Chief Financial Officer – Ringier One Africa Media
Africa’s most user centric marketplace company aims to empower users of their digital platforms through transparency and transform markets through technology.
CIARAN RYAN: This is CFO Talks and I am talking today to Herbert Pasipamire, who is chief financial officer at Ringier One Africa Media, that’s ROAM, which is a subsidiary of Ringier AG, an international publishing and digital marketplace based in Switzerland and it operates and develops digital marketplaces in nine countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. He’s based in Cape Town, South Africa, before that he was CFO at Afripack, which is an Austrian consumer and industrial packaging company. Herbert, welcome, how are you?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: Thanks very much, Ciaran, I am very well, thank you for having me. How are you?
CIARAN RYAN: Not bad, it’s a pretty cold day here in Johannesburg but I think it’s also a cold day in Cape Town, right?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: Yes, I think the cold front probably started this side, we’ve had some freezing days during the last couple of days, so really very cold.
CIARAN RYAN: I think the good news is that I’ve just looked at my weather forecast and it says that next week it’s going to go up to 24 degrees, which is lovely news.
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: That will be very much welcome because I think it’s currently ten to 13 degrees and by my standards that’s very cold.
CIARAN RYAN: Tell us about ROAM or Ringier One Africa Media, tell us about that company, it’s very interesting, you’re involved in international publishing and digital marketplaces, so what is that?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: ROAM itself is mainly on the digital marketplace side, which is basically creating digital marketplaces to create transparency or align users between themselves, job seekers and employers, so we create the websites that facilitate that. I think the main purpose, obviously, of creating a website is to build trust, make it easier for people to trade, especially in Africa where infrastructure for certain trading activities are not institutionalised and they need to be created. So our focus at ROAM is really building those marketplaces and we focus on Sub-Saharan Africa, we are part of Ringier, which is a Swiss digital publishing company established in 1883. We became part of Ringier in 2017 and we have been in Africa before that as part of One Africa Media, a South African company, which used to own Private Property and then transitioned to just focusing on digital marketplaces outside South Africa.
‘We are market leaders in ten of our brands’
CIARAN RYAN: Where might we see these digital marketplaces, are these websites that are fairly well known or is it something that is rather more discreet than that?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: We operate mainly in East and West Africa, so we’re very strong in Nigeria on the jobs sites, we have got four that you would traditionally call business units, which we call verticals, so these verticals are focusing on the jobs site, we’ve got the cars site, property and then the traditional classifieds, which we call horizontals. Within each vertical we operate within various countries, so, for example, if you go to Nigeria, one of the biggest jobs platforms that you see there is www.jobberman.com For those in South Africa, this is equivalent to the likes of www.careers24.com So it is quite big in West Africa, it operates in Nigeria and also in Ghana. We’ve got a classified business in Senegal, the biggest in francophone, it’s called
www.expat-dakar.com So this is more like a traditional classifieds, it facilitates trade of various things, from jobs to people wanting to sell things from their garage, in Senegal it’s quite interesting some of the things they trade there. In East Africa we’ve got www.brightermonday.co.ke which is also a jobs platform that is quite big in East Africa and it operates in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. We have www.buyrentkenya.com which is a property platform and this is mainly to facilitate people who are looking for a house to rent or houses to sell. Then we have also got www.cheki.co.ke which is a car selling platform and it operates in Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria. So for those in those areas those brands are quite popular. In fact, we are market leaders in ten of our brands that we operate, so we are quite big in those countries but in South Africa we don’t have any market presence, so it’s probably not familiar for those in South Africa.
CIARAN RYAN: So although you are based in South Africa, most of your operations are in East and West Africa, which is quite interesting. You’ve got my curiosity going now, you said it’s quite interesting what people are selling out of their garages in Senegal, tell me what are they selling?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: Senegal is a very traditional country in a way but very much with a strong Muslim population and also a very strong French influence. So they follow a lot of the Muslim holidays, recently they had a holiday at the end of July called Tabaski. What we have seen, and the study has been quite interesting, there’s a lot of activity in terms of selling sheep as part of the Muslim holiday and we actually facilitate that through our websites, as a classified, for people who are looking for sheep as part of the ceremonial festivities that they have as part of the Muslim holiday. So you will find sheep being sold on our website www.expat-dakar.com So those are very interesting activities there.
