Partner at Southbridge Group and former president and CEO of the Africa Finance Corporation (AFC), Andrew Alli’s reading has always been ‘super-voracious’. Growing up, he said, ‘I remember being told off very often for reading at the table, even for reading at parties when I should have been dancing or otherwise “having fun”.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
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What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I grew up in a medical household—my father was a doctor, a pathologist, and my mother, a midwife. They were quite bookish. However, other than scaring myself by looking at the gruesome pictures in my dad’s medical textbooks, my reading was pretty standard fare: lots of kids’ adventure books like Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five and a few of the classics like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. I was a super-voracious reader and I remember being told off very often for reading at the table, even for reading at parties when I should have been dancing or otherwise ‘having fun’. I guess a vice like reading isn’t one that parents want to come down too heavily on, so I got away with it quite often. As I got older, I developed a liking for science fiction and science-based encyclopaedias, the sort of thing that would show the types of rockets that would be ‘regularly taking us into space in the 2000s’. This is probably where I got my interest in science and engineering and, more generally, in how the world works.
And what’s the first book you remember buying for yourself?
The first books that I remember buying with my own money were comic books. They were cheap enough for me to be able to afford with my pocket money, especially when the neighbourhood children pooled their resources. And they were readily available in 1970s Benin city. The newspaper vendors would even deliver them to your house if you arranged it with them. I preferred the UK comics—Whizzer and Chips and The Beano—to the American ones, which were largely about superheroes although I loved Judge Dredd, who was a kind of anti-superhero. The important thing with children is to encourage them to read anything that captivates them. Reading is perhaps the single most important life skill that one can acquire as a child. A love of reading in general, which encourages more reading, trumps any particular genre of reading, especially the ‘worthy’ books that may seem boring to a child and put them off reading for life.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
It would be Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. It’s a great story, which is extremely well written, especially when you consider that Conrad’s native language was Polish. It has also spawned some great films, including, one of my favourites, Apocalypse Now, and the more recent Ad Astra, which was set in space. The themes of the hero’s quest, on the one hand, and of the ‘baddie’ who started off well-intentioned but who became corrupted by his mission and his environment, on the other hand, resonate well, especially today. But Conrad, writing in 1899, also infused the book with some very racist themes, including his depiction of the ‘natives’ and the central theme that Africa is the ‘Heart of Darkness’ and is itself a corrupting influence. I would not recommend this book for this reason but if it were rewritten in a more contemporary style with a more nuanced attitude to Africa and Africans, it would open it up to new readers.
As an aside, I am a great fan of retelling old stories in a more contemporary setting. For example, I loved the play Welcome to Thebes by Moira Buffini, which is based on parts of Antigone by Sophocles, but in a modern post-war setting. I also really liked The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, a retelling of the poem, ‘Iliad’ by Homer, from the perspective of the women involved in the story. In this vein, I would love to see a retelling of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which is one of my all-time favourite stories, but with an African leader, say someone loosely based on Patrice Lumumba, in the title role. Sadly, Macbeth would probably be a more appropriate story on which to base the retelling of the lives of many African leaders.
I was a super-voracious reader and I remember being told off very often for reading at the table, even for reading at parties when I should have been dancing or otherwise ‘having fun’.
What’s the last book/text you disagreed with, and why?
This is going to be a bit esoteric but the last book I disagreed with is Something Deeply Hidden by Sean Carroll. It is about quantum mechanics. One of the mysteries of quantum mechanics is that while the equations derived from the theory ‘work’, in the sense that all the predictions that can be tested experimentally have been verified, and are used for practical applications like MRI machines, no one can agree on what it ‘really means’ in the physical world—for example the famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment was designed to demonstrate how ridiculous the quantum waveform equation was in ‘real life’. Carroll in his book espouses the so-called ‘many worlds’ explanation which says that whenever there is a quantum event a separate universe is created for each possible outcome of that event. This is a theory that is unfalsifiable because you can’t see any of these other universes. I currently prefer the relational interpretation of quantum mechanics as explained by Carlo Rovelli in his recent book, Helgoland. It is very philosophical, but it basically says that the properties of any object depend on its interactions with all other objects with which it interacts, including the observers. In reality, nobody really knows the answer to this question, which is why Richard Feynman said, ‘if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.’
What’s the last book you read that changed your mind about something?
An exercise that I try to carry out with some degree of regularity is to ask myself what I have changed my mind about recently. If you are not changing your mind about things, you are not learning or growing. The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch is a book that has changed my mind about many things. It is a very complex book which talks about what knowledge really is, how it is created, and what can be done with it. This sounds rather dry, but the book was extremely mind-opening for me. The essence of the message is that knowledge is something that is created, rather than found out or uncovered, that the ability of humans to create new knowledge is infinite, and that we are only (and always) at the beginning of that infinity of knowledge creation. The book changed my outlook on many things and made me much more optimistic about the future of humanity.
How has the pandemic affected your reading?
