I finally got my opportunity to meet a man who has been one of my heroes for a long time: Gervais Koffi Djondo, one of the founders of Ecobank and now chairman of another pan-African venture, Asky airlines.
Although I had read, heard and even written about him, I had never met him in the flesh before – perhaps because he prefers to speak in French and my own French could not cover a postage stamp.
He was in London last month on a short speaking tour. I went to pay a courtesy call on him together with another pan-Africanist pioneer, Afif Ben Yedder, the founder of our group, IC Publications. Afif is now in semi-retirement but is still a frighteningly sharp proofreader.
It was good to see these two committed pan-Africanists swapping stories. Both have been stubborn in their determination to see a more united Africa and both have eschewed the rhetoric for practical results.
Djondo, now in his mid-seventies, is a little wobbly on his feet and needs a walking stick but still cuts an imposing figure. He has the presence and stillness that you associate with born leaders and speaks in the softest of tones.
It was not too difficult to use one’s imagination and roll back the years to when he was a young man burning with what then seemed an impossible dream – to create an African multinational bank at a time when even the suggestion of an African-owned national bank was laughed out of court. But, whatever the odds, he did.
In the process, he unearthed hidden managerial and entrepreneurial gems. One of these has become an icon in his own right – Arnold Ekpe, who led the bank until his retirement (on the ridiculous grounds that he had crossed the 60-year threshold) two years ago.
Over the years, every conceivable award has been heaped on Djondo and one would have expected that he had every right to rest on his laurels.
Instead, frustrated by the woeful air connectivity within Africa (see page 32), he leapt straight into the lion’s den and founded Asky Airlines (pronounced ‘A’ Sky – with the letter ‘A’ standing for Africa).
The same cries of disbelief that had greeted his suggestion for Ecobank all those years ago now resurfaced. Seasoned airline experts blanched at the prospect and asked how could someone who had no experience in the business undertake such a project. But then, Djondo had not been a banker when he founded Ecobank.
Instead he says with irrefutable logic: “I love Africa. I believe that it is up to us Africans to shake things up and really get the ball rolling. And first and foremost I mean African integration. This is why Ecobank is a pan-African business, why Asky is a pan-African business. As long as Africa fails to understand that it is in our interest to be united and, above all, to change, then everything we do is merely adhering to the colonial model for small, inconsequential states.”
Djondo is living proof of the power of vision. If the vision is all encompassing, nothing can get in the way of its realisation. In this context, the lack of experience in a particular industry becomes insignificant.
I look at Djondo again as he occupies his chair like a chief of old and I can clearly see that this is a man who cannot be budged once he is set on his path.
It was a privilege, an honour and an inspiration to meet one of my heroes in the flesh and come out even more impressed than I had been going in.