CIARAN RYAN: Selling sheep online, I have never heard of that before, interesting. Tell us a bit about yourself, we are fellow Zimbabweans, so I want to find out about where you grew up and where you studied, tell us a bit about yourself.
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: I was born in Harare, I went to school there and I started working quite early in my career because of the challenges that I had earlier on of getting into university. I think at that time there were a lot of challenges also in Zimbabwe, so I couldn’t get into university in terms of meeting the fees and so on. But I think it also worked quite well for me because I think the job market in Zimbabwe was not as bad as it was, so I quickly managed to secure employment and I started doing my studies. I was very clear on what I wanted to be in terms of career, so I focused on getting my qualification through the Institute of Chartered Secretaries. Then after a couple of years of working for one of the conglomerates in Zimbabwe I got an opportunity to move to South Africa, working for a company that was called Van Leer at that time, which was a Dutch packaging company that manufactured steel drums and egg trays that were used by farmers. So I think it was 1999 when I joined them and then moved to South Africa immediately, spent three years in South Africa. During that time there were also a lot of changes in Van Leer, they were acquired initially by Huhtamaki, which was a Finnish packaging company that was expanding into the rest of the world and they wanted to focus mainly on the consumer side of Van Leer. So they were not keen on the industrial side, which was more prominent in Africa at that time. So the industrial side was sold to a US company, which was at that time purely based in North America, so they bought a lot of the industrial packaging side of Van Leer to become Greif Worldwide. So that happened during those three years that I was in South Africa. After the three years I went back to Zimbabwe and took over the finance role for the Zimbabwean and Mozambiquan operations…
‘The underlying theme in the business is to create opportunities for Africans’
CIARAN RYAN: This is still for Van Leer, right?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: At that time, it had changed to Greif now, it changed to Greif in 2001. Greif is quite big in terms of its international footprint if you look at packaging companies, it’s also listed on the New York Stock Exchange, so quite a traditional packaging company. So I went back to Zimbabwe at the end of 2001 and worked for the Zimbabwean and Mozambiquan operations. There was a lot of activity in Mozambique, it had just come out of a lot of changes in their democracy, so there was huge interest in Mozambique at the time. So I did quite a lot of travelling between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. At the end of 2007 I had to relocate, I was asked to come to South Africa to take over the finance job for the South African entity. So I relocated from Zimbabwe back to South Africa in 2008 to be in charge of the South African unit. Then at the beginning of 2009 I got the opportunity to become the finance director for the Africa region, the Sub-Saharan region, for Greif, which encompassed Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. So that was quite a big step and quite an interesting couple of years in that role with a lot of changes. It also happened at the time of the international finance crisis in 2008 and I had just taken over a lot of the world forecasts, so there were a lot of changes that I had to work through as part of the new role. So I stayed there until 2016 and at that time an Austrian-based company called Constantia Flexibles had just bought Afripack, which is one of South Africa’s big flexible companies but it was all locally owned at that time. So they bought it and they offered me the position as CFO. I worked for them from 2016 until the beginning of 2019 at which point I got the opportunity to join Ringier One Africa Media, which was an interesting opportunity because it was my first role outside manufacturing but it was very interesting in the proposition that they were working on because not only is it trying to create a big business in Africa but also the underlying theme in the business is also to create opportunities for Africans in a big way, particularly on the jobs side, which is one of the big challenges that we have in Africa in terms of youth unemployment and how we can plug the gap between skills that businesses need and also making sure that we reduce unemployment. So we’re very pivotal in that process in the markets that we work in to support that process.
