When Cameroon-born Acha Leke graduated from Stanford with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, he was faced with a choice: launch a startup or gain experience with a consulting internship. He chose the internship — a decision that, 20 years later, has seen him work with presidents and billionaires to effect real change throughout the African continent.
In his 9-to-5 (“more like a 9-to-9,” he says), the senior partner at McKinsey & Company’s Johannesburg office has introduced a new wave of investors to Africa’s economic potential by co-authoring the “Lions on the Move” series; he’s worked to save lives in Uganda and Nigeria, consulted with African companies to boost their performance and helped to open the continent for visa-free travel (admittedly, the Cameroon passport holder had a vested interest there). Meanwhile, during his “5-to-9,” he serves as an angel investor for a dozen African startups, and he’s working to establish a network of schools and universities he hopes will produce generations of African leaders.
When he was 6 months old, Leke moved to Canada so his father could study gynecology and his mother immunology, but as soon as they’d completed their academic work, the family took the first plane back to Cameroon. At 16, a “studious” (his word) Acha moved to Belgium to finish high school before attending college in the U.S. and doing doctoral work on “Dynamic Bandwidth Optimization for Multicarrier Systems.” As a generalist at McKinsey, he seldom uses his telecommunications knowledge these days, but notes: “Engineers know how to solve problems, right?”
Would Leke consider running for president? “That’s not me,” he says believably. “I’m a technocrat, not a politician.”
This one certainly does. After he joined McKinsey in 1998, his first project in Africa took him to Uganda, which by 2000 had already been battling some of the world’s highest rates of HIV infection for more than a decade. Leke and his colleagues hammered out a plan that would allow pharma companies to slash the price of antiretrovirals (a month’s worth of ARVs cost $700 in a country where the average annual salary was $300) without diluting their core markets or crippling the Ugandan health care system. As a result, the number of Ugandans taking the medication soared from less than a thousand to more than 50,000; the plan was copied by other African countries and, says Leke, “a ton of lives” were saved.
Based at McKinsey’s Atlanta office at the time, Leke says, “Africa kept calling,” so in 2002 he transferred to Johannesburg for what was meant to be one year. He calls it his “best professional decision ever” — and for the self-confessed socialite who once owned a nightclub, it was also the right personal move (he’s a huge fan of his adopted home’s vibrant energy).
In 2010 he persuaded his bosses to set up a second African office, in Lagos, Nigeria, which he ran for four years. That move cemented McKinsey as the leading consulting firm in Africa (it now has six offices there) and, says Adegoke Oyeniyi — a West Africa business and media analyst for U.S.-based AIM Group — “produced a reverberating effect of improved business procedures and standardization” throughout the region.
Instead of “glamorous” private sector clients and global corporates, says Fred Swaniker, CEO of the African Leadership University, more than 70 percent of Leke’s projects have focused on the public and social sectors. Oyeniyi credits McKinsey’s arrival in Nigeria for a “general improvement” in “professionalism and corporate governance” in the country’s public institutions — although a ranking of 125 (out of 138) on the World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Competitiveness Report suggests there is still a way to go.
Over the years, Leke has forged close relationships with many key drivers behind Africa’s transformation — among them President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (the former finance minister of Nigeria), Donald Kaberuka (former president of the African Development Bank) and Aliko Dangote, the richest man in Africa.
Those contacts came in handy in 2004 when Leke partnered with Swaniker to create the African Leadership Academy, a prestigious high school in Johannesburg that has enrolled pupils from 46 African countries (85 percent on full scholarships). Their vision has expanded to include the African Leadership University (with campuses in Mauritius and Rwanda, and more planned) and the African Leadership Network, a Davos-esque gathering of influencers from across the continent. Leke has “supported everything we’ve done,” says Swaniker, by bringing in funding, serving on committees and even interviewing prospective candidates.
If Leke appears overly generous with his time, that’s probably because he is. Tarryn Govender, his longtime assistant, says she’s tried to put “measures in place” to remedy this, but “if I say no and he says yes, it’s still a yes.” It’s a commitment he justifies when he sees that eight of the last 12 places on the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings are occupied by African countries.
Still, Leke is the first to acknowledge that conditions aren’t always ideal (citing issues like infrastructure, education and business climate), and it’s impossible to ignore the fact that economic growth in Nigeria and other “lions on the move” has slowed recently. Hakeem Belo-Osagie, a Nigerian businessman and ex–government official, notes the stall with concern but insists it “doesn’t invalidate the broad sweep of the argument.” And Leke still sees plenty of opportunity on the continent where he has built a career and an investment portfolio.
With no immediate plans to move on, the 45-year-old knows that “everyone leaves McKinsey at some point.” For Leke, that might mean working with Swaniker “to scale up the African Leadership Group big-time” or joining the public sector — perhaps back home in Cameroon (among the few African countries he’s never worked in).
Would he consider running for president? “That’s not me,” he says believably. “I’m a technocrat, not a politician.”
A technocrat who has the ear of several presidents.
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