes. I obsess over our present (today, this month), and I build an organization that is robust, agile, and prepared for the future. That is my style.
Nature does not favor the strongest species (recall Dinosaurs 🦕), it does favor the most adaptable species (dragonfly, chameleons).
The dragon-fly is one of the most adaptable and agile species. Efficient flying in horizontal and vertical motions, 360 degrees vision, little eater and drinker, etc. We need to build agile, nimble businesses, especially in Nigeria, where policy is extremely short term.
In 2019, I had written in a memo to the board of AFEX.
“Without further investment in the business, and closure of our current transaction, we will struggle to meet payroll by June and may have a severe cash squeeze by October. If by October, we have not raised additional equity, we should activate a wind-down plan”.
Recall I had used my “get out of jail card“ in 2018. I had also resolved not to build AFEX with debt until we were sure of what business we were in. We did not take any debt for the first five years of building the business. It either worked on the limited equity capital or we would take the death option. Yes, no bank debts till we were sure what we were doing.
Side note: I have gone through 2/3 insolvency in my business history, and all three are bank debt-induced. They pass on all the risk to you, distort your capacity to think, and throw all charges on you. My advice to founders, your bankers are your partners, not your friends.
We closed the investment before we got to ground zero, and we resuscitated the operations. My colleagues were present with me through these trying times, and we “figured it out” together.
One of my greatest learnings in 2019 was the ability to hold two opposing truths. We typically are binary in our views and decisions. If this is yes, then the opposite is no. If false, then true.
In 2019, I constantly held the truth that we will die in the next quarter, but also the truth that we will succeed and grow to be the most dominant brand in Africa’s food system. It was difficult but possible.
The investment allowed us to continue to invest in our future and build for the opportunities we saw coming, despite a very real threat to our capacity to survive beyond the moment. We did survive, and if we stopped building for the future, we would have failed in the pandemic.
Project Black Elephant
Three very strong insights that came out of our 2020 retreat are:
- Data — data is an asset. It is like building your future today. I bet that the most successful businesses by the end of this decade will not be the one with the largest balance sheet or customer base today, it will be who sits on the largest data bank and uses it.
- Platform — gone are the days of a strictly-regulated, rule-driven, brown jacketed exchanges. Three things that will drive the market of the future are Trust, Value, and Impact. We need to build for these three.
- Policy — we need to align closely with policymakers and be an indispensable partner that continues to help them shape their strategy for food security and broader commodities trading.
These key philosophies underpin our approach to Project Black Elephant, and we definitely look to the future with optimism.
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