Tokunboh Ishmael is Co-Founder and Managing Director of Alitheia Capital, an investment management and advisory firm focused on channeling private equity investments into businesses and real estate assets to enhance access to finance, energy and housing for the excluded at the base of the economic pyramid.
She is a global voice for creating wealth and impact by unlocking the potential of businesses that provide access to essential goods and services that address the needs of ordinary folk in Africa to enable them to reach their full potential while driving for superior financial performance and shared prosperity.
In her previous roles as Managing Director of Avante Capital Ltd she advised on a number of acquisitions in the oil and gas sector including the acquisition and financing of a government-owned refinery and led the first secondary listing of a Nigerian company on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.
We had the pleasure of having this interview with Ms Tokunboh. Read and Be Inspired!
Tokunboh Ishmael is definetly a global name, give us an insight about yourself.
I am a global voice for creating wealth and impact by unlocking the potential of businesses that provide access to essential goods and services that address the needs of ordinary folk in Africa to enable them to reach their full potential while driving for superior financial performance and shared prosperity. I am a pioneer ESG and impact investor, and an innovator in investing with a Gender Lens to proactively finance female founders and businesses that impact on the livelihoods and wellbeing of women. I am passionate about shared prosperity and the role of gender consciousness in the investment process to achieve higher than normal returns.
I am a wife, mother, and triathlete. I scale mountains on bike and foot, swim in lakes and the open wild.
Over 15 years ago, I co-founded Alitheia Capital, a female-led pioneering impact investing private equity firm that embodies the philosophy of true profit with purpose. With Alitheia’s support, several of the firm’s portfolio companies are solving some of Africa’s intractable problems using innovative business models, services, and products. In 2015, I also co-founded Alitheia IDF (AIF) Fund, a $100m gender smart investing fund, investing in women-led, women-focused, and gender diverse businesses in sub-Saharan Africa employing gender factors as a source for superior returns. AIF is Africa’s first and largest gender smart private equity fund.
Beyond the above, I am a Yale World Fellow, a CFA Charterholder, a member of the inaugural class of the Aspen Institute’s Finance Leaders Fellowship, and the immediate past chair of the African Private Equity and Venture Capital Association (AVCA). I sit on several corporate boards – including the Earthshot Prize (a charity launched by the Prince of Wales, Prince William, and David Attenborough), Endeavor Nigeria, Paga Group, First City Monument Bank (FCMB), amongst others. I was a panellist on the Dragons Den Nigeria TV show and the founder of Yellow Cowries, a platform that employs gamification to teach financial literacy to young people and entrepreneurs.
As a dynamic speaker I share my over two decades of knowledge on topics including Private Equity and Venture Capital in Africa; ESG and Impacting Investing; Gender Lens Investing; and Diversity and Inclusion.
Wow, amazing!! How did you decide to tow this path?
My mother influenced my career path from an early age. She was a computer programmer in the late 60s and so introduced me to the power of computing from an early age. I also inherited my persistence and resilience from her. In fact, she used to joke that my stubborn streak has its provenance in the first waters I drank as a baby in my birthplace, Hamburg, Germany. So, it was no surprise to my parents when I chose to study Computer Science and Economics despite my top grades at a time when computing was not in fashion and only pursued by those who did not make the grades required for their first choice course. This was my first foray on the path less travelled, a trait that has been a reliable backdrop of my career.
Post, my First Class Combined Honours degree in Computer Science and Economics (Ife), I went on to achieve a Masters in Advanced Computing Methods (London) and an MBA in Finance and Strategy from the London Business School (London). These qualifications provided the bedrock for an interesting and varied career including programming software and building computers for companies and banks in the city of london, advising companies on mergers and acquisitions strategy as an investment banker on Wall Street (where I executed transactions valued at over $5billion), and developing financial technology businesses in Silicon Valley in the late 90s. Collectively, these stents prepared me to be a private equity professional and Fintech investor in Africa as early as 2009. In particular, my Computer Science background and time in Silicon Valley deepened my interest in venture capital and private equity investing, especially in harnessing technology to enable shared prosperity through inclusion and access to affordable essential services. As a pioneer Impact, Fintech and Gender Smart investor, I have witnessed, up close and personal, the growth and digital transformation of essential sectors such as financial, energy and health in Africa.
In 2003, I moved to Nigeria to take up an opportunity as the first Country Partner for Aureos Capital where I successfully raised funding to complete a $50mn fundraising exercise for the Aureos West Africa Fund – the first of its kind at the time. Following my time at Aureos, I led Avante Capital, a boutique investment advisory firm, where I advised on several transactions including the acquisition and financing of a government owned refinery and the first secondary listing of a Nigerian company on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Over the course of my career as a corporate financier, investment banker and private capital investor, I have worked on transactions across the United States, United Kingdom, and Africa, and acquired extensive experience on business development, the business of technology, and development finance.