Sadly, the pandemic has had an adverse effect on my reading. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of work to be done with my various client companies and governments to figure out what was going on and how best to react. This took up a lot of time. In addition, I found myself spending a lot of time reading articles and analysis about the pandemic, how it would likely unfold and what its aftereffects would be. There were mainly short online articles rather than the kind of reading that I prefer, but it was important to keep up. Today, I still find that a lot of time and bandwidth is being taken up with pandemic-related technical reading to the detriment of other more pleasurable reading material. I have consciously tried to avoid reading any stories about fictionalized pandemics. What is the point when we are dealing with a real-life one?
An exercise that I try to carry out with some degree of regularity is to ask myself what I have changed my mind about recently. If you are not changing your mind about things, you are not learning or growing.
What genre of books do you enjoy reading the most (and why)?
I read very widely—both fiction and non-fiction. I like the exposure to new and different ideas. But the two genres that I read the most are science fiction and history—both non-fiction and historical fiction. For example, I really enjoyed The Three-Body Problem series by Cixin Liu. This is what is referred to as hard science fiction, as it tries to follow actual science and doesn’t stray into fantasy. The book itself is centred on discovering an alien species but is hugely wide in scope—ranging from the Chinese cultural revolution through to establishing homes in other galaxies. Well written and reasonably accurate historical fiction serves to dramatize and humanize real events in history. For example, Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfield, which is about the battle of Thermopylae, took one more into the way of life of the Spartans, the thinking and psyche of the ‘300’ than any dry textbook ever could have—at the cost, of course, of it being fictional. With both of these genres, I like the fact that while they transport you to different times and worlds, you can still learn from them, and they make you think hard about contemporary issues.
You were the president and CEO of the Africa Finance Corporation (AFC), a financial institution focused on improving critical infrastructure across Africa from 2008 to 2018. What’s something you wish more people knew about investing in Africa?
When people talk about investment in Africa, they tend to take extremes: either it’s ‘super risky’ or it’s the best opportunity going, and people are idiots for not doing more. The truth is that investment in Africa is like investment in other parts of the world: it’s both of those extremes and more. People have made fortunes and people have lost their shirts. You need to understand the ‘game’ you are playing—and there are many different games that you can play when investing in Africa—and play that game very well. The game that AFC was playing by investing in infrastructure, which, if well-structured, can be a rather safe investment but one that is not likely to return ten times your money, was one where avoiding losses was more important than missing out on winners. On the other hand, venture capitalists are playing a different game where not missing out on the massive winners is more important than avoiding losers. Some games just shouldn’t be played—private equity as tried by many in Africa, with some notable exceptions, hasn’t worked—mainly because it works best where you can take control of the companies you invest in and financially engineer the transactions especially with leverage, conditions that often don’t apply in Africa. The macro-economies of the countries in which you invest, and their regulatory environments are overriding factors that can easily kill what would otherwise be good private equity investments.
When people talk about investment in Africa, they tend to take extremes, either it’s ‘super risky’ or it’s the best opportunity going, and people are idiots for not doing more.
What’s one thing that has changed about your outlook on Africa since you’ve left the AFC?
My views on this are not yet fully fleshed out, but we need to think deeply about the development models for Africa—they just aren’t working to produce development fast enough to allow us to catch up with other regions or to meet the demands of our burgeoning population. We need to create about 15 million new jobs each year just to cater for new entrants into the job market, a ‘Red Queen’ problem where we must keep running faster just to stay still. And this isn’t even considering climate change or the massive changes that technology is going to bring to the global economy in the next few decades. Most approaches have been tried somewhere on the continent and at some point in time: socialism, capitalism, ‘developmental states’, democracy, autocracy, the Washington Consensus, heterodox policies, you name it. With some exceptions, like Botswana and Mauritius, no country in sub-Saharan Africa has been able to provide sustained inclusive economic growth. And only a few countries have been able to combine this with justice, equity and freedom. I do not have an answer, but I believe that it lies somewhere in the nexus of education, culture and leveraging twenty-first-century technology for economic development.
What’s the best book on finance, the economy and/or Africa that you’ve ever read?
That is a difficult question because there are so many to choose from. I like to look at original texts rather than or in addition to their derivatives. So, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, rather than various books about evolution. Following on from this, for economics, I would recommend that people read The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation by David Ricardo, published in 1817, two years after the battle of Waterloo. One of the central tenets of economics that people don’t see is that it is not a zero-sum game where I win only if someone else loses. In trade, as Ricardo showed 200 years ago, all parties participating in trade can have gains from the interaction. This is a very important thing to understand as we discuss subjects like continental free trade in Africa. It’s much harder to choose a best book on Africa. It’s got to be a book written by an African about the whole of Africa, or a large part of it. In this context, I like books by Chiekh Anta Diop, like Civilization or Barbarism and Precolonial Black Africa. They have their flaws but as Chinua Achebe said, ‘until the lion learns to speak, the tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’
One of the central tenets of economics that people don’t see is that it is not a zero-sum game where I win only if someone else loses.
What’s a book everyone should read before making their first investment (and why)?
