May 7, 2024

Interview with Luís Cunha: “Africa has cases of global excellence that should be admired”

Portuguese people who stand out abroad are helping to find out where business opportunities are and what kind of companies and activities the country can attract. An initiative that brings together Negócios and the Portuguese Diaspora Council.

1- What led you to leave Portugal?

Look, I had never thought about emigrating. However, my family has a history. Great-grandfathers, grandparents and father, who only emigrated to Brazil at the age of 14. But, as he said, he was comfortable in Portugal. He had a fulfilling professional career and, working in a global company, he was able, from Lisbon, to work in places as diverse as Boston, Santiago de Chile, Brasília, Madrid, Barcelona, Luanda, Athens, etc… However, everything is up to a day. That day arrived when I was replaced as Managing Partner at McKinsey in Lisbon. Without thinking about it, I teased my wife to change things up. It was something as unusual as asking if we were dining out or at home…. I expected her, also with a professional career, to ask me what I was smoking? At the time, all of our children were of school age. I don’t know if out of genuine enthusiasm or to “call my bluff” she asked “Where?” And so, it was. We are immediately “bombarded” with several options, and several colleagues want to “pull” us to one geography or another. Once again, she intervened. She had the ability to see beyond the obvious. She chose South Africa. Just do an online search and you will see that nothing positive is said, particularly regarding violence. However, she was not scared. She thought it would be a “tropicalized Anglo-Saxon” experience. So, in 2015, we all went with weapons and luggage to live in Johannesburg. We spent seven of the best years of our lives in that fantastic country. We also made “tuga” friends and it was there that all my children became adults. We consider ourselves “adopted South Africans”. The only thing we couldn’t understand was the rules of rugby, even though we felt like world champions! I’m glad my wife saw beyond the obvious. Almost two years ago, we decided to put an end to our time in Johannesburg, and settled in Casablanca, as our children now study in Europe.

2- What advantages or disadvantages does being Portuguese bring you?

Disadvantage? None! Many may not agree with me and may even find what I’m about to say arrogant – often these disadvantages are in their heads and nowhere else. Since Portugal, as I have heard, is “one of the poorest of the richest countries”, this can generate stereotypes. But if that hits us, we’re already starting to lose the game. So, wherever I am, I make a point of saying that I am Portuguese and showing pride in that. Benefits? I think that being a country open to foreigners gives us a competitive advantage in emigration. We have a genuine interest in getting to know, in learning the habits and traditions of the people who welcome us and we have no problem adapting, without intending to impose. Finally, and I believe this happens to everyone, it is a huge advantage to be invariably, invariably, associated with Cristiano Ronaldo, every time I show my passport at a border post, even the most remote one.

3- What obstacles did you have to overcome and how did you do it?

The main challenge was to rebuild my client portfolio. At McKinsey, when a Senior Partner moves to a new office, he stops serving clients in his previous geography, to free up time to invest in the new geographic centrality: in my case, the financial sector in Africa with an epicenter in South Africa. Despite The excitement of starting from scratch is easier said than done. Arriving in a geography where we don’t know anyone and having to develop a new set of customers is not easy. It becomes even more complex when it comes to an activity that is based on relationships of trust with the executives we serve. I only overcame this obstacle with the enormous generosity of my partners at the Africa office. Either by sharing with me some of the relationships they had and where I could add value, or by joining me to, together, share the challenge. It was in those moments that I realized that at McKinsey, more than just “partners”, we are actually partners.

4- What do you admire most about the country where you are?

Despite having been to Johannesburg and now Casablanca, I have the privilege of working in practically every major African economy. Contrary to the vox populi, the continent is very diverse. In Portugal we have some presumption of knowing Africa, but in reality, we don’t. Lusophone Africa perhaps. But Africa as a whole does not. We are not even very well-known there. Africa is 54 countries with different traditions, cultures and levels of development. I would therefore say that I admire the ambition of Nigerians, the warmth of Angolans, the pride of Ethiopians, the professionalism of South Africans, the friendliness of Kenyans and the will of Egyptians. In the business world, there are cases of global excellence in Africa that should be admired. Examples of this are the health insurance and retail industry in South Africa or even the “invention” of “Mobile Money”, originating in Kenya but now spreading far beyond, with hundreds of millions of people having access to services financial and insurance services exclusively via telephone.

5- What do you most admire about the company or organization where you work?

One I have already mentioned: the support and generosity between colleagues. Understanding that we are stronger when we play together. The second is to be guided by our values. They are not just for hanging on the wall, but for us to live them on a daily basis, even if that is difficult. I am proud of the fact that people ask me “what is right?” and not “what is best for us?”. We are, at present, the largest truly global partnership. However, we essentially maintain the values of independence, impact and customer primacy that have guided us for almost 100 years.

6- What recommendations would you give to Portugal and its entrepreneurs and managers?

It’s a somewhat ungrateful question because generalizations are dangerous. Taking that risk, I would say that in general we need more ambition. We are happy with “we are the best, we are troublemakers”, but then we are overtaken on all sides by countries that until recently had inferior performances. And to have ambition it is not necessary to have resources, nor capital, in short, to be “rich”. It’s usually the other way around: resources appear when there is ambition. Returning to Ronaldo, we are all very proud of his goals, but perhaps we should focus more on the ambition he always had. In my view, it all starts there.

7- In which sectors of the country where you live could Portuguese companies find customers?

As a whole, Africa is a region with enormous development and great transformation. There are opportunities in all areas: Retail, Infrastructure, Information Technologies, etc.. Just to name a few in which our country has some tradition. Now, it is also a region of enormous volatility. You should only move forward if you have the capacity to face these challenges. If not, it’s better not to try.

8- In which sectors in Portugal might companies from the country where you live want to invest?

With the exception of tourism, which is very popular and where we are one of the fashionable countries, we are not exactly on investors’ radar. Probably, with the exception of Portuguese-speaking countries, these investors look for high-growth or large-sized geographies. We do not currently offer any of these attributes. I think we should look at Ireland which managed to “sell” access to the EU from Dublin. Fortunately, we have some cases of these, but they are more the exception than the rule. I believe that the rule is still that investors look at the Iberian Peninsula as a single market, and we are not able to avoid the centrality of Madrid or Barcelona. This reduces the supply of well-paid jobs in Portugal and indirectly contributes to emigration.

9- What is the competitive advantage of the country you live in that could be replicated in Portugal?

The continent’s best-known competitive advantage is its natural resources. Everyone knows about oil and gas, but even for the energy transition, Africa is critical. It is there that the main deposits of essential materials are found, such as magnesium, cobalt, platinum, etc. Less well known is the fact that Africa, in a few decades, overtook China and India as the base of the largest active population in the world with 1 .2 billion people. However, these advantages are not replicable.

10. Do you plan to return to Portugal? Why?

Yes of course. I’ve always had that clear. Family and feeling like one of our own is priceless. Anyway, when I emigrated, I thought it would be for 5 years, and it’s been 9 years… As they say – “the future belongs to God!”.

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