Koffi Djondo, A Pan-Africanist Like No Other

(Togo First) – Gervais Koffi Djondo, founder of Ecobank and Asky, has always spoken about Africa and his vision for entrepreneurship on the continent. It is even this love of Africa that brought him out of retirement.

Few weeks ago, Gervais Koffi Djondo, founder of Ecobank and Asky airlines came out of retirement by releasing a book titled L’Afrique d’abord (Africa first, in English). In his book which is a more than a memoir, the Togolese businessman shares his vision of entrepreneurship and how it can contribute to Africa’s growth. Many reacted to the publication, mostly praising it; quite expected considering the journey of Gervais Koffi Djondo.

A true African icon, the 80-year old has succeeded in all stages of his career, a feat he owes mainly to an almost-genetic rigor.

A true lover of Africa

“I love our continent and wish it awakens. I wish to see Africa truly grow,” declares the entrepreneur. He strongly believes that, despite the many challenges the continent faces, Africans have what it takes to turn the tide and shine. “It’s up to us to move forward. I primarily think of African integration. This is why Ecobank is a pan-African bank and Asky a pan-African airline. As long as Africans do not understand how important it is that they get united, they will only reproduce the colonial model of countries with weak economies which barely trade among themselves,” added Gervais Djondo.

The Togolese has, over the many decades he spent working in both the private and public sectors, learned all about the various obstacles hampering African growth, especially while heading Asky airlines.

“For me, pan-Africanism is about concrete actions. All around the world, big airlines are coming together. Meanwhile, in Africa, each country is creating its own small airline just out of pure national egoism.” Besides integration which the entrepreneur believes to be one of the major issues the continent has to deal with, there is also the lack of rigor.

A man of unequaled rigor

All those close to him agree that Koffi Djondo’s main personality trait is his rigor, towards himself, and others. In this regard, one of the most notable events in the life of the pan-Africanist dates back to 1964. At the time, Djondo was the managing director of the family allocation fund, current social security fund. “I had installed an attendance clock (indicating when wages were to be paid), the first in the country, in the para-public sector. In my offices, I had the vice president’s wife and various ministers’ wives working. They weren’t really used to being regular at work. I was even questioned about this and I responded that even I was coming to work every day. In those days, soldiers used to force people to hire their mistresses. I wouldn’t allow this under my roof. There was no way I would and I was clear about it and was even ready to be arrested if they wished,”recalls Ecobank’s founder.    

This rigor, the entrepreneur inherited from his father who was extremely strict. Referring to his dad’s education as Prussian, he says: “I grew up in Togo, in the Aneho region. My childhood was not a common one.”

“I am an only son and was raised by my father. A big merchant from the time we were a German colony. He was very strict. When he was eating, I was to stay arms crossed in front of his dining table, cleaning whatever crumbs would fall, or bring him anything he needed. If I ever started dozing off, I was punished! It was hot ! Very hot ! Once, I did doze off and was caught. My dad put me on my knees, on palm kernel shells. My knees were bloody.”  

“I was not allowed to go out, apart from going to school, which my dad would take me to, and to church on Sundays, which we also went to together. He would hold my hand, and would never let me get far,”Gervais Koffi Djondo continued. Regardless, the entrepreneur has no regret and does not resent his father for teaching him the rigor which he cultivated even years after his childhood. “Looking at all the talks in Europe and the US where it is no more allowed to punish or spank kids, I think this is a grave mistake. Children cannot go unpunishe ; they must be aware that when they do something bad, they will be punished,” explains Djondo without further details. 

His childhood, we should say, definitely contributed to his journey and achievements. In fact, his place of birth (June 4, 1934), was renamed after him: Djondo Condji (which translates to Djondo’s Land).

Years of activism

After some years of schooling in neighboring Benin, Gervais Koffi Djondo went to Niger, in the early 1950s. There, he was hired as an accountant at the General Authority of Railways and Public Works of Niger. He impressed the colonial administration’s top officers so much and was catapulted as administrative and financial director of Sotra, a French transportation company. “I saw how poor the conditions were under which the Nigerien staff were working and decided to join a labor union (ed. Note: the French Confederation of Christian Workers) in order to help improve their situation within the firm.”

This got him fired from Sotra and thus were sown the seeds of pan-Africanism in him. He decided to return to his country, Togo but as he was leaving, Niamey’s administrator at the time, a French socialist, recommended that he enrolls at Ecole nationale de la France d’outre-mer, in Paris. During this period, Sylvanus Olympio was the ruling president of Togo. The leader was opposed by the party of his brother-in-law, Nicolas Grunitzky. Among members of this party was Nicolas Djondo, uncle of Gervais Koffi Djondo. “I am told President Olympio insisted that I was removed from school, a request which embarrassed French authorities. I was therefore received by President de Gaulle who reassured me, after which I got a scholarship. However, I decided to enroll at the Institute of Labour Social Sciences of Paris. I spent a year there, from 1962 to 1963. After the coup in which Olympio was assassinated, Nicolas Grunitzky came to power and got me back into Ecole nationale de la France d’outre-mer where I had my degree.”   

