Chirs Chijiutomi serves as the managing director of British International Investment (BII), a UK development finance institution present in Ethiopia since the 1970s. BII is noted for its role as the UK government’s primary development finance institution and as an impact investor operating within the financial ecosystems of emerging economies.
Over the week, Chijiutomi was in Addis Ababa to celebrate some of BII’s milestones in Ethiopia as well as launch new projects.
With BII since 2017, Chijiutomi assumed the BII Africa Head position a year ago. Prior to that, he was head of Infrastructure and Climate Equity. In his new role, Chijiutomi is responsible for overseeing BII’s activities across the continents and leading the rapidly-growing BII team presence throughout Africa.
He is also a core member of the Executive Committee, Investment Committee and Market Committee at BII. The Reporter’s Sisay Sahlu caught up with Chijiutomi for an insight on the organization’s involvement in Ethiopia. EXCERPTS:
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What kind of investment roles is BII playing in Ethiopia currently?
We have been in operation for the past 76 years. We are the first development finance institution (DFI) and we remain very dedicated to tackling lack of access to finance. Clearly, in the African context, Ethiopia is one of our powerhouse markets. Ethiopia is key to understanding investment priorities. If you take a look at the areas and sectors we have invested in, you can see the priorities.
A few months back, we closed a deal alongside FMO, the Dutch entrepreneurial development bank, and Dashen Bank. The total investment is 40 million dollars in the form of credit to Dashen Bank. Besides the pioneering partnership between BII, FMO and Dashen Bank; the National Bank of Ethiopia paved the way for this investment by issuing the foreign currency intermediation directive in 2021.
This directive enabled private local banks to act as intermediaries in accessing loans from foreign funders or development finance institutions approved to provide credit to domestic borrowers in foreign currency. With a 13 billion pound investment portfolio across 85 countries, FMO, which is a globally recognized bilateral private sector development bank, is also playing an instrumental role in this partnership.
We enabled Dashen Bank to support the agriculture sector. Firms that need to procure and import farming machinery to Ethiopia as well as other companies in the agricultural business benefit from the finance. Dashen Bank will be able to provide the much-needed foreign currency to some of the firms engaged in Ethiopia’s agricultural sector. These companies largely will be able to support their businesses and boost their export performance in agricultural commodities and manufactured goods. Ultimately, these companies will be able to generate foreign currency by exporting their products. This kind of scheme of collaborating with financial institutions and financing agricultural firms will eventually create a significant positive change in agricultural productivity and food supply as well as export performance.
The opening up of the financial sector by the Ethiopian authorities is also a crucial move in the same direction. More recently, we launched the African investment Resilience Accelerator (AIRA). AIRA tries to find original businesses that fit government priorities as well as the priorities of BII, and FMO, and other DFIs.
This week, we also had FMO visiting Ethiopia to explore the opportunities and identify businesses that need DFI capital in Ethiopia.
Our main objective is creating an enabling environment for investment. Coming from different countries, looking at the investment landscape in Ethiopia, identifying financing gaps, identifying regulatory measurements and suggesting areas where amendments are required, and identifying areas where AIRA can provide technical support, and creating the supportive environment for us to be able to invest, and also readying those companies for our investments, are our main tasks. It is a program created to identify key businesses for us to invest in.
This week I had talks with Ethiopian ministers of trade and industry and they emphasized the manufacturing sector is a key sector where investment is needed. Agri-processing is a key sector. These are the areas where we fill financing gaps, and where AIRA will get opportunities.
What were the criteria for selecting Dashen for this program, among other domestic banks?
Like any investment criteria, it is key to identify the right partner – it is identifying a business that can also use that finance to articulate why they need our capital. You need a business that is receptive. Working with DFI is not something automatic for various businesses. In Dashen’s case; we met Dashen – the engagement with Dashen started in 2019. Then communications continued, Dashen understood us as a DFI. One of the requirements for us as DFI was understanding. Dashen had never engaged with institutions like us before. So, we had to work alongside Dashen. From a regulatory aspect, we also had to evaluate. So it is a combination of right partner, receptive partner, alignment between our values and their values, and collaboration.
Are you considering other local banks for a similar partnership?
Absolutely. The positive thing we have seen is, since our financial partnership with Dashen, all the domestic banks in Ethiopia are approaching us. There are ongoing dialogues even as I speak to you now. There are opportunities for other banks to replicate the same modality. But I cannot tell you the names of the banks now.
Your institution also has been engaged in financing infrastructure projects including the Berbera Port development. What was your role there? Since Somaliland is not a recognized state, how are such large investments arranged with international organizations?
BII is not a political organization. We are owned 100 percent by the UK government. We are funded and raise money. Our job is to look at markets where we can create development. And development is three things: productivity, focus on job creation and revenue generation for the country. Sustainability and making sure everything we do also must align with the climate. So doing the right thing for the environment is crucial for every investment we do. Inclusivity, making sure our investment is reaching those that are under-served, is also an essential component. Gender perspective and equality perspectives are also important.
We have a global partnership with the Dubai Port (DP) World, which is to build and operate port infrastructures in key trade corridors. Berbera is a key trade corridor for goods from the globe into Ethiopia. It is also a strategic port in terms of export from Ethiopia to other parts of the world.