CIARAN RYAN: I would imagine that a job site in Ghana, for example, the stats…I worked in Ghana, so I know it quite well, but I think the stats are about 90% unemployment. Now, you have to be a little bit careful about using figures like that in Africa because there are people who are self-employed and there are small scale entrepreneurs, so they are officially registered as unemployed but I would imagine that when you do post a job that you get inundated with enquiries. You’ve got so much supply and so few jobs, is that your experience?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: Yes, that’s the biggest challenge in Africa, not only do we have massive unemployment but we also have a very young population and those seeking jobs are obviously young with no experience and the skills are not the right skills, so that’s the big challenge that we face. A good example that we had was in Nigeria where there was an advert that came up for a job and the people who applied for the job could have almost filled a stadium…
CIARAN RYAN: What, in Nigeria?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: In Nigeria, ja, so that’s how big the challenge is. A lot of those people looking for those roles obviously don’t have the right skills. So what we are doing, which excites us a lot, is we are trying to go beyond just creating the marketplace. Some of the things we are doing is to help the unemployed with skills and soft skills particularly because those are the things they don’t normally get in schools. So we help all the candidates who are on our platform through a process of that so that when employers come to look for candidates they will be able to see candidates with the right behavioural aspects who have been trained in certain soft skills. We partner with a number of big businesses or big NGOs to facilitate that. In Nigeria currently we are partnering with Mastercard to help young Nigerian youth with soft skills and with a target to create three million jobs in the next five years in Nigeria, but we are partnering with them. So those are the things that excite us in terms of what we are trying to do above and beyond just profitability.
CIARAN RYAN: What kinds of soft skills are we talking about there, the way that you dress, the way that you address your boss, the way you write an email, those kinds of things?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: Yes, you’ll be surprised, just general etiquette, how you conduct yourself in the office, how you communicate formally, how you conduct yourself in meetings, how to deal with difficult conversations, which are a real thing in the workplace, and how to deal with difficult colleagues in the office. Those are the kinds of things that when you start working, and I know from my own experience, you are quite naïve in a lot of ways because you don’t know as you come out of school and you don’t have that experience. So it helps a lot of them to realise what kinds of things they need to prepare themselves for. It’s quite interesting.
A lot of untapped opportunities in northern Nigeria
CIARAN RYAN: It’s fascinating. So you want to create three million jobs, governments can’t even do that, just explain that a little bit. Is this like a network of companies that have come together and said, hey, we want to create three million jobs. Just explain that.
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: We are working with the Mastercard Foundation, which is part of Mastercard in the USA, so we are one of the partners that they have and our role is to be the jobs platform to do that and within that network or partnership they have got various other players that they have roped in who would also be able to take some of the people on our platforms who we have trained. We are also trying to expand the pool of talent in Nigeria because a lot of the focus in Nigeria is in Lagos and the southern side of Nigeria but there are a lot of untapped opportunities up north in Nigeria. So we are also looking at that and not only in formal or traditional employment but also in agriculture, to help the agricultural companies that are working in Nigeria to get the right people with the right skills. So we partner with various people but Mastercard is at the centre of that, they have brought us together with various other partners in Nigeria to do that.
CIARAN RYAN: Wow, what an ambitious and fascinating project. Now, let’s talk about the accounting profession and the role of the finance executive. So you’ve worked in various different multinational companies in the African region, I guess one of the problems that you have when you’re dealing across several different borders is currency conversions, you’ve got all of these different currencies from Mozambique, from Zimbabwe and places like that, and you’ve got to find some sort of common way to report that, is that one of the difficulties that you have?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: Yes, I think it’s been a real challenge, especially when you consider that a lot of the parent companies are European-based, where currency isn’t a big issue, the exchange rate moves minimally on a month-to-month basis. In Africa we have got huge movements and sometimes you just have to explain to them what it means to…especially when you start planning for budgets and projects, you need to be heavily involved in those discussions because without them understanding what it means is you end up with currencies…or forecasts that actually don’t provide the right financial performance review of the business. So it is a big challenge and also even in terms of financing the business, you have to manage the risk of currency movements, especially if you are getting your financing or your capital in hard currency, you need to manage that. I went through the currency challenges in Zimbabwe and also in Mozambique when they just came out of the change in the political situation that they had. There are a lot of challenges, like sometimes you have to [indistinct] the accounts, drop a couple of zeros, how to manage that in a way that still makes sure that you report the right numbers. So currency is a big challenge. A lot of the businesses that we have would have a lot of translation risks as well, which impacts the financials. Sometimes if you don’t highlight that no one thinks about that until the last minute. So you need to be always involved and explain to colleagues in Europe especially where currency is not a big issue for them.
