Shaper: Marcus Courage

Show aired on 21st May 2016

Transcript

Elliot Moss
That was Watermelon Man from Quincy Jones and a great take on that classic to. Good morning this is Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss here on Jazz FM. Thank you very much for joining me on this Saturday morning. Jazz Shapers is the place where you can hear the very best of the people shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul and alongside them you get to hear from a shaper from the world of business and my Business Shaper today I am very pleased to say is Marcus Courage; he is the CEO and founder of a business called Africa Practice. They are a strategy and communications consultancy, been going for just over 13 years and they do all things related to Africa and you are going to hear all about his really interesting and successful business. In addition to hearing from Marcus, you will be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya, some words of advice for your business and then there is the music and we have got some crackers today from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul, one from Femi Temowo, one from Chico Freeman and this from Josè James.

Josè James with Trouble. Marcus Courage who hopefully won’t be too much trouble today, if he is, he won’t last until 10.00 o’clock, is my Business Shaper. He is the CEO and Founder of Africa Practice, as I said earlier. They are a strategy consultancy, they cover communications, they love Africa and this man called Marcus, the first question, firstly I should say thank you so much for joining me.

Marcus Courage
Well thank you for having me.

Elliot Moss
And secondly, why Africa? You are a young 28 year old, you’ve been working at Weber Shandwick, a nice big cosy big institutional business, you were head of international government affairs and a director as well and all those other things, the trappings of a corporate life Marcus and you go ‘I know what I am going to set up a business that is all about Africa’. Why Africa and why a business?

Marcus Courage
Well a very good question and I am asked that question a lot of times as you would imagine. So I got the bug. It’s as simple as that. I had grown up with my father living in South Africa and had visited him and then as a student I travelled around West Africa and its quite a contagious continent and I got the bug. I wanted to be a diplomat and was obsessed with foreign policy and diplomacy and I managed to start a career in sort of private sector diplomacy but I wanted to work more, I determined that I wanted to work in Africa and specifically I wanted to help African Governments gain a better share of voice internationally because I had seen for myself that the way that they were negotiating in multilateral forums, the deals that they got for their countries were raw, you know, they were not good deals. At the same time I had observed that the continent that I knew and fell in love with was misrepresented. People all over the world had frankly a warped impression of Africa, it was represented through stereotypes of famine, poverty, war, conflict and the Africa that I had seen as a student was one of pride, one of dignity, you know, encounters with fishermen in Dakar in Senegal, encounters with musicians in Nigeria, encounters with street hawking and vendors in the street in JOhannessburg – they’d all demonstrated to me that this a continent quite far removed from the image that we had growing up as the Band Aid, Live Aid generation and I wanted to use my professional skills to help African Governments and African countries have a better image in the world. And so that became a recurring obsession of mine so I worked out how I could marry that passion to do that with my professional career.

Elliot Moss
Wow and that’s an answer and so many questions emanate from that and I am going to hold on to those questions because I want to play some more music. We are going to come back to you Marcus Courage, my Business Shaper. This is from Femi Temowo and it is called Fela on Engu Radio.

The first of the sounds that are emanating from the fantastic African continent from the brilliant British Artist, Femi Temowo with Fela on Engu Radio. Marcus Courage is my Business Shaper and if you were listening earlier you would have heard a fantastically articulate answer to the question, why Africa? In the answer you gave a number of questions popped up for me. The first one that I think is true and I want to double check this with you, is beyond kind of loving this continent which you obviously just did and those things happen to all of us, we don’t know why necessarily but we feel a real affinity. It sounds also like you are a man that likes fairness and it sounds to me like you were driven by a sense that it was unfair that the African countries that you so loved dearly were being misrepresented and that that unfairness then led to them being in an inequitable position when it came to doing things that those countries need to do which is negotiate big deals. Why did you care so deeply because you can love a continent but to actually go as far as saying ‘I want to go and help’ – Why do you think that happened?

