• Thursday, February 29, 2024
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Wiebe Boer – leading the charge to light up Nigeria from the ground up

Wiebe Boer

In March 2017, before becoming CEO at All On, the Shell Nigeria funded off-grid energy investment firm, Wiebe Boer was one of the founders of Boston Consulting Group’s Lagos office.  Prior to this, he had spent five years setting up the Tony Elumelu Foundation and directing strategy for Heirs Holdings after three years in Kenya with the Rockefeller Foundation.  In these institutions, he either helped in building them or run with the blueprint of others.

But Wiebe likes to build – from the ground up. The consequence of being raised by missionaries who abandoned the comfort of Europe to help build up a church community in Taraba State.

This upbringing with his father’s keen focus on social economic development and poverty eradication influenced his education and career. He studied history up to PhD level and acquired two masters from Yale and Bachelor’s degree from Calvin College. Boer spent one year studying political science at the University of Jos, after completing his primary and secondary education in Jos, where he was born and raised.

His ivy-league education gave him credibility even though he had limited work experience, setting him up for a leadership position early in life. Fresh out of graduate school, he had his first job running a USAID funded development programme in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania for World Vision. “I was a 28 year old kid who was set to run a $30million programme with 70 people reporting through me in French and Hassaniya Arabic.”

He wanted to have an impact on development in Africa and found he needed training in management and strategy because he didn’t have these in his formal education. On the strength of both degrees, and armed with leadership experience in the Mauritanian desert, he joined McKinsey, the assembly line of corporate strategy.

Wiebe speaks fluent Hausa and knows hustle as intimately as an Nnewi businessman knows his containers yet retains all the finesse of Wall Street. I imagine people with a PhD in History don horn-rimmed glasses, over a face of bushy beard, stuffed in an oversized tweed jacket, looking like a living trope to antiquity. But Wiebe has all the manner of the suave, swashbuckling CEO with a corner office in Manhattan.

He has managed to live true to his academic pursuit by writing a book. But even in that, he takes the unconventional route. You would think that someone put through the corporate cauldron at McKinsey will emerge with a book on strategy or corporate governance or any other high-sounding concepts.  Instead, Boer wrote about the history of football in Nigeria after spending months raiding British and Nigerian archives for material.

He thinks this is an asset. “Some people think that if you are going to be a CEO in business you have to be an engineer or study management, I think people like me who studied something completely different and then come  into business, have a completely different mindset and it gives you an edge.”

 

Management style

This reflects in the way he runs All On, preferring to be the motivator in chief rather than the enforcer-in-chief.

“I pick good people and I give them a lot of freedom,” he says.  “The expectation is really high but I lead by example.”

Boer says he is often the first one in and the last one out, and when there are big projects, he is always with the team.

“I don’t want an employee of mine to say they are afraid to come to my office, even if they are an intern. Some might say I am too lenient, but I think you bring the best out of people when you allow them to make decisions and make their own mistakes. Sometimes I need to learn from my managers and I empower them to solve problems without coming to me.”

“The typical younger generation are as much concerned about the impact you are making and not just the money you are paying, so the CEO role is evolving from being keenly focused on the financial position of the company, to a CEO who is a thought leader, who can articulate what the company means to society while also driving strategy,” says Boer.

Wiebe is an avid networker. As a CEO in a relatively small organisation, he sees this as key.

“If you are building a company in a bubble, when the time comes and you need customers, investors or even regulators to be on your side and no one has ever met you or heard of you, how can they do business with you? If you are putting up a big event and you don’t attend the event of others, nobody will come to yours. So networking is incredibly important.”

Boer has learnt to appreciate the value of maintaining a work/life balance. When he sent a work e-mail to the country chair of Shell Nigeria, a company who elevates this to the status of policy, he was told to enjoy his rest as the company will not end because he was away on leave.

This impressed upon him the importance of this balance in keeping the home-front stable. He says his first son would probably think of him as an enforcer and motivator as he tries to instil in him values such as hard work and dedication.  “But he also knows I will always be there for him.”

“If you are the richest man in the world, the CEO of the best company and at the end of the day, your children don’t know you, then it really doesn’t mean anything because you may be passing billions of dollars to people who hate you. So what’s the point?”

“If the institution you built collapses or goes bankrupt and the family that is supposed to love you unconditionally doesn’t support you, then it doesn’t really matter. We all have to understand that it is not easy but I do think it is important. I had to move on from a previous role because the balance was missing.”

Yet there are occasions when even the CEO has to cut short his leave or take time away from work in a period of crises. “Your family must understand they will have to make a sacrifice but don’t make that the norm.”

Two years at All On, Wiebe has had his fair share of highs and lows. “Every time, we close a deal despite layers of complexity in the environment, are the high points. The low points, he says are those “deals were we have gone quite far but for one reason or the other, we or they have to walk away and so to does the potential for more low income Nigerian households and small business to have access to electricity.”

All On strategy

All On is Shell’s efforts to catalyse market-based energy solutions that are attractive, affordable and sustainable for small businesses and households in Nigeria, through the establishment of an independent, impact investing fund focused on improving energy access in the Niger Delta.

The company’s strategy is to unlock energy access for these communities through a multi-faceted approach that combines investment, technical support and ideas on market development.  On primarily operates as an impact investor, making direct investments in companies providing power to low income communities and SMEs.

The company has awarded millions of dollars to early stage off-grid energy companies and start-ups in Nigeria. It was involved in the funding for Lumos, Green Village Electricity and recently partnered with foreign investors to finance Arnergy, a Lagos-based start-up to the tune of $9milion.

There are over 80 million people in rural areas without access to power and over 40 million people in semi urban areas with limited supply from a failing national grid. The scale of this problem should scare anyone.

“It doesn’t scare me,” Boer says. “The entire off-grid industry cannot solve the massive problem tomorrow, there is the concern that we are not doing it quick enough but this is a problem that was created over decades of lack of investment, so it will take a long time to fix, but the good thing is that we are taking it step by step.”

 

Lessons

Wiebe says the various institutions he has either built or helped build have taught him that in the early days, it won’t be perfect but put your stick in the ground, make it plain that you are here to work.

“If you wait too long to deliver something, people will think you are not serious and your own team will become uncertain. In the early stages, it takes a long time to set up systems and policies but don’t wait forever to put something in place to make people know what you about.

“Your initial team is important, so the CEO should build the team. It is very difficult if the team is already there and now you are trying to jive with the team, they may not share your vision or your style. Even if it is just the first two people you hire, hire your first team,” counsels Wiebe.

Wiebe says start-ups should build for the long-term, put up proper structures, governance systems – essentially run that start-up as if it were a million dollar company, then perhaps it may just become one.