CIARAN RYAN: How did you handle that in Zimbabwe, where I think the inflation rate has gone back up to is it 1000% at the moment?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: It was about 800%, yes.
‘You need to be very inventive and keep track with the currency’
CIARAN RYAN: 800%, which is child’s play compared to what they had, it was millions of percent if you go back to 2013, 2012, and then they dollarised the economy and then they introduced this currency that I think was called the RTGS or something like that. But what a mess, it really is a fabulous mess that has been created up there.
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: It was a mess, I remember that time, we basically had to change and price our products almost on a daily basis. The only way that we could do it properly was to peg everything in hard currency and the challenge is that it actually ends up being a vicious circle because in terms of pegging the currency you speculate to say if I’m going to be selling this in two weeks’ time, what do I expect the exchange rate to be and you build that into your price but then it also fuels a lot of other things within the supply chain. So the only way out of it was to price in hard currency, limit your exposure to hard currency, limited liabilities, and where we could in a lot of the businesses was to ask some of the customers to buy their own raw materials, especially if it’s imported in hard currency, and we will then just convert because we will know that our exposure is just the processing costs and making sure that we’ve got the right margin to be able to continue. So you need to be very inventive and keep track with the currency. You also need to have a good relationship with your clients because you need each other during those very difficult situations.
CIARAN RYAN: I think probably for people overseas, being a finance executive in Africa has got a few more challenges than they are used to. You have mentioned one being the currency conversion issue, where you’ve got very volatile currencies and I suppose another one would be transfer pricing issues, I know that’s a very hot topic in the finance community. But just talk for a minute about the changing role of the finance executive, particularly given your African experience. You have to have an extremely sharp strategic mindset in order to be able to hold a position in a multinational company in Africa, would you agree with that?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: Yes, I agree, I think it’s quite a lot of things that you have to juggle. Firstly, as I mentioned with the currency, it’s just to make sure that you become the local expert to the stakeholders who are outside Africa and have a different view or an outside view of what is happening there. So that requires you to always keep track and always keep the communication line going. The other aspect is you need to be very much embedded in how the business is run to make sure that you influence a lot of the performance of the business. So understanding your supply chain and understanding your products, understanding the value proposition and your price mechanisms, especially with a lot of foresight where this currency issue is involved, and the replacement of stock or how funding requirements are impacted. So you need to be embedded on the operations side but I think that you cannot also forget the foundation or the baseline, which is making sure that you get all your standard reporting and compliance issues sorted out. So that’s also very important because Africa has improved quite a lot, but we still have some markets where there are a lot of compliance issues. For example, in Senegal the reporting regime is very much government driven, you need to submit…your financials are really in the same chart of accounts as the government. So you’ve got those challenges. Mozambique is one such example as well, where you’ve got a type of account that is a government chart of accounts and you need then to make sure that you juggle between the local constraints of reporting and supporting the business in performance and then becoming the local expert who talks to the stakeholders. The regulatory framework is a big challenge and, like you say, transfer pricing has really gained a lot of momentum in the areas that we’re doing business. So that’s something that you have to keep track of and manage that risk. In the digital side where we operate…because the digital side is a new kind of revenue stream for a lot of countries, it’s creating leakages in their economies because if you look at it most of the digital platforms tend to generate income outside of the country but getting the income from certain countries. So there are issues around how do the government’s ensure that the VAT and if you were running that business in the local economy, how they would get their hands on the VAT. So we have seen quite a lot of changes like in Kenya next year, any digital services provided by companies outside of Kenya has to pay VAT locally. Nigeria implemented this at the beginning of 2020 and Tanzania has also done the same. So they are trying to move with the times, where the digital or marketplace industry is cross-border and is virtual and they don’t have a physical presence in the country but they need to make sure that those businesses also contribute to the fiscus. So those are the things that you need to keep track of because if you don’t keep track of this compliance side, the penalties and the impact on the business is also quite onerous. So there are big challenges but that’s the evolving role of the finance person and the challenging aspects.