Marcus Courage
I think crudely I think it’s because I saw how valuable my skill set was to the continent so I recognised that African Governments when they go into negotiations they need lobbying skills, they need to be capable of advocating a position, they need to build coalitions of support for that position. When seeking to attract investment and this in the early 2000s when I founded Africa Practice, paltry sums of foreign direct investment Africa was attracting at the time, something around 1% of total global FDI, I mean really paltry sums. Now you can’t have poverty eradication and development without private capital so Africa needed to attract private capital and still does and the skills required to attract private capital are not just about doing the right things, it’s about the perception of these destinations being attractive to private capital. So I realised how valuable my skill set was to the African continent and I had had the opportunity already at that stage with my previous employer to work with African Governments and work with multi-national companies with some exposure to the African continent and so I saw an opportunity to do that.

Elliot Moss
That was my next question actually, I mean as much as I am sure and you are obviously you know, you are a practitioner and you have been for a number of years now in this space, in the lobbying space and diplomacy. At that point you were 28 and to feel that you know, 5 or 6 years’ experience under your belt that you could go and help a continent. I mean that takes either lunacy on the one side or confidence or something else.

Marcus Courage
Well.

Elliot Moss
And I mean all those things are probably true because obviously you have to back yourself but that’s what entrepreneurs do. You really backed yourself.

Marcus Courage
I did really back myself. I think even members of my family thought I was crazy. Certainly many of my friends thought that I was setting up a charitable NGO and when I had come through customs at Heathrow, the immigration officer would invite me to tell him or her which charity I worked for so yes, it was, it was against the trend certainly. At that stage I was young, I had no dependents. I could go for it and that’s exactly what I did with the support of my girlfriend, now wife who had a great job in a blue chip, all the trappings that come with that so she was able to subsidise us in the early years and now my time has come. Africa is in vogue, private capital is flowing in, investors all over the world want to set up operations or grow their operations in Africa, so 14 years down the track, we are in the right place at the right time.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me to find out more about the 14 year overnight success in Africa that is Marcus Courage, my Business Shaper today. Latest travel in a couple of minutes but before that some words of wisdom from our programme partners at Mishcon De Reya for your business.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss and I am interviewing today Marcus Courage, he is my Business Shaper here on Jazz Shapers and we have been talking about being compelled, being purpose driven and going setting up a business in Africa 14 years ago primarily to bring investment into the continent and to right a wrong as it were. The serious point around this Marcus is that you did back yourself. Where, and we mentioned that, is that in your DNA, in your genes. Are your family kind of like that to? Are they like ‘go for it boy’ – is that kind of the family mantra as well?

Marcus Courage
Good question. I have always had encouragement from my family for sure and I think that as an individual I am naturally competitive. As a young person I’d stalk out the competition. Now I very much feel like I compete with myself so I set myself goals and have strong motivation to achieve them. Yeah I am a great believer in backing yourself. Do your homework, do your due diligence, understand the risks and the opportunities and continue to back yourself.

Elliot Moss
And you are now advising many Governments. There is that combination I think business offers around political and understanding of risk and commercial intelligence and advocacy and engagement strategies and all those, those really good things. You’ve got 75 people now that work for the business across a number of countries. What’s it like when you are driven by a purpose and it’s just you and then suddenly you’ve got an organisation to run and margins to manage and the reality of actually being an entity. Has that transition been comfortable for you?

Marcus Courage
I think that it’s been comfortable for the most part. I think as our ambition grows we have to recognise that me as a founder and leader of the business, I’ve got certain skills and not all those skills are necessarily appropriate for managing a large organisation so one of the toughest jobs that I have today is actually not delivering for our clients, meeting their expectations but meeting the expectations of my own people and managing my own people, particularly as across as big a geography as Africa so by in large I feel that down the track I am pretty well suited to the role that I have. I am very on top of the requirement to manage my own people but do I have the full skill sets required to take this business from a business that employs 75 people to a business that employs 750 people? Perhaps not.

Elliot Moss
I am sure you do Marcus. I can’t believe you are not going to back yourself on that one and only time will tell. Time for some more music before we come back to Marcus Courage, my Business Shaper today. It’s from Chico Freeman 4-tet and it’s called Seven Steps to Heaven.

