BusinessDay

Uche Orji, the CEO who managed Nigeria’s Sovereign Wealth Fund for 10 years

He came. He saw. He built. He did not just build the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) which manages the country’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, he left a legacy- one that is obviously difficult to erase.

After a ten-year, two-term meritorious service as the pioneer Managing Director/ CEO of the NSIA, Uche Orji bowed out of office on September 30, 2022. Orji assumed office on October 2, 2012, as the CEO who would run Nigeria’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, created newly at the time to help Africa’s largest economy effectively deploy earnings from its hydrocarbons.

The SWF would also, sort of subsume the much-depleted Excess Crude Account (ECA) which faced many battles, particularly from the state governments over its legality.

But just like the ECA, the SWF faced legal tussle, based on the provisions of Section 162, especially Subsection (3) of the constitution which provides that any amount accruing to the Federation Account should be shared among the 3 federating units based on National Assembly’s prescription.

The NSIA was then created to manage the SWF with an initial US$1 billion capital, properly incorporated into three investment vehicles – the Stabilization Fund, the Infrastructure Fund and the Future Generations Fund, as stipulated in its Act.

On assumption of office, Orji’s immediate hurdle would then be to ensure that the SWF gets a legal backing that would ring-fence it from all manner of external and political pressures and interferences unlike the ECA.

Orji was obviously prepared for the job – having worked in the highest capacity in some of the well-known, world class, global institutions.

With him as the helmsman, NSIA delivered nine straight years of profit, growing the Fund from the initial $1billion to about US$2.56bn, despite recurring tough, volatile markets.

Total Comprehensive Income grew from N53m in 2013- just a year after its set up, to N146 billion in 2021. Total assets were reported at N1.227 trillion last year as against N158 billion in 2013.

Prior to joining the NSIA as MD/CEO in 2012, Orji was a Managing Director at the Equities Division of UBS Securities, New York. Before then, he had spent 6 years at JP Morgan Securities, London, from 2001-2006, rising from the post of Vice President to Managing Director within the Equities Division.

Orji, 52 also worked at Goldman Sachs Asset Management, London, joining as an Associate, and rising to become an Executive Director before resigning in 2001.

Hitherto, he was a Financial Controller at the former Diamond Bank Plc, and previously worked at Arthur Andersen & Co, a global firm of auditors and management consultants. He also held top positions at Thomson Reuters Extel Survey.

A graduate of Chemical Engineering from the University of Port Harcourt, Orji also holds an MBA from Harvard Business School.

With such a solid foundation, Orji’s appointees did not anticipate less. His profound leadership style saw the NSIA emerge as a revered institution, delivering transformative socio-economic initiatives across key sectors of the Nigerian economy. NSIA, many acknowledge is one of the best institutions in Nigeria today, run as a public sector investment establishment with private sector philosophy.

“A rare find, Uche Orji is at once brilliant, strategic, dutiful, committed and visionary. He is a personable leader with a heart of gold. He leads from the front, never tiring and ever striving for excellence. His mind is constantly working to create altruistic solutions to fix systems that create positive change for the benefit of all. His gift is the ability to assess a situation, diagnose the problem and deploy structures to solve the problem,” a senior staff at the NSIA who pleaded anonymity told BusinessDay.

Orji and his team left a number of impressive footprints in almost all aspects of the economy, from agriculture, healthcare, Gas Industrialization, road infrastructure, and financial servicing to technology, among others

From the onset, Orji understood that the much needed trust and recognition would only be earned through accountability and transparency.

In 2014, Orji led the Authority to become a signatory to the Santiago Principles of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) / International Forum of Sovereign Wealth Funds, hinged on best practices. NSIA is ranked global joint-second by the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute for transparency from 2015 to date.

Orji affirms to have well understood what he was getting into and was just as prepared.

“I had the privilege of being trained in asset management at Goldman Sachs asset management, where I was one of the portfolio managers, managing a €1.4 billion equity fund and a $600 million global technology fund at the time, though much bigger now.

“I was also a sale-side analyst covering one of the most complex sectors, semiconductors, globally, for which my team and I were privileged to be the number one in Europe, and number three in the United States when I moved to UBS,” Orji tells BusinessDay of what prepared him for the job.

“The relationships, complexity of stakeholder management, analytics, as well as the raw experience of managing money in very difficult markets were key.”

In terms of key impact, Orji and his team left a number of impressive footprints in almost all aspects of the economy, from agriculture, healthcare, Gas Industrialization, road infrastructure, financial servicing to technology, among others.

Perhaps, most profound among the very many footprints, is how the NSIA has utilized the Infrastructure Fund (NIF) to deliver impactful projects, most of which were thought almost impossible.

The NIF focuses to catalyze growth of key sectors which align with national priorities, while attracting investments in the infrastructure sector.

Orji was determined that through the NSIA, he would make an impact in Nigeria’s dilapidated health care system, and he did. His first shot was at cancer care and treatment, particularly after losing his dear father to the devastating ailment in 2018.

During a condolence visit to him, he had told a BusinessDay team about how his father’s illness and death opened his eyes to Nigeria’s poor health system and the severity of cancer treatment in the country.

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Determined to build world class health institutions, he then led the NSIA to begin an earnest work, which within a short time saw the eventual building of a cancer treatment centre in Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) and later two diagnostic centers in Kano and Umuahia.

All the three Centres have been operationalised, with over 200,000 patient encounters at LUTH so far, while over 60,000 patients have received care at the Kano and Umuahia Diagnostic Centres.