CIARAN RYAN: It’s quite interesting because I have spoken to probably more than 50 CFOs and pretty much everybody is saying the same thing, it’s no longer an accounting function, it’s very much a strategic function. You’ve got people who qualified as a CA, for example, I’m not sure if you’ve read the research from Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, and it’s called moving from CA to CFO, and they highlight about 34 competencies that the CFO needs in this new world that you’ve just been describing. Even in South Africa the South African Qualifications Authority recently approved a new designation for the CFO and that’s called CFO SA or the Certified Financial Officer, and it really is focusing on that new skillset that is needed. It’s no longer a box-ticking compliance issue, it’s no longer a pure accounting function, it is very much a strategic type of mindset that is required there. If you had advice for CFOs and the kinds of skills that they would need for that position, what would you recommend, what kinds of skills should they be aiming for?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: You are quite right, I look at the role as like a co-pilot to the CEO because you are really at the forefront. You need a strong finance base to do that but I think the key skills that you need to have are strong adaptability because there’s a lot of change and a lot of things that you need to adapt to at short notice, you need to have a strong appetite for the commercial side of the business because a lot of the things that happen in the business always end up being reported in the financials and if you don’t have the commercial sense to be able to assess, advise and impact decisions at a C-suite level you will end up having to play catch-up and having to explain issues, which is not ideal. Thirdly, you also need to have good leadership skills because managing a team and making sure that you’ve got the right team in Africa, especially across border is a big thing. You need to have strong teams and it’s very important to make sure that you’ve got people who you trust, sometimes you also have to trade off trust and skill because trust is really a big thing that you need to have that people who you have in the team are actually doing the right things. So it’s very important to do that but what is also very prominent is the changing aspects of finance, especially in the digital marketplace, there is so much data that needs to be analysed, that needs to be sanitised for people to make decisions. Finance in a lot of the areas has not been moving quite aggressively and so there’s a strong emergence of BI, business intelligence, coming up, which is doing some of the things that traditionally used to be done by finance on a historical basis but more now forward looking, more on the analytics side that they are doing. So those are some of the new skills that finance needs to start embracing because decisions are very quick, data is so much more easily available and it’s generated quite easily but there’s a lack of how to synthesise it and analyse it in a way that makes sense. So those changing requirements are quite important to remain relevant in a very changing environment but not without losing the traditional aspects of traditional reporting, which is still very important.
Covid’s impact on business
CIARAN RYAN: Yes, good points that you raise there, I think the emergence of artificial intelligence and the volume of data that has to be processed, you’ve really got to become quite knowledgeable, not necessarily from a technical point of view but from a bird’s eye point of view about what is happening in the world of technology. Herbert, we’re running out of time here but just a quick couple of questions, with Covid and the lockdown happening has that impacted your business?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: Yes, it has impacted our business, there are pros and cons that have come out of it. The main thing that has come out of it is we have realised that we are very important to our markets in terms of helping our markets cope with this thing because in some markets the adoption of technology has been very slow, people have continued to use the traditional classifieds or traditional hiring techniques. So we have used this opportunity to push through what we can offer, so that has been the upside. We have also used the opportunity to reassess how efficiently we are applying our costs to various cost structures that we have in the business. So that has been the upside and we have also tried to build strong relationships with our clients, how we can support them during these difficult times. But the downside from the first two or three months, starting from April up until June, there were a lot of issues around lockdown, people not trading as normal, so we saw that impact on the business. But the good thing is that in a lot of the markets that we operate in, there’s more or less now some level of what it was before in terms of people getting back to the office. But I don’t see us getting that additional momentum that we expected at the beginning of the year, so we will probably see all of this year remaining a bit flat because people are still apprehensive, they are not sure how this whole thing is going to pan out. So people are not spending as much as we would have wanted, they are holding back on certain things. But people getting back to the office has helped to get some level of normalcy to return. So there have been pros and cons in that area.
