Ayodeji Balogun: Leading complex, large-scale change with heart
As CEO of AFEX Commodities Exchange, Ayodeji Balogun works at the center of food security in Africa. He has built a network of around half a million small-holder farmers across the continent to help reduce waste and increase productivity and trade within Africa and with the rest of the world. He did this in a setting with poor roads to market, shaky infrastructure, no common language, few proven financing models, and political turbulence. As he says, “It’s kind of a crazy thing to do.”
So why did he step in to try to solve such large-scale and complex problems?
“I was born in a small village, from a very humble background. One thing which drives me to do the work I do is the power to create opportunities for young, brilliant talent from across Africa. The other thing which drives me is what I call “the power of the plate of food.”
“We are over eight billion people across the globe, eating two or three times a day, and about three million of us are providing all that food. We can have a lot of impact by making more conscious choices and creating value chains that are transparent and equitable.”
“I’ll be alive when the world grows to nine billion people. I’m scared when I look at resource allocation, and how much land we have to cultivate, and how much water. Add to that the effects of climate change. Then consider having to feed another billion people. In the next ten years if we miss the opportunity to do something, how will we look at ourselves in the mirror? I don’t want to be the generation that didn’t take action. That’s the thinking that keeps me and my team inspired.”
Breaking complex problems down into simple steps
“I like to strip things down to the basics. That means removing the noise and the ego, and focusing on the problem that needs to be solved. We have many challenges, and each of them are complicated, and that becomes complex. The first thing I do is bring things back into the complicated domain, and then I find a way to make each step simple.
It’s also important for me to be authentic and true to myself. I need to be able to say this is why I’m doing what I’m doing, with conviction. In this business, I show up every day and sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong and sometimes I’m in between. But if people can understand where I’m coming from, they can relate to me. Being authentic allows me to be a better version of myself. A recent learning for me is how to be more empathetic. It’s important to just be nice.” He laughs.
Was this a challenge for you?
“Oh yes! Patience is something I struggle with. I like fast and smart. My worst self comes out when I think people are going too slowly. Someone once asked, why do you feel like everything needs to be fast? I thought about this and considered when my best and worst self turns up. I learned that the things I don’t like in others, are also a part of me. When I suppress them, I project it outward. It took a while, but I learned to look at slow differently and try to delay my judgment. Sometimes being slow is wise and brings new solutions. But sometimes I still want everything to be fast and smart!”
Don’t wait for a perfect world, plan for one with problems
“At heart, I’m an executor. I like to just do it! We do business across countries where there are lots of problems to be solved and you have to do it in a way that is sustainable and economically viable. I tell my teams, don’t wait for a perfect world because it doesn’t exist. Instead ask yourself, what are the five ways we can get it done, because our first four plans will probably fall apart.”
What brought you to THNK?
“At the time I joined THNK, our business was headed towards foreclosure. The first seven years of building this business was very difficult. We were trying to bring transparency and fairness to a broken system. We thought people should be celebrating what we were trying to do. Instead, there was investor apathy. I had days where I was so angry, even hitting the table in meetings.
And then in 2019 we ran out of money. We wrote to the board that we needed to shut down the business within the year and lay people off. I was prepared to do this – but at the same time, I wanted to be sure I had done everything I could to save the business. So what did I do? I took all of my savings and I bought one lottery ticket. I looked for a global leadership program for CEOs. I picked THNK.”
Transforming yourself in order to transform your organization
“I didn’t know what to expect, but during that journey I learned so much about myself; how I bottle up emotions and where my anger and my ego comes from. At one point in the program, I asked myself, what if I could let go of my anger, and show up with more love and more openness? I remember a session on storytelling, where I shared a story about what I saw as my darker side. It was a painful moment, but it was also a very sweet experience. My classmates showed me joy, love and empathy.
That shifted something in me. I realized; now the whole world knows about me, and the world didn’t end. I’m still myself. It gave me the courage to come out and be authentic. In that moment, I learned it’s okay for me not to be okay. If you can share your problems, then half your problem is solved. If you can be candid and say, look guys, we’re not going to meet payroll today, or this order won’t come in on time, you build trust with each other and you will be able figure out the rest together.
I brought that back to my work. Today we’re still in business.”
What was your biggest takeaway?
“Don’t take yourself too seriously. Have fun! During the program I was able to define particular moments in my life which shaped me. For the first time in three decades, I connected with myself at the age of six. That six-year-old me plays with toys, breaks things, asks questions and smiles. I decided to bring more of that into my life.”
Of all the practices you described, what is your leadership superpower?
“These days, it’s my smile.” He laughs.
And finally, what is your call to action to other leaders?
“The world has big problems to solve and that costs money. The biggest capital is not with governments, it’s in the hands of business. So, my call to action is that every business leader needs to find a way to think about business models that serve the poor, that empowers them and enriches their lives rather than taking away from them. We need a world that can feed itself and can develop itself. A world which is more friendly.”