By NJIRAINI MUCHIRA
General Electric Africa’s outgoing CEO Jay Ireland spoke with Njiraini Muchira about the firm’s work on the continent.
How would you describe your tenure at GE Africa?
It has been great. When we started our journey seven-and-a-half years ago, the Africa business was not well defined.
Now things are different because we have been able to push our capabilities across power, aviation, healthcare, oil and gas and transport.
GE Global is experiencing monumental corporate challenges. Will they impact the Africa business?
I have been in GE for over four decades and I have seen many changes in the business.
What is happening to the parent company is part of changes that are bound to occur in different seasons.
It is for this reason that GE has decided to spin off our oil and gas and healthcare businesses to become stand-alone entities.
The mother company will remain and move forward as a renewable, power and aviation company.
The company will remain in Africa because of the enormous opportunities on the continent. We are involved in the refinery project in Uganda and are looking to get involved in the pipeline projects in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
How does the Chinese presence in Africa impact your businesses?
We compete with the Chinese all over the world with our products but also partner with them. We work with Chinese engineering and contracting companies and service their equipment.
Most African airlines, which are your clients, are struggling. Should this worry GE?
It is important to look at the African aviation industry in the long term. African airlines are struggling because aviation is a tough business.
The good news is that there are turnaround and growth prospects because of changing demographics and an expanding middle class, among other factors. GE Africa intends to continue supporting the airlines in their growth strategies.
Why are GE’s interests in Africa not evenly distributed?
When I took over, GE Africa was in 12 countries; now we are in 33 countries.
About 10 account for 70 per cent of our business and this is true of any business in Africa.
We look at where to invest in terms of economic growth, rule of law, structures, governance and things to enable us to do business in the right way.
Then there is the next tier that does not have all that, but has some potential. We balance how we invest our resources across all these countries.
What has been your biggest lesson leading GE in Africa?
One of the things I have learnt over time is that I have been overly optimistic about the time of getting projects through in Africa. Most of our customers are government utilities, airlines and health ministries.
Learning to work with the government in the appropriate way and understanding timing has been a key lesson.
Another lesson is that because our projects are capital intensive, with financing coming from outside Africa, my optimism about the continent was not matched by all the funding organisations.
For this reason, I spent a lot of time advocating for Africa and why it is a good place to invest, trying to bring the risk perception down. Over time, I have convinced many to do projects with us.