CIARAN RYAN: It’s quite interesting that, so okay it’s a little bit flat and that’s expected and normal, I think most companies are experiencing some difficulties there but not too serious by the sounds of things.
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: I think it’s because my view in the beginning was that in Africa we have got very little option in terms of lockdowns outside South Africa because people have to survive and they survive on a day-to-day basis. So, yes, lockdowns were very important to protect lives but at some point, people needed to find a way to live and survival has pushed people to still go back and manage the risk of Covid. So I think that’s what we’ve seen and why we’ve had this recovery but not to where we want it to be. I think generally Africans are quite resilient, we’ve seen it even in our business, at the beginning of 2019 we had the experience in our Kenyan business of terrorist attacks at our Kenyan office…
CIARAN RYAN: Sorry, what happened there, your offices were attacked in Kenya?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: Yes, if you remember there was a terrorist attack in Kenya at Westlands…
CIARAN RYAN: Was that the shopping mall?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: Yes, it was an office park called Westlands Riverside, there’s a hotel there and there are also offices and that’s where we operate. So that happened around January or February 2019 and our team had to move out and continue working even after that. So that’s the kind of resilience that you see in Africa, we don’t have any other option but to continue working to survive. You see that even in the Covid situation, there’s a lot of resilience, yes it’s tough and people are a bit extended in terms of what they are doing but there’s a level of resilience that comes from all these years of the challenges that we have had. So in a way it’s a positive thing to see but it’s really something that we can use going forward.
CIARAN RYAN: Okay, final question, thanks for all of that but the final question is do you have a family?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: Yes, I have a family, I have got three kids who are six years apart in terms of age and not by design…
CIARAN RYAN: Do you mean six years between each of them?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: Yes.
CIARAN RYAN: Oh, my goodness, that sounds like planning, but you say it’s not, okay [laughing].
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: It’s not [laughing].
CIARAN RYAN: And you’re currently living in Cape Town?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: Yes, I moved to Cape Town in February 2019 when I joined ROAM, so it’s been almost one-and-a-half years now in Cape Town.
CIARAN RYAN: What books would you recommend?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: I’ve just finished reading Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World by David Epstein. Basically, it tries to explain that one of the things that has been put forward quite a lot is that you need to specialise aggressively, spend 10 000 hours in a specific area to become good but it also says that for you to become good in one area you need to spread yourself in various areas because there’s a lot of commonality in a lot of things. A good example is sports, they give an example of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer in terms of how they ended up where they are, with Federer during his formative years having performed in a lot of other sports and that has helped him to become more balanced and more skillful in a specific area. So it’s quite an interesting viewpoint, especially in finance now, like you say, where we have a move away from a specialised technical CA to more general operations, where you get involved in a lot of areas, I find it quite insightful.
CIARAN RYAN: That’s interesting. Herbert, we’re going to have to leave it there, what a great discussion, thanks very much for sharing your insights and some of the challenges, which are pretty unique. What an interesting business as well, the fact that you are spread out over Africa and that you’re involved in the digital space. We’re going to have to get you back again and let’s get an update from you maybe a bit later in the year to see how things are going as we come out of lockdown and we start getting back to some sort of normalcy. Would that be okay with you?
HERBERT PASIPAMIRE: That would be great, Ciaran, and thanks for having me, I really appreciate the opportunity to share my experiences.
CIARAN RYAN: Wonderful stuff, that was Herbert Pasipamire, who is chief financial officer at Ringier One Africa Media, also known as ROAM.