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From Solvay to Success - Umulinga Karangwa, CFA

From where?

I was born in Brussels in 1981. I grew up between Brussels, France, Congo, and Gabon, but Belgium is where I've spent most of my life. My journey has been unconventional, yet primarily Belgian. I attended a kindergarten in Flemish as my parents worked in Erasme and chose to live in Halle, and later in Brussels center. My attachment to Belgium is profound, and I visit several times a year. I was born as a refugee, in a less controversial time. The journey of my parents has significantly influenced what I do today.

From which program and class do you come, and how did this program influence or convince you in your choice to do business in Africa? 

I attended Solvay from 1998 to 2003, in business engineering. My time at the school passed quickly but left a lasting impact. Even today, I stay in touch with those I went through the years with, and everyone I know remains deeply connected to the school. I studied two minors, finance and management control and taxation. At that time, my preference leaned towards management control and taxation. I only added finance as I was told by older students that I would have better chances at finding a well paid job.

Have you had an experience abroad with SBS-EM? How has it influenced your life?

I did an Erasmus program in Canada, in Montreal (HEC Montreal), and it was extremely positive both personally and in terms of experiencing a different way of learning. In Brussels, we focused a lot on the syllabus, with large lecture halls, while in Canada, it was small and highly interactive classes. On a personal level, it was my first experience in North America, and I enjoyed it a lot, learned a great deal, even though the weather was quite challenging. In Canada, I learned to be organized due to the weather (preparing groceries in advance, etc.). The Erasmus program is something everyone should do, and Solvay offers it, although not all faculties do, making students much more open-minded, globally aware, and capable.

Can you briefly describe your title?

I am a fund manager. I invest in Africa, having started with investments in stocks in Belgium. My first job was at PwC, followed by a position at Banque Degroof. I have been in the investment field for 20 years, with the last 15 dedicated to Africa.

I have invested in different asset classes, with a focus on investing for funds that have a positive impact on the development of African countries. Currently, I invest in trade finance across the continent and also do angel investing,  supporting entrepreneurs who are creating jobs, addressing the significant issue of unemployment here in Africa. When I invest my own capital in entrepreneurs, I put a lot of energy into assisting entrepreneurs with similar backgrounds to that of my parents.

My job today is about investing while striving for a positive impact because I am personally deeply affected by African challenges. My parents had to flee when they were young, and even though they have returned since, it is crucial for me to invest to enable others to overcome their challenges.

What was your most significant professional obstacle, and how did you overcome it?

I quickly moved to London after working for 3 years in Belgium. At that time, many people were heading to London for jobs in finance. There was a crisis in 2008, followed by another in 2011, and it was very stressful. Belgium was still relatively protected, but in London, many people were getting laid off, which was stressful. The level of stress in trading rooms or investment teams was quite shocking at first. Later, I moved to South Africa, and it was much better. The quality of life one can have in Brussels is very valuable.

The crowdfunding campaign targets funding a "Business in Africa" chair. What do you see as the current economic opportunities and challenges for businesses on the continent?

Doing business in Africa is challenging due to the lack of infrastructure, and many companies emphasize the lack of skilled labor despite the high unemployment rate. The education system, with the exception of countries like Mauritius, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia, is generally underdeveloped, increasing the financial burden for companies that need to invest in training their workforce. Stability varies between West Africa, currently unstable, and East Africa, offering a more stable environment for investments.

Despite these challenges, there is a wealth of opportunities in Africa, with significant involvement from Western economic powerhouses such as France, Germany, and England. These engagements are driven by strategic considerations, particularly the access to the mining minerals critical for electric mobility. Substantial funds from the EU and western governments aid budget are spent in-line with these considerations.