NSIA is also in the process of developing an Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient Manufacturing Plant, and has secured approval and began the development plans for the construction and operationalization of 23 new modern medical diagnostic centers of excellence covering all 6 geopolitical zones in the country. Two Oncology centres will be cited in Enugu and Kaduna states, as well as six Cath Laboratories.

It has also signed agreements to expand its diagnostics and oncology programme through its Healthcare Development and Investment Company. The eight collocation agreements would include lease and collaboration with three Federal Medical Centres (FMCs) and three state governments under phase one of the project, including Enugu, Kaduna and Kwara states.

Agriculture is also another area of interest, where the NSIA’s focus has been to provide a conducive investment environment and a diverse portfolio of bankable and fully integrated projects across the entire agriculture value chain.

Orji-led NSIA commissioned Panda Agric – an investee company under the NSIA-UFF US$200m Agriculture Fund set up in 2016. The Fund was established to develop large-scale farming combined with out-grower schemes in areas that address both food security and foreign exchange through exports.

Panda farm is engaged in the two-phase development of animal feed processing with backward integration through maize and soybean farming on about 3,500Ha of land in Nasarawa State. The new 147,000 metric tons capacity feed mill is fully operational and has seen increases in feed sales, as well as planting of 856ha of maize during the 2021 wet farming season, among many other milestones.

Due to the confidence and capacity it built over the years, the NSIA was assigned to manage the Presidential Fertiliser Initiative (PFI) which stands out as one of the Authority’s most successful intervention programmes.

As at 2021, 51 blending plants had been revived and participated in 2021 PFI as against 11 in 2017 when the Programme started. Figures show a total combined capacity of over 4 million metric tons.

The programme, however, has been divested to the Finance Ministry, though being managed by the Authority as a third-party asset. The restructured entity has turned a profit for the first time which is remarkable for what has been a perennially subsidized program, which was not benefiting the poor farmers.

Foreign exchange savings to the government is estimated at about US$150 million annually through the substitution of 63% of the imported inputs of fertiliser with local ones. PFI also created over 50,000 direct and indirect jobs along the entire value chain.

Road infrastructure is another area of impact. At a recent meeting in Abidjan, Finance Minister, Zainab Ahmed acknowledged how the NSIA has, over the years, “proven to be the federal government’s partner of choice in the execution and successful delivery of major infrastructure projects and transformational initiatives with national impact.”

In February 2018, the Presidential Infrastructure Development Fund (PIDF) which was established to accelerate the completion of three key perennial road infrastructure, including the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, Second Niger Bridge Project, and the Abuja-Kano Road was handed over to the NSIA to manage.

These projects have reached advanced stages of construction. Infact, the Second Niger Bridge has been completed, but delayed by its link roads due to recent flooding, according to Raji Fashola, minister of Works and Housing.

The NSIA also has a footprint in technology, where it established a $200 million Innovation Fund to serve as a catalyst for developing the technology ecosystem in Nigeria.

In line with the Fund’s objective, it successfully invested in Kasi Cloud Limited, a hyperscale cloud Data Company which focuses on enabling cloud and digital transformation in Africa starting in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial city.

Under its gas industrialization initiative, the Authority made significant progress in conceptualizing the development of the Ammonia and Di-Ammonium Phosphate production plants in partnership with OCP of Morocco – the world’s largest phosphate mining and leading fertilizer company.

The site for the plant has been secured while studies are on-going including the early stages of selecting an Engineering, Procurement and Construction company.

In renewable energy, NSIA commenced a 10MW solar power project in Kano State, the largest in West Africa, after being appointed by President Buhari as the Manager. The project is expected to deliver 415-Gigawatt Hour (GWh) within its 25 years lifespan.

Part of the NIF strategy is also to conceptualize and establish institutions that would help address key constraints to development. On the back of this, it established five key institutions, all of which Orji chaired till his exit.

They include the Nigeria mortgage Refinance Company (NMRC); Infrastructure Credit Guarantee Company Ltd (InfraCredit); Development Bank of Nigeria (DBN) – the country’s foremost wholesale Development Finance Institution; Family Homes Fund Ltd (FHFL); as well as the NG Clearing for the sale and purchase of derivative securities and commodities in the country.

In the education sector, NSIA invested in Bridge Academies which leverages technology to deliver high quality education for children from low income homes.

“NSIA has been extremely successful as a model for a sovereign wealth fund. They have been all over the place trying to support in critical sectors of the economy,” Ken Ife, a professor and London Enterprise Ambassador & chief economic strategist in ECOWAS Commission notes.

“They have leveraged so much resources from parties to the benefit of Nigerians, especially in areas that would have been difficult, especially when government is overstretched with other borrowings.”

Ife sees another outstanding quality of the NSIA as “the ability to reach the base of the pyramid and deliver direct impact. They are also focused on capital projects, not borrowing for consumption or to pay salaries.”

Orji is grateful for the milestones in ten years, but regrets some brilliant ideas, like power sector projects which could not pull through before his exit.

“I think everything that was done has been done the right way and it was a good learning moment,” he tells BusinessDay, though Nigeria’s SWF would deliver more value if properly funded.

Orji is equally excited to have had a complex set of clients. And according to him, Nigeria is just as complex because what is needed in each state is different.

“It was interesting managing a complex set of stakeholders with peculiar sets of requirements and needs.

“So when I turned up and had to manage those 36 state governors and their expectations, you learn to treat them first, as clients, the same way I treat my clients in China, Japan, tailoring my solutions to everybody’s needs. That’s when success starts to come,” he notes of lessons learnt.

“In all, I’m grateful and satisfied especially when I look at my colleagues, people who we have fought battles together with three boards who were supportive, the ministers I worked with, and of course my family.”