Peter Varndell

CEO | NEPAD Business Foundation

AfricaLive: Please give readers a brief background on the foundation and the activities you are currently involved in? What is the role that you feel you play in driving the growth of the African continent?

Mr. Peter Varndell: NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) was established in 2002 on the request of former South African President Thabo Mbeki. It was born out of the realisation that Africa needed to develop in a more accelerated way. We, the NEPAD Business Foundation, came into being because it was understood that business had a role to play in supporting NEPAD’s strategic plans. As a non-profit organisation, we have aligned our goals with those of the NEPAD agency, SADC and the African Union in general. We have memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with all these bodies with regards to how business is going to run.

Our role is to mobilise the private sector to support government initiatives. We take our cues from the continental plan through bodies like SADC and other development-oriented bodies. Ours is not to be a lobby group but to give governments a boost in their programmes, by that we mean financial resources, capacity, expertise and other aspects of development. What we do is unpack these government-endorsed master plans and try identifying the areas within them that have a business-specific interest. We help evaluate how the projects would support the growth of businesses or the projects that business believes can be successfully implemented. Overall we see ourselves as development partners that help governments execute and drive projects forward with the only caveat being that we only work on stuff that business believes in.

We believe that accelerating Africa’s growth has to involve increasing investment in Africa and improving regional trade. As a foundation, we have worked on this by targeting interventions in infrastructure, transport, energy and water. We are also looking at industrial value chains specifically where we have been looking at the pharmaceutical industry, and natural gas. Our third pillar is capacity building and where we deliver public-private partnership training. The training is offered face to face, and we know that the value-added on the training is often the interaction with the trainers themselves and the experience rather than just the content. As you know, things have changed, and we now have to embrace digital interactions.

The role that we play is to be neutral to some private managers in multi-stakeholder projects. The projects we get involved in have us sitting in the middle of all these stakeholders. We have government stakeholders being the national government, the ministries, project owners, utilities, and whatever the case may be. We convene business where we talk about end-users; we talk about developers, financiers and other people that want to take part in the projects.

We are a small team, so we do the project management facilitation, but we leverage the private sector expertise to do the project work. Our model relies on partnerships between donors and their clients. Once the corporate sponsors give us our capacity in our ability to start working, we rely on donors and their clients to do the heavy lifting.  An example of the projects that we do is a rail project that we started about six years ago. We looked at the port and rail projects throughout the continent while working with bodies like the infrastructure bank of AU, SADC and also looking at government-endorsed projects. What we learned is that there is a North-South corridor which is a railway line running from South Africa all through to Southern DRC, which has existed for many years. The reason we chose to focus on this pre-existing railway line is because of a strong desire by businesses in northern Zambia and southern DRC to have a railway solution. Business people in those regions see rail as a cheaper and more efficient solution to road transport. Businesses want competitive exports, more affordable imported goods and more efficiency, which will reduce the cost of trade.

We have tested such projects with banks, construction companies, and with lawyers, consultants, private sectors, and it has shown that such projects could be done and successfully implemented. We have also had to look to individual project sponsors who in this case, are all independent rail operators across the 4000-kilometer area, to get a better understanding of what the challenges were. We then signed an agreement with all the rail operators which mandated us to act as the new project managers. We then took it to the ministry of transport of SADC and subsequently raised some feasibility study funding. Our role again is to play these coordination and facilitation roles to drive these regional projects forward. It is challenging to get these multi-country projects off the ground because there is no prominent project sponsor. In a nutshell, we take the lead from government agendas, and use the private sector as a catalyst to accelerating the pace of these projects. 

 

AfricaLive: What is your approach in terms of acquiring partners and sponsors for your project in different initiatives that you are involved in? How do you go about building and establishing relationships with sponsors and potential partners?

Mr. Peter Varndell: It all depends on the initiative. What we are trying to find is an intersection between government-endorsed plans and business needs to see what can be done. It takes a lot of consensus-building and conferencing but ultimately it is something that we want to believe in that would be beneficial to the businesses

 

AfricaLive: How many members do you have and what kind of support can they count on?

Mr. Peter Varndell: We are currently running eight initiatives, each working with a team of partners. Within the infrastructure space at the continental level, we have the north-south corridor that I talked about, the regional gas task force to develop an industry around the gas mines in the SADC region. We have two water projects in South Africa that have been made possible by the department of water in South Africa as well as the land industrial water producers in the country. We also have another initiative that focuses on power involving the coal mine companies in South Africa and Eskom. There is much talk about the fourth industrial revolution, so a digital infrastructure project is also on our mind. Our biggest challenge as an organisation is having enough capacity to do more and obviously also the funding we can acquire for completion.

 

AfricaLive: What do you see as your biggest challenge at the moment? 

Mr. Peter Varndell: The challenge is the government’s capacity and capability to develop projects given that there is so much that they need to handle. We want to provide value to the AU by mobilising the private industry to get behind their vision and development projects. Funding mostly comes from corporates, and we are trying to raise more and more to get projects done.