There are three lessons that people need to learn about investing: first asset allocation, how you divide and allocate your assets into different classes of investment, including appropriately diversifying your investments matters more in the long run than individual investment selections; second that investment is a very long term game because most of the returns come from long term compounding, and; finally that you, the individual and even many so-called professionals, are probably bad at investing, and it is thus best to do a lot of your investing passively through index funds, for example. Any book that teaches these lessons is a good first read. One I would recommend is The Elements of Investing: Easy Lessons for Every Investor by Burton Malkiel and Charles Ellis. Another good book on money and investing that is more contemporary is The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel; well worth the read but less directly focused on making your first investments.
Many people in the finance industry consider you a mentor. What is something you wish more people understood about mentorship?
I am not a big fan of mentorship as many people conceive it: a formalized long-term relationship between mentor and mentee—where the mentor is some combination of guru, career guide, door opener and sponsor—I think most often this places too much of a burden on each party, especially the mentor. It can work, especially in a work setting, but I have to say that I have never in my career participated in a formalized mentoring program that was sustainable, largely for the reasons given. Having said this, it is supremely important for people to learn from others. There is a lot that is learned, even today with all the opportunities for formal education, through experience and by osmosis. What has worked for me, both as a mentor and as a mentee, is a more organic approach where there is a group of people who can provide one with all the things one would expect from a classic mentor in a more piecemeal fashion. For example, there are people with whom I discuss issues relating to my career and others from whom I would seek advice about restaurants. One thing I find useful is to speak to younger people about what they are doing and how they see the world. People on the receiving end of these questions may not realize that they are mentoring me, but they are. And that brings me to the one thing that people may not realise about mentorship: being mentored is a lifelong thing to do. It doesn’t end when you get to a certain age or stage in your career.
Which three books would you recommend to anyone trying to understand Nigeria today?
Formation was written by a former colleague of mine at AFC, Fola Fagbule, in collaboration with Feyi Fawehinmi. The book provides a factual history of the events that led from the jihad of Usman dan Fodio in the early 1800s through to the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria in 1914. It puts the origins of Nigeria into context and shows that many of the themes that are extant today, like overdependence on a single commodity (initially slaves, then palm oil, now crude oil), religious tensions and the thirst for autonomy, justice and individual power have been around since well before Nigeria itself existed. The next book that I would recommend is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and, in this context, it’s because it treats the emotional and psychological tensions of a people trying to cope with the transition from one world to another, which is a problem that many of us and our leaders suffer from today—although the transition now is not from pre-colonial society to the colonial period, as in the book, but the transition to a modern democracy and economy which provides equity, justice and equal opportunity for everyone. For the third recommendation, I will cheat and suggest that you choose one of the following two books, which provide a satirical take on modern Nigerian society: The Chronicles of Chill: The Book of Gambrach by Rotimi Fawole or Be(com)ing Nigerian by Elnathan John. Humour is very much part of the Nigerian way of life, and an important coping mechanism. Suffice to say that we should not always take ourselves too seriously and that many a true word is spoken in jest.
I am not a big fan of mentorship as many people conceive it: a formalized long-term relationship between mentor and mentee—where the mentor is some combination of guru, career guide, door opener and sponsor…
What’s a book you’d recommend to anyone currently in office in Nigeria
There was a time when you would seldom see an African government official without the apparently obligatory copy of Lee Kwan Yew’s From Third World to First, under their arm. This was a bit laughable because other than some of the more authoritarian behaviours the Lee espoused, it seems—based on the performance of countries since the book came out—that few lessons were really learned, or should I say implemented. I would recommend that they all read A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. While a lot of focus is placed on the more technocratic aspects of government, one of the basic lacunae in many African societies is a lack of justice and equity. People are more invested in societies where they feel that they are treated justly and equitably. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls lays out what he believes a just and functioning system would look like. I think one of the most important concepts that he tries to convey is that ‘the principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance’, which is to say that a system is just if a person would be willing to be part of that system regardless of what their position in society or other attributes like wealth, social status, gender, or ethnicity would be. There are no societies that fully meet up to Rawls’ ideals, but I get the sense that building just societies isn’t something that is even much thought about on our continent.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
David Deutsch. I really wish I had read The Beginning of Infinity much earlier.
What is your favourite topic to read about these days?
I have always been an eclectic reader with a penchant for the historical, the scientific and the philosophical. I am currently reading The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper about life in a brothel in Pompeii before the volcano erupts. On my list is: A Thousand Brains by Jeff Hawkins, which is about a theory of how intelligence, especially human intelligence, works; The Parisian by Isabella Hammad; A Time to Love and a Time to Die by Erich Maria Remarque, who is more famous for All Quiet on the Western Front; The Almanack of Naval Ravikant, which is a collection of thinking by the eponymous Naval, a pretty philosophical Silicon Valley investor, and On Guerrilla Warfare by Mao.
Question from Oreoluwa George-Taylor: What’s the title of your biography (5 words or less)?
The Misadventures of An African Investor
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
How would it affect you if you were no longer able to read for some reason?⎈
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