In the narrative professional biography excerpt below, Matthew Bader leads us through some of his work – and his passions – on the African continent.
After a few months conducting research in dusty Harare libraries gathering source material for a thesis on the impact of free media on African democracy, I was pretty well hooked. In the late Spring of 1995 I had taken the opportunity to leave the University of Colorado at Boulder to study abroad in at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, and Africa had welcomed me in its unique, challenging and charming way. Finishing the research, I made my way to Bulawayo, in the south of the country. I had a feeling that I could apply what I had learned in my Political Science and International Relations courses in Colorado, and I knocked confidently on the door of City Hall, right in the center of the languid provincial capital. The three hours that I waited that day were not enough, but when I came back early the next morning I was immediately ushered into the office of the Honorable Dexter Ndlovu’s office. Mr. Ndlovu, a longtime local politician and the then Deputy Mayor of Bulawayo, had studied in the UK and was wise in the ways of the world. He pushed our conversation quickly towards its conclusion. I wanted to work for free, and Mr. Ndlovu needed someone to study the local small business environment and to provide recommendations for easing restrictions on entrepreneurship. Since that day, my life and career have been inextricably tied to African business and development.
The passion that kindled for Africa during that time led me next into the multilateral development arena. While enrolled in a variety of International Relations courses at American University I interned at a Washington, D.C. legal firm called 21st Century Africa. There, I helped compile the African Business Handbook, intended as a roadmap for American business involvement on the African continent, country-by-country. Michael Sudarkasa managed me in that role, and when I finished he recommended that I go to Abidjan, in Côte d’Ivoire, to intern at the African Development Bank as he had done when he had just finished his own degree. At the ADB I assisted various professionals, even holding down Angola’s country portfolio for a few weeks while the incumbent was on summer holiday; but the most informative role I played was in the trading room. In that room, stuck in the dark basement of the bank and surrounded by bright computer screens and endless printouts like one sees in photos of investment banks; I learned a lot about international financial markets, risk, and computers. As an assistant to Jingdong “Don” Hua – now the Treasurer of the International Finance Corporation – I conducted in-depth historical and statistical research on the fluctuations of the major currencies our traders dealt in. The market data that I was capturing and processing was so voluminous that I needed to write specialized Visual Basic macros in Microsoft Excel to order the data effectively.
A move to Europe followed that internship; and I soon got involved with campaigns in Africa, first in Amsterdam and then in Paris. Some of these campaigns ostensibly opposed the multilateral work I had been doing in Abidjan, but my focus at the time was to find a way to harness my personal energy for the continent in a positive way. I found that way soon enough in fair trade. In the mid-1990s the movement was still nascent in France, where I took the reins of Max Havelaar, an organization promoting fairly traded foods sourced in South America and Sub-Saharan Africa. A major part of my work there was to make fair trade concepts accessible to the French populace. We did this, in French, by establishing solid market-based arguments for fair-trade projects. This was my first taste of translating complex international business subjects for diverse audiences.
By 1997 I was ready to follow what had become a major dream, to return to Africa in the context of relief work. Action Against Hunger found successive roles for me in Burundi, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo over a period of four years. As a Logistics Manager and then Project Manager, I focused on the management and business aspects of our relief efforts. In Burundi, we suffered from a slow and unresponsive supply chain. In such a precarious humanitarian situation; any delay in the delivery of aid to our beneficiaries could be catastrophic. We reacted by researching market pricing and availability in surrounding countries including Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya, and funding the development of local businesses that could help us procure when and where we needed to. Our parallel supply chain ultimately saved money, supported local entrepreneurs, and kept our beneficiaries healthier.
My work in the humanitarian sector was noticeable enough to the business community that I was twice asked to leave the humanitarian space to join the private sector. This led to roles in setting up the first cellular networks in Congo and expanding a major web business throughout western Europe, and when I left the last of these I knew I wanted to try to bridge the gap between humanitarian activity and business in Africa. I felt both that humanitarian action was deficient because it was not business-like, and also that business in Africa had a responsibility to be more humanitarian.
A hybrid non-profit organization called Jacana was the fruit of this decision, and for seven years I worked to create operational outsourcing projects in twelve countries in Africa. The idea was to bring business practice to NGOs, and more than one hundred NGOs utilized our services over that time. Because of the strong role of transport in the cost of humanitarian operations, I became an expert on African transport and logistics and a special consultant to the automotive sector in Africa, and our successes included saving several large international NGOs literally millions of dollars per year and significantly increasing the role of direct relationships between business and the humanitarian sector. At our headquarters in Maputo, Mozambique, I oversaw a diverse staff of up to ten direct reports, many of whom I managed in Portuguese. As the business grew it became apparent that the NGO sector did not have the right internal incentive structure to continue to reform themselves, and that the best way to contribute meaningfully to African development would involve influencing for-profit business.
Since late 2008, when I worked with two like-minded professionals to found Nuevva, we have been researching, documenting, and presenting innovative ways to do business better in Africa. We have worked with companies as large as General Motors and Ford and as small as Prestige Motors – an automotive dealership in Bamako, Mali. Through every Nuevva project run the common threads of in-depth market research, field work, expansion of our contact portfolio, and sustainability. In researching and carrying out all sorts of projects on the behalf of diverse international entities working in Africa, I have continued to work for positive growth on the African continent.
In 2009, when I finally moved back to the United States and set up an office in western Massachusetts, I got a call from the owner of an European business selling vehicles to projects in Africa. His idea was to set up a sales office in the United States to get closer to the humanitarian organizations based here. Instead, we recommended that we set up a US office to focus on US Government contracting opportunities, and in this capacity we closed $85 million worth of sales in less than 18 months after launch.
With each new project we get better at what we do. Mostly Nuevva looks to support existing business ventures. But sometimes, when no one seizes a great opportunity, Nuevva aims to take the bull by the horns ourselves and push the project forward. This is what we are doing with Afrilease™, and it’s because we believe in its value, its profitability, and its potential to help the continent move forward.
I am happy to be in a role that allows me to work in new and dynamic environments, with diverse companies and players, and of course to continue to make linkages with Africa. Since 1995, my sights have been fixed on Africa, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
See a 2008 video of Matthew Bader from Nairobi’s Humanitarian Development Summit here.