In 2003, after a few post-Wharton stints in management consulting and real estate investment in the U.S., Amaechi Ndili WG97 decided the time was right to return home to Lagos, Nigeria. Since then, Amaechi has founded and invested in several businesses, building Lionstone Group into one of Africa’s fastest-growing multi-business conglomerates.
In 2006, he acquired the rights to use the trademark for Golden Tulip Hotels, a Swiss-based chain of luxury hotels backed by the likes of Starwood Capital. Today, Golden Tulip West Africa Hospitality Group is a leading brand of business hotels in West Africa, with properties in markets such as Nigeria, Ghana, and Sierra Leone.
A few years ago, Amaechi took on Africa’s underdeveloped healthcare market with the launch of CarePay Nigeria, a digital healthcare platform that connects patients with a network of pre-vetted healthcare and insurance providers. Having raised $40 million from a group of private investors in Europe and the U.S. in one of Africa’s largest Series A funding rounds, CarePay has been moving quickly to roll-out the platform to millions of people, starting initially in Kenya. CarePay’s partnership with Safaricom, Kenya’s largest mobile telecom firm, was featured by Fortune this year as “one of the top ten companies that will change the world” and enables millions of customers who lack a bank account to access health insurance through their mobile phones. Closer to home, CarePay recently inked a deal with MTN Nigeria, the country’s leading telecom player, to expand access to affordable health insurance to their 85 million subscribers.
In a recent conversation, Amaechi explains what propelled his return to Africa and how he is paying his success forward through a unique hospitality management training program that was inspired by Wharton’s MBA curriculum. He also offers practical advice for young professionals trying to navigate their careers and tap into the enormous potential of the African market.
Glenn Leibowitz: Post-Wharton, you held a number of successful roles in the U.S., but then you decided to return to Africa. What prompted that decision?
Amaechi Ndili: At the back of my mind, I was aware that I would come back home. In those days, as a student coming out of Africa, I was probably one of only a few who attended Wharton. There were Africans who had lived in America and done their undergrad there, but I was probably one of the pioneers to join the MBA program directly out of Africa.
I didn’t have the money to pay the tuition fees at Wharton; it was an alumnus who actually helped contribute to my tuition fees. I wanted to contact the guy to thank him. The financial aid office said he didn’t want to be known, but they suggested that I write him a letter which they would pass on to him. So, I wrote him a letter and he responded, but he didn’t sign it.
The first thing he said was, I understand you’re from Nigeria and your country’s going through a really turbulent time. Whatever you do, you must be an ambassador for your country, even though it is a difficult period for your country. If your classmates ever ask you, how is Nigeria, or if you find them running the country down or saying something negative, don’t join them. You must always do those things which project your country positively.
The second thing he said was, young Africans often come to the United States and get MBAs, and then get offered a nice job when they get out of school. They join the U.S. treadmill and never go back home — Africa loses them. He said when you’re done and you’ve gained a little bit of experience and you’re ready to go back home, find a way to be helpful in the manner that you have been helped. Pay it forward. Figure out how to educate and train young Africans and help them get into leadership positions, or help them get exposure to schools like the Wharton School.
That stuck with me and it shaped my post-Wharton decision-making. I always knew that this guy was correct. I started really thinking about going back home.
Glenn: Since returning to Africa, how have you paid it forward for the younger generation?
Amaechi: As we were growing the hospitality business, I started seeing a certain pattern: You would find young Africans working in the hospitality industry in Africa up to middle management. But at the general manager or division manager level, the senior people tended to be expatriates, primarily from Europe or maybe India.
I didn’t see the reason why this should continue. I became a firm believer that we should be able to train young Africans into real leadership positions, either at the asset level or even the multi-asset level, or as entrepreneurs in the hospitality business. And it shouldn’t be a scenario where they were capped because they didn’t have the required training to take over leadership. That’s what led to the birth of the Africa Hospitality Academy. I tried to create a management and leadership program focused primarily on West Africans interested in leading, creating, and founding their own assets. Kind of like an MBA program.
Glenn: How did you draw from your Wharton experience in designing the program?
Amaechi: Interestingly enough, I leaned very heavily on the Wharton curriculum that we had gone through: finance, accounting, the basics, and then I tried to marry that with my experience in the hospitality sector.
Then I had to go find people who could teach the courses. I didn’t want to have a full-time teaching staff, so I hired a number of professors and then gave them some training. I sent them off to the third-highest-ranked hotel school in the world located in the Hague, which agreed to partner with me.
As part of the curriculum, we created an Africa Immersion Program — we take the students around West African countries, expose them to the industry in the countries, have them meet high-level executives and general managers, and attend conferences. We are in our third cohort now, and for each cohort we take a really small class of 15 to 20 people on a full-time, 16-month program. It’s fascinating to see the impact that we’ve made in these young people’s lives. Many of them had never been on a plane or had never left their countries before joining the program.
Glenn: What advice would you give for young Africans today?
Amaechi: I think we’re living in really exciting times. Technology is enabling all kinds of leapfrogging — physical borders included. And so, to the extent that young African entrepreneurs can start thinking about borderless businesses, at least in the first instance across Africa, is something I recommend. One of the factors of their sustained success will be that they’re able to expand their business footprint beyond the countries that they reside in, tapping into other African markets and demand pools across the continent. Accordingly, building relationships, partnerships, and collaborations with other entrepreneurs will be an invaluable skillset for young entrepreneurs.
My second piece of advice would be that there is never really a right time to do things. You don’t have to wait to be a hundred percent ready. There is a certain genius in just starting. Once you’ve set the vision around what you want to do, execution becomes the next thing. Execution is just taking little forward steps each day. So many things open up once you begin to propel yourself forward.
Thirdly, there is a lot of African talent and resources inside and outside of Africa. I don’t necessarily advocate that Africans move back home like we did. But to the extent that we can all work together to create platforms and businesses that create jobs, investment, and other opportunities for young Africans, then I think we would all be working collectively to make a big difference. Plus, I think we will all have a lot of fun doing this.
Glenn Leibowitz WG97 leads communications and publishing in Greater China for a global management consulting firm. You can read more of his writing on his website, Write With Impact Academy, and connect with him on LinkedIn.