In 2007, I co-founded Alitheia Capital in Lagos.
As the current Managing Director and Co-founder of Alitheia Capital, a women-led firm. Can you tell us a bit about Alitheia Capital and the work that is being done?
Alitheia Capital is one of the few female-led fund management firms in Africa. I co-founded Alitheia with the vision of providing catalytic capital for businesses that drive access to essential services and inclusive prosperity by addressing business, social, and environmental needs in Africa. Alitheia’s investment thesis is embodied by the principle of doing well by doing good. That is to say that Alitheia Capital’s investments seek to generate financial, social and developmental returns, which we achieve by investing in inclusive business models.
Alitheia prioritises agribusiness, financial services, and other essential consumer goods (technology, health, energy, and education) where certain products, services and population have been underserved. We are one of the few impact investing funds active in Africa and are focused on driving economic prosperity for all stakeholders – especially those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.
Over the years, Alitheia has invested in several innovative enterprises driving inclusion – be it financial, gender, energy – and enabling access to essential services and products. Our portfolio companies include Paga, Tomato Jos, Lidya, Oradian, SKLD, Mainstreet Microfinance Bank, ReelFruit, SparkMeter, Baobab Microfinance Bank, Jetstream Africa, Innovative Microfinance, and Chikas. Crucially, Alitheia invests in businesses or sectors that engage a significant percentage of women either as entrepreneurs, producers, distributors, or consumers.
The African Economic Sector is one which has been for years dominated by the men in the society. What are your thoughts on this and how can more African women take up space here?
Africa is a continent with potential and it presents savvy investors with an opportunity for generating a multiple fold return on investment. Through the Africa Free Trade Continental Agreement (AfCFTA), the continent is the largest free trade area in the world bringing together a fast-growing population of over 1.3 billion people, with a projected spending power of $6.7trn and GDP of $3.4 trillion. The implication is that consumer goods and other essential services and products will continue to witness significant growth in terms of consumer spending and investor funding because they serve the basic needs of most people. Indeed, investing in Africa with an eye on of the quadruple bottom line of purpose, people, planet, and profit has the potential to unleash significant economic and social growth for Africa and Africans.
However, to unlock this growth and unleash prosperity for all, we must engage all Africans by investing in underserved markets and historically underfunded segments of the population – specifically, women. The reality is that small businesses are the engine of economic growth with female entrepreneurs running over 40% of businesses on the continent, controlling an estimated $40 trillion in spending power globally, and enabling access to essential services and products as cross border traders, informal traders, and critical players in the value chain of businesses. Despite their strategic presence in the economy as entrepreneurs, distributors, and consumers, women are underfunded with only about 2% of female entrepreneurs receiving formal funding. This represents a significant loss of economic and social potential for Africa’s economy – in other words: gender inequality is costly, economically and socially. To solve for this and stir inclusive economic growth, more gender lens investing funds like Alitheia IDF are needed to continue driving funds into women-led, women-focused, and gender diverse businesses.
Although more investors and policy makers are increasingly gender conscious, there’s still much work to be done. However, to repair this historical underfunding of women, Africa also need more women as decision makers at the investor side of the table. Currently, women make up less than 25% of the fund managers active in Africa. One could easily draw a connecting line between female underrepresentation on the fund level with the underinvestment of female entrepreneurs because factors like (un)conscious bias and lack of access to female network, amongst other things, means that the private capital investment sector – historically dominated by men – are unaware of and/or uninterested in products that serve women or the economic imperative of female entrepreneurs. Therefore, to effectively support women-led and women-focused businesses, Africa needs more female fund managers who are themselves adequately supported and empowered to identify and support other women. Ultimately, diversity in investment and in representation is good for the economy and will ultimately unleash economic prosperity for all Africans.
Building a career like this must have been a very challenging one, can you highlight some of these challenges and how you were able to deal with them.
I have faced discrimination and exclusion in addition to being overlooked to the benefit of male colleagues, and sometimes Caucasian female colleagues, on a number of occasions. Nonetheless, I have not allowed this to deter my personal and professional pursuits. Rather, I have used my unique capabilities and differences as leverage for differentiation and innovation. Also, when I have encountered roadblocks whether in fundraising or other endeavours, I have listened to the feedback and employed this to develop more powerful, innovative and attractive propositions. My guiding light has been my spiritual compass and my quest to prove the naysayers wrong!
What is one rule you swear by?
Intentionality is necessary for the successful pursuit of your dreams and purpose.
What advice would you give to the younger generation who see you as an inspiration?
Believe in yourself. Be intentional. Do not let ‘No’ stop you from pursuing your dream.
What would you say to your younger self?
Trust your instincts!
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Website: Tokunboh Ishmael