After getting his degree, Djondo was hired at UTA, the airlines. I didn’t stay there long, he said explaining that “during a visit in Paris, President Grunitzky decided to take me back to Togo, where I was appointed director general of the family allocation fund.” At the fund, he put in place a system to compensate workers in the event of professional accidents, compulsory retirement, and old-age pension. Many reforms he was able to implement due to his rigor. So much that Yassigbé Eyadema, once he came to power, decided to trust him with more responsibilities. “This soldier who I didn’t know summons me to tell me he wants me to put some order at the prefecture of Lomé. He made me prefect, in addition to being director of the CNSS,” Koffi Djondo relates. 

Once more, he did an incredible job. In 1973, he became president of the social and economic council.

He held the position very shortly and moved to head the Togolese subsidiary of French group Scoa. In 1975, he was elected president of the chamber of commerce and industry of Togo. In 1985, he was appointed minister of industry and Public Companies. In 1978, he created the West African federation of commerce chambers by regrouping some chambers of commerce of various English-speaking African nations. “I observed some English-speaking countries and noticed they had a federation regrouping Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Gambia, etc. So, with the presidents of the chambers of commerce of Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, we joined that federation,” he explains. It was actually at the federation that he came up with the idea to create Ecobank.

Ecobank and Asky, the flagship of my career

After creating the West African federation of commerce chambers, Gervais Koffi Djondo met Adeyemi Lawson, chairman of the Nigerian chamber of commerce and industry. Though he did not know it yet, this encounter was going to be a major turning point of his journey. The two men became friends, surely due to their love of Africa and their shared will to support African entrepreneurs.

They later decided to create a pan-African bank as they both saw that funding was one of the major challenges African companies experienced. “It’s at the federation that we came up with the idea to create a pan-African bank. Lawson and I started the Ecobank project. We went to talk about it with all heads of State of the region, even if we wanted the bank to be fully private. We didn’t want money from the States. When we met the Ivorian President Houphouët-Boigny, he was so enthusiastic and told the press the same day that it was the first time Africans presented him a project without asking for money.”

Next, the federation created Ecopromotion, a firm with a capital of $500,000, whose purpose was to conduct feasibility studies for the Ecobank project. Gervais Koffi Djondo and Adeyemi Lawson then defined the bases of capital structure of the future lending institution. In order to have a balance between English-speaking and French-speaking countries, they made sure Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire, ECOWAS’ two economic powerhouses, had the same share in the project. However, the project’s first roadblocks started emerging. The first of these was political. “While I was in Senegal with Adeyemi Lawson to meet President Abdou Diouf, I received a call at 2 AM from the Ivorian President who insisted I come see him a few hours later. He told me he would send his plane to pick me and that we would have breakfast together. He also insisted that I come alone, without my friend. During our meeting, he tells me the project should solely be for the franc zone to which I responded that the project is supposed to cover the whole ECOWAS region. It’s only a few days after that I found out that a French banker had come to Abidjan, from Paris, to meet with the President.” Some years later, Koffi Djondo said in an interview that “France’s financial interests represented 99% of the Ivorian market.” This explains the Ivorian leader’s request.

The second obstacle was the mobilization of funds to create the bank. Indeed, Gervais Koffi Djondo and Adeyemi Lawson needed $50 million for their project. They were able to get $36 million from 1,200 shareholders from 14 countries. However, many French banks, and even tewolde Gebremariam, CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, refused to collaborate with them. “We therefore turned to Citibank, which gave us a team and less than a year later, the bank was created,” says Koffi Djondo. Ecobank was created in 1985 and in a little more than 25 years later, it is present in 33 African countries and employs 18,000 people of 40 different nationalities. From 2007 to 2012, its turnover grew from $544 million to $1.75 billion.    

In line with its pan-African ambitions, Ecobank hires young Africans all over the continent. According to finance experts, “from the beginning, Ecobank’s mission was to build a new Africa. This made its staff feel like they weren’t there just to make money. The bank was looking for people that matched this culture and had a burning desire to make a difference in Africa… They were called Ecobankers, to show that those working at Ecobank were special.”

Due to his success with Ecobank, African political leaders turned to the Togolese when seeking someone to steer a project to create a pan-African airline.“Air Afrique’s collapse was a true disaster for the regional economy. To go from Lomé to Niamey, one had to go by road and stop by Ouagadougou…there was really a need for an air service.” Charles Konan Bany, then governor of the BCEAO, and Thomas Yayi Boni, at the time director general of the West African Development Bank (BOAD) presented to Gervais Koffi Djondo the idea of creating a pan-African airline.   

“This was after the meeting between Presidents Laurent Gbagbo and Abdoulaye Wade and Air France’s CEO, at the airlines’ headquarters. Charles Konan Banny had been appointed to monitor the project by the two presidents,” Djondo recalls. At first, the Togolese would reject the offer repeatedly before finally agreeing and studying the project. “I dove into the details and saw that they wanted to recreate Air Afrique, and that would be a Francophone company. I therefore decided to amend the whole project and expand it to English-speaking countries,” explains Ecobank’s founder.

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