11 July 2013 | Adam Leach

The halls of Ghana’s National Theatre reverberated with a symphony of supply chain chatter at the CIPS Pan-Africa Conference. Procurement professionals from across Africa filled the grand structure to gain insights from leading lights of the profession. Over the two days, topics from countering corruption, transforming the function into a strategic asset and the growing importance of transparency were discussed. But between each issue, there emerged a common thread: the importance of the buyer as an individual.

The procurement profession in Africa faces a great many challenges. Public money being diverted to unwanted destinations remains rife and there is an ever-growing need to increase the value accrued through its plentiful supply of natural resources. The collective power and determination that was evidently infused in the delegates present served to show that things are going in the right direction. But as almost every speaker highlighted, the continued development of the function lies on the shoulders of individuals.

Edward Siwela, director of the Institute of Directors Zimbabwe, set an inspirational tone in his presentation, highlighting the potential for procurement to deliver at the highest level of business value. “There is no doubt that there is a major contribution that procurement can make to the overall strategy of a business.”

But in order for this to be realised, he admitted, the profession will need to make sure that those in power take notice. “If procurement is to play a key role, the board must take a keen interest in it.” Turning to the skillset demanded of modern procurement professionals, Siwela picked out risk management and IT competency as being of increasing importance. He also identified an ability to “handle difficult situations” as key in aiding the fight against corruption, which, if successful, could create significant value. “When [corruption and brown envelopes] disappear it can only mean one thing… value creation,” he said.

General manager SAP at Nigerian National Petroleum, Bola Afolabi also turned his attention to the issue of corruption, conceding to the audience of buyers that they would inevitably come up against people trying to gain an improper edge or benefit. He told them to be aware that if they succeed in getting into a powerful position, some, even close family and friends, might be thinking “what’s in this for me?”. Offering simple advice, he said: “You need to have that thick skin and be the best that you can be.”

With regard to corruption and other issues of risk, such as the detrimental effect on the local supply chain caused by going for a low cost but foreign supplier, the former CIPS president advocated that buyers be relentless in their search for potential issues: “Question yourself. Ask: ‘What is the risk in the role that I play? Look for the risk element in every level of the supply chain.” Outlining risks that commonly arise, particularly Africa, he pointed to incessant changes within government, a lack of keeping to payment terms and a failure to address potential conflicts of interest.

In one of the standout presentations of the conference, delegates were treated to the insights of a purchaser who has scaled all the way to the top of the corporate ladder. Babs Omotowa, who is now managing director of Nigeria LNG, told those looking to follow in his footsteps that success would only follow hard work. Boosting the strategic value of the function, he proposed, would only come if the profession took proactive action. “Procurement is yet to take its place as a strategic function. Buyers need to ask themselves whether they are spending more time on transactional or strategic activity.” If the measurement indicates a balance in favour of transactional work, it is encumbent on buyers to shift it towards the strategic side, he said.

In a further call for buyers to bring themselves closer to the centre of overall operations, Omotowa highlighted the need for them to develop a broader understanding of the ecosystem in which they sit. He urged them to “go beyond” the confines of procurement and factor in big issues such as societal and global matters into their own objectives. This, he proposed, would help overcome negative perceptions of the function from other parts of the business: “If you’re only concerned with procurement, no wonder other parts of the business don’t listen to you,” he said. In particular, he suggested that buyers swot up on politics, science and the global economy to enrich their perspective.

Tett Affotey-Walters, director of the Ghana procurement civil service, also cautioned against buyers becoming too focused on their individual goals and objectives rather than the overarching aims of their organisation. “It is not good enough for us as procurement professionals to only be reading procurement books,” he said. Ghana’s public sector chief also suggested that buyers earning the taxpayer pound, had suffered as a result of not having clearly defined career trajectories, when compared with other support functions such as finance or human resources. “In the Ghana Civil Service, there is no classification for procurement per se,” he said.

Tukiya Kankasa-Mabula, deputy governor of administration at the Bank of Zambia, used her time in the spotlight to impress upon buyers the pivotal role they can play in shaping the region’s economic development. She conceded that, currently, the reputation of the profession is not where many would like it to be. She said that procurement suffered as a result of being tagged as focusing too heavily on lowest cost. To remedy this, she urged audience members to work to a broader definition of value, factoring in the economic benefits afforded through local sourcing and boosting SME into purchasing decisions.

Taken together, the various traits, skills and competencies required in the modern African buyer, constitute a significant challenge. They must shake away the often unfairly attributed perception that they are concerned only with cost, by substantiating the value they have delivered in areas far harder to measure. Calculating contributions to local economies as robustly as a contracting saving is not easy work. They must also combine their more strategic understanding of how their own work impacts their organisation’s goals, with a clearer appreciation of what other teams are doing in order to improve stakeholder relations, a trick few in the profession have mastered.

Throw in the thick skin required to counter corruption and the booksmarts required to build currency with the board and it all adds up to a tall order. But if the energy and ambition that was apparent across the two days in Accra can be replicated in offices across the continent, there’s a strong chance it will be achieved.

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