That was Chico Freeman 4-tet with Seven Steps to Heaven and jaunty it was too. Marcus, we have been talking about this coming of age and of these 14 years that now it seems like they weren’t a waste of time after all. You chased your dream. You chased your passion but actually it’s been more than that. It’s hard to manage isn’t it, when you are waiting for that moment to happen? I mean just on a personal basis, I don’t just mean being patient because obviously you have been patient. I mean financially as well. Have you had to have a different kind of life to the one you thought you would have or has the material side just never been important to you anyway?

Marcus Courage
So the material side has to become more and more important as you grow a family so…

Elliot Moss
Three children.

Marcus Courage
Three children.

Elliot Moss
Three children yes.

Marcus Courage
Three children in private schools.

Elliot Moss
Well you had better get going. Leave now, go back to work.

Marcus Courage
So no you can’t ignore the materiality but fundamentally if you are to do a good job you have to be passionate about it so passion has to be the principal motive for going to work each day and I think that, and I hope that one of the reasons why we are as successful as we have been able to be is because our clients employ people with not only a professional skill set but with an attitude and that attitude comes from a passion so I have spent a lot of time trying to inculcate the same passion that I have for Africa and for the contribution of the private sector in particular to Africa’s development in my team and we have a very clear vision statement for the business which extends to the African continent about prosperity, about a continent that inspires the world, not just Africans but the world and I think that if you’d ask many of our clients they would tell you that they procure our services because we understand the markets, we can help them to be successful but they like our attitude and that’s been an important distinguishing factor for us as we operate in what is an increasingly competitive market.

Elliot Moss
I mean over time and you are obviously a student and a practitioner in this and ideas catch because what’s acceptable changes and what’s not acceptable changes and these big swathes of opinions that move and you said it is almost glacial if 10 years is a fair amount of time. Is the future bright for this continent that you love?

Marcus Courage
Absolutely yes. I mean the demographics are impressive. This is a population of a billion people and growing very fast. It’s got wonderful agricultural potential, it’s got wonderful mineral resources, it’s got a lot of opportunity in so many spheres and areas and fundamentally it’s got innovation at the core of its DNA. I also think that one shouldn’t discount it’s geography you know, it is located so close to Europe so the proximity to Europe is such an opportunity both for Africa to export but for Europe also and one of the things that I wanted to point out really and that I point out to my kids each day is that one of the biggest opportunities for them, for us, is sitting on the African continent only a few dozen miles away from the southern tip of Europe and we need to get to understand this continent.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for my final chat with Marcus plus you will be hearing a track from Gregory Porter. That’s after the latest traffic and travel.

A nice new song from Gregory Porter there, Don’t Lose Your Steam. I hope we don’t lose our steam here because Marcus Courage hopefully will stay with me until the end, the bitter end here on Jazz Shapers and we are talking about his business and his passion. You have reached a point in this business where as you said, it’s kind of… it’s turned a big corner and Africa does have a different profile… I mean even recently our very own Prime Minister kind of you know, in one of those political faux pars you don’t want to make, has made one but the way that I thought the Nigerian Prime Minister responded was incredibly magnanimous is the wrong word but it had some gravitas to it. He made a bigger point. That, that coming of age of many countries and your business have kind of coincided as you said. What’s the next stage? Where does it go 5 years from here? If we were meeting again in 5 years’ time, what do you think you’d be telling me?