The investment was made with very much focus on how it can support the growth and business in Ethiopia. Today, there are many routes for goods in and out of Ethiopia. There is Djibouti and now Berbera access. So the essence of investing in Berbera was to support the trade corridor and growth ecosystem of which Ethiopia plays a key role in that trade corridor.
What was the modality of the investment and your support in the Berbera Port development?
We have a partner, which is DP world. They have a concession. They are operating the Berbera Port. And they needed a partner that understands Africa, the infrastructure, and has the capital. So we partnered with DP world. They have a long lease on the port. For instance, they recently commissioned a long-term edible oil terminal. A lot of edible oil coming to that terminal is being supplied to Ethiopia, for feeding Ethiopians.
What are your reflections on the recognition of Somaliland?
It is not a question of politics. This is about investing in critical infrastructure development for the region. That is what the investments focus on.
Western governments, including the UK, are typically more associated with humanitarian aid rather than investment in development projects in LDCs. Now it seems there is a shift towards development project financing. Is this shift in response to the stiff competition posed by China’s presence in Africa?
Our first investment here was in the 1970s. So, there is not a shift. We have been focusing and investing in Africa for the last 76 years. And that is everywhere in Africa. In the 1970s, we invested in a company in Ethiopia. Subsequently, we invested in several companies. We invested in Safaricom, which is a huge investment for us. We have also invested through the investment development bank, which then supports different businesses in Ethiopia. Africa is our focus and where we think we can make a huge impact.
The main issue is identifying and finding markets that fit to accessing our capital. We only invest in the private sector. If we find potential in the private sector, we invest in it. So our investment is not related to any foreign policy, it is linked to the UK’s development agenda, which is to support Africa and its development. Therefore, our role is to identify a way in Africa – to support.
How do you see China’s rise in Africa and its growing investment portfolio here?
To be honest, it has nothing to do with us. We believe Africa holds vast opportunities so we can work with all international development agencies working to support the development endeavors in Africa.
You don’t believe there has been a shift at all?
Nothing to do with policy. This is a consistent development agenda for the UK government, which will continue investing across Africa, just like we have been doing for the last 76 years.
Tell me about the UK’s investment portfolio landscape in Ethiopia. Any new BII investment initiatives in the pipeline?
We have prioritized seven key sectors for our investment priorities here. Financial service sector, and particularly the banking institutions are where we invest. Infrastructure is the second priority sector in Ethiopia. We have indirect exposure to the geothermal energy investments in Ethiopia. We are one of the largest power investors in Africa. Ethiopia is blessed with a lot of renewable energy potentials. So we are investing in solar, geothermal, wind and others. We are also keen to invest in Ethiopia’s power transmission systems. We also continue to invest in climate related areas and sustainable development projects. Agriculture, manufacturing, technology and telecom remain our top priority investment focuses. Those are the immediate priority investment focus areas for BII.
The relationship between the UK and Ethiopia is a long-standing one. What are some of its tangible achievements?
BII has over 200 million dollars in investment capital in Ethiopia today. The Safaricom transaction was over two billion dollars of investment, committed to Ethiopia. Those, for me, are really tangible.
Technology and telecom, and the idea to open up the telecom sector, to drive towards affordable connectivity, increase access to consumers, to deliver data to people in rural areas, to enable businesses; all these are leading to maximizing investment opportunities in Ethiopia.
With the disbursement from us, Dashen Bank is already starting investment activities. We are financing manufacturing, agriculture, trade and technology.
Ethiopia is opening up its banking and telecom sectors to foreign investors. How do you see the appetite of UK investors in seizing the opportunities? There is also an upcoming stock market in Ethiopia and a new investment scheme under Private Public Partnership (PPP). Are UK investors aware of such opportunities?
They are aware of all of it. What we are doing is letting the DFIs go first. Then the commercial investors will come alongside. Vodafone from the UK is involved in the Safaricom Consortium that involves Vodacom from South Africa, Safaricom from Kenya, and Sumitomo from japan. These are real private sector investors that have come to Ethiopia.
In terms of export and potentially import, agriculture is an area where there is a lot of opportunity for UK businesses. Basically, our capital is not for UK businesses. Our capital is destined to enable businesses in Ethiopia, for whichever private sector players that exist.
Our principle is to partner with any private sector committed to development in the long term.
How do you view Safaricom’s performance so far?
When I landed at Bole airport, I needed to identify which SIM card I will use while I stay in Ethiopia. So I went and talked to the airport staff. They asked me what I needed. I said internet and data. They said ‘we recommend you go for Safaricom.’ So, I went to the Safaricom desk at Bole airport and I bought a Safaricom SIM card.
Since I have been in Addis, I have been using Safaricom’s unlimited data. Some people said to me that they think it is a little bit pricey. But the quality they get, and the consistency is really driving the ecosystem and accessibility. So, for me it was really touching to be able to hear firsthand from people at the airport recommending Safaricom to me. That is my own view. Of course, there are key performance indicators.
How do you see the impact of conflicts in Ethiopia on businesses?
Of course it affects business activities and the economy. It is part of the country where we are operating. But we have to work with the government to see how we can at the right time be able to get access to these areas. The people in these regions need access to the internet and telephones. It is a partnership, so we have to work with the government. Such a partnership is an opportunity we have to appreciate.
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