I believe that this funding could be redirected in larger amount to the promotion of fair trade and sustainable development. While there is already funding directed to to support entrepreneurs and job creation, definitely much more can be achieved,

Initiatives that I find particularly interesting are those directed at leveraging the African diaspora based in Europe to improve the impact and return of European investments in Africa, whether it is public aid or private investments. Remittances sent back home by Africans working abroad have surpassed foreign direct investment (FDI) into Africa for several years. In 2022, remittances reached an estimated $48 billion, while FDI inflows were $45 billion. GiZ, the German cooperation has developed a digital platform to help the African diaspora invest in projects back home. This is an idea that values the diaspora and multiplies its impact back home.

While I am more particularly interested in diasporan africans and entrepreneurs, the chair Business in Africa can position itself as a thought leader on corporate investments from Belgium and Europe directed to the continent. I know many Solvaysiens with links to the continent as well as Solvaysiens working in corporates with a presence in Africa. Why not tap into alumnis to source ideas on where the School can add value to?

How do you see the evolution of the business landscape in Africa over the next few years, especially regarding innovation and technology?

Africa has been been a hotbed of disruptive technologies, driven by the need to overcome infrastructure and resource constraints across all sectors, from energy, to communications to social services. Africans had to innovate because the state of neglect of its infrastructure and the over-exploitation of its resources meant that another development model had to emerge. Africa is a global leader in mobile banking, not because it invented a better approach to banking than in Europe but because there was simply no banking before mobile banking was created.

Tech is much more impactful in Africa because tech can fix infrastructure gaps and enable business that was not existent not due to lack of demand but because of the physical impossibility to offer the goods or services. Africa is also leading globally in mobile health and education because it lacked health facilities, practitioners before mobile networks allowed patients to seek support online or on the phone.

Africa has a young and growing population, a wealth of natural resources, and a strong entrepreneurial spirit. These factors create a fertile ground for innovation, and we can expect to see Africa continue to be a hotbed of disruptive technologies in the years to come.

What advice would you give to students and professionals who wish to engage in the world of business in Africa? What skills and qualities are essential for success in this environment?

I encourage students, who often tend to be too shy, to reach out to former Solvay alumni in Africa. I urge them to inquire about internships and seek advice from these alumni.

In what ways do you believe you contribute to society?

I dedicate time to support newcomers and counter negative stereotypes about refugees in Belgium. Despite current challenges and a rise in racism in our neighboring countries, I remain optimistic about integration in Belgium. From South Africa, I assist immigrant entrepreneurs in Belgium, providing training and funding. Increased awareness is crucial. Blueprint VC is a fund created by Solvay Brussels School alumni that invests in immigrant entrepreneurs or visible minority entrepreneurs in the Benelux.

Is there a particular teacher at SBS-EM who had a significant impact on you as a student?

Pascal Minne. At that time, I loved taxation and wanted to specialize in it, but I was advised to choose finance, even though it meant a lot of work with two minors. I was very disappointed when my thesis received only a distinction, especially because I truly admired this professor and I had worked what I thought a huge amount of time and wanted a grande distinction. My disappointment grew even more when he told me that he hadn’t given me more than 15 because of my spelling. However, my heart was mended when he included my thesis in his book on international tax planning in which a whole chapter was derived from the work I had done.

Who has had the biggest influence on you?

My parents, without instilling any guilt in us, made us aware of our privilege, emphasizing that we didn’t have to walk through five countries or take a boat. This greatly influenced the paths of my two sisters and mine, as well as our life choices. They instilled in me the values of compassion and understanding towards others.

What do you feel passionate about?

My job takes up a significant portion of my time, but it's a passion. I love sports in general and engage in tennis, golf, and kitesurfing. I believe my work is my passion, and I think that's important. I am fortunate to live between Mauritius and Cape Town, which are perfect destinations for outdoor sports.

So, where to now?

I am quite happy with my professional journey, and I have several upcoming projects that I look forward to, so I don't expect any significant changes. I have a lifestyle that suits me, and I have been fortunate enough to marry my job with my passion.

Mis à jour le 28 novembre 2023