Marcus Courage
That is interesting, I wondered if you were going to point to the comments by David Cameron about corruption in Nigeria that he made recently and then the response from President Buhari who was in London for that anti-corruption summit and I think the point you make is really relevant. Actually, 12 years ago now I worked with the President then, President Obasanjo of Nigeria to draw attention to the ill-gotten wealth that was sitting in bank accounts in Switzerland and Europe and lobbying the British Government and Authorities throughout Europe to freeze those bank accounts and to repatriate those sums of money. No one really wanted to listen at the time. 10 years down the track or a little longer and people are ready to sit up, take note and let’s hope, to act because as you point out, times have changed and I think that whereas historically audiences in Europe weren’t prepared to sit up and take note necessarily of the comments of a Nigerian President, today hopefully they are and hopefully today they are ready to do something about it and to take him for his word as well. But in terms of the opportunities and the future outlook for the citizens of Africa of which, you know, I pointed out there are so many its an upward trajectory for most countries, for most communities. There will be… it won’t be smooth upwards in every case and fundamentally it will be strong development, good futures will be dependent on good leadership and historically there has been an absence of good leadership but that’s changing, that’s changing. I think the influence of practices from industry and business are having a good impact governance and political leadership generally. I think that there’s far close attention into the practices of both Government and industry on the continent that is good, more scrutiny. Companies who felt they could get away with bad practices are under the spotlight and can no longer due so and so hopefully development generally will be more productive and more beneficial to those societys. But the future is certainly very bright. There is a lot of world class assets that Africa has and will continue to advance that I think will be increasingly a facet of Africa’s contribution to the world, inspiring the world.

Elliot Moss
Well listen it’s brilliant to hear you being such a passionate advocate for the continent and it’s great to reframe one’s own perspective and one can never know as much as someone who lives in it but I’ve learnt lots today and I’ve really enjoyed your company, so Marcus thank you so much. Just before I let you go though, you’ve got a quick what have you chosen in terms of music and why have you chosen it moment. Here it is for you.

Marcus Courage
Thank you, well I have chosen one of my favourite Nigerian artists, Fela Kuti. The originator and inventor of the genres Afro-beat. Its African music but filtered through jazz and funk. It’s a deeply, intensely groovy beat but more than that Fela Kuti represents a sort of a passion and a dignity and a determination to fight for what he believes in. He was an incredibly proud man and led a movement in Nigeria which had impact across much of the African continent and I am pleased to say there has been a revival of Fela Kuti and his music. So Fela Kuti – enjoy.

Elliot Moss
That was just a snippet of Fela Kuti, Zombie. The original is a 12 minute version you may know and we didn’t have enough time to play it today but maybe one other day we will. The song choice of my Business Shaper today, Marcus Courage. Driven by a really strong purpose. Someone who just said that is the place I want to work and those are the people I want to work with. Enormous patience, he has spent 14 years building credibility on that continent called Africa and a real sense of passion, I mean just unbelievable passion for the place that he works and the people that work with him. Extraordinary stuff. Do join me again same time, same place, for another inspirational Business Shaper I hope, that’s on Jazz Shapers on Jazz FM next Saturday, 9.00am sharp. In the meantime though stay with us right now because coming up next, its Nigel Williams.

Marcus directs the africapractice Group, a London-headquartered, pan-African strategic advisory and communications consultancy with several international offices in Africa and Australia. He has fifteen years’ experience supporting African nations to attract investment and pursue preferential trade relationships. He has supplied strategic communications, advocacy and public diplomacy services to multilateral agencies and a dozen African governments, as well as many of the largest private-sector investors in Africa.

Prior to joining africapractice in 2003, Marcus was a Director and Head of International Government Affairs at one of the world’s largest strategic communications consultancies.

Follow Marcus on Twitter @Cour8ge.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

“People all over the world had a warped impression of Africa. It was represented through stereotypes of famine, poverty, war, conflict…”

“…you can’t have poverty eradication and development without private capital, so Africa needed to attract private capital… and still does”

“I am a great believe in backing yourself. Do your homework, do your due diligence, understand the risks and the opportunities and continue to back yourself.”

“Do I have the full skill sets required to take this business from a business that employs 75 people to a business that employs 750 people? Perhaps not.”

“Passion has to be the principle motive for going to work each day.”

“…historically, audiences in Europe weren’t prepared to sit up and take note of the comments of a Nigerian President. Today, hopefully they are…”

“Many communities in Africa have to find solutions, it’s an imperative. They grow up with that imperative and it leads to fantastic innovation.”

“Good futures will be dependent on good leadership, and historically there has been absence of good leadership. But that’s changing.”