Addis Standard Exclusive:
Mimi Alemayehou is an Executive Advisor and Chair of Blackstone Africa Infrastructure LP, a premier global investment and advisory firm. She is also a Managing Director at Black Rhino Group, a Blackstone portfolio company. Prior to joining Blackstone and Black Rhino, Mimi was appointed by President Barak Obama to be the Executive Vice President of The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the development finance agency of the U.S. government. Previously, she was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve as the United States Executive Director on the board of the African Development Bank (AfDB). Prior to AfDB, Mimi was the Founder and Managing Partner of Trade Links, LLC, a development consulting firm. She also managed a multi-country trade project in Africa for the International Executive Service Corps, and was Director of International Regulatory Affairs for WorldSpace Corporation, a satellite telecommunications company. Mimi, an Ethiopian born naturalized US citizen and a mother of two, holds a Masters degree in International Business and International Law and Development from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. Addis Standard interviewed Mimi on her career, past and present, her congressional testimony and her life as a mother.
Editor’s Note: Although Mimi was in Addis Abeba during the last week of November this year, due to her busy schedule, this interview was conducted via e-mail. Excerpts:
Addis Standard -You left the Executive vice President post at the Overseas Private Investment Cooperation (OPIC), where you were the hand-picked choice of President Barak Obama, for Black Rhino Group and became its new Managing Director. But many people thought of OPIC as the climax of your career. Do you believe that?
Mimi Alemayehou – I have always believed that life is a journey of learning; there is no end to it until you are no more. While I absolutely enjoyed my job at OPIC during the last four years, I do not believe OPIC was the climax of my career. There is much more in my future. While at OPIC, I saw that many countries in Africa, including Ethiopia, were experiencing a different kind of transformation that I have not seen in my working career. A very important part of that transformation was the private sector and I definitely wanted to be a part of that sector, including moving back to the African continent to do it. I am currently serving a dual role as Executive Advisor and Chair of Blackstone Africa Infrastructure LP and also as a Managing Director of one of Blackstone’s portfolio companies, Black Rhino Group. Blackstone is the premiere global investment and advisory firm, managing almost $300 billion and extremely committed to developing large, highly development infrastructure projects in key markets in Africa through its infrastructure platform – Black Rhino Group.
Energy is a sector the government in Ethiopia has shifted its focus into as of late. Is there any plan by Black Rhino to work with the government of Ethiopia? Can you tell me about the rumored gas pipeline from Ethiopia to Djibouti that involved Black Rhino?
Black Rhino is now a portfolio company of Blackstone so it is owned by Blackstone. Black Rhino is currently in discussions with both the governments of Djibouti and Ethiopia on a potential refined products pipeline between Djibouti and Ethiopia. We have just completed a preliminary feasibility study and look forward to working with the governments of Djibouti and Ethiopia. It is still in the early stages of development; and for this project to succeed, it has to make economic sense for both countries and incorporated in their growth strategies. As you may know, Blackstone/Black Rhino has an important partnership with Dangote Industries, which was announced at the historical US-Africa summit in August 2014. We have committed to invest US$5 billion together in infrastructure projects.
Let me take you back to your career before joining Blackstone/Black Rhino. In your role at OPIC from March 2010 to April this year you managed a portfolio of about US$16 billion invested in over 100 countries. If I can ask you to describe for me the most important achievement within these four years of OPIC under your leadership, what would that be?
During my time at OPIC, the portfolio grew by more than 24 per cent to US$18 billion. I was most proud of tripling the corporation’s Africa portfolio to nearly US$4 billion. I was also very involved in President Obama’s signature initiative for Africa – PowerAfrica. That process very much impacted my decision to join Blackstone and Black Rhino. The private sector is increasingly playing a significant role in the development of infrastructure projects in Africa more than any other time and it is exciting to build something from scratch that impacts people’s lives positively.
In your testimony to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the US Senate in March of this year, you spoke of OPIC’s 120 projects totaling US$ 3.9 billion throughout Africa. Ethiopia is not widely mentioned as benefiting from these projects as many other African states. Why is that?Or was there any part of this investment spent in Ethiopia that we don’t know about?
As you may know, OPIC has not been active in Ethiopia due to a congressional issue. This has been an ongoing case for many years and still continues to impact OPIC’s activities in Ethiopia to this day. I am still optimistic that this issue can be resolved soon as there are some key sectors in which OPIC can play an important role in Ethiopia, particularly in the renewable energy sector where the agency is one of the leading financiers amongst development finance institutions. OPIC financed the Ormat geothermal project in the rift valley region of Kenya and I know Ethiopia’s geothermal potential is huge.
The hearing by the Committee on Foreign Relations of the US Senate was on the Power Africa Initiative, President Obama’s initiative to support green energy production in Africa. But it is a project being heavily criticized by many as just another platform for profitable energy deals targeting US companies. How would you defend or describe the President’s Power Africa Initiative?
PowerAfrica is meant to support the development of a significant amount of power generation on the continent where 600 million people have no access to power and literally live in the dark. There is room for everyone to play a role: the US, China, European companies, and most importantly African companies and governments. The Power Africa Initiative has many parts to it; there are several US government institutions that are providing a variety of tools from technical assistance to actual financing and insurance products. Although I am most familiar in how OPIC played a role, we had an inter-agency group that met regularly to make sure every agency was doing its part. USAID for example is providing valuable assistance to the selected countries by having an expert, a transaction advisor that actually sits at the Ministry level or wherever the host country needs the advisor most. Many important institutions and private sector companies have committed to the Power Africa Initiative including the African Development Bank, General Electric, Standard Bank, Heirs Holdings, and the African Finance Corporation. The idea was not for it to be an American initiative but one that spurs increased investment as a result from everyone and it is working.
Let’s talk about you as a go-getter. Before OPIC you were the US’s Executive Director at the AfDB- where you were the only woman in a pool of 17 men; before that you were the Director of International Regulatory Affairs at WorldSpace Corporation, and was, in 2013, named the ‘20 Young Power Women in Africa’ by Forbes magazine. Yet, your life isn’t just about career; you are a mother of two. How did you do that?
I have never doubted myself in the things I pursued. Fortunately, I have had some amazing mentors in my life and in turn I try as much as I can to mentor as many people, particularly young women. My previous role as the US Executive Director to AfDB was a presidential appointment by then President Bush. If you survey boards of private and public companies everywhere including the US and Europe, women are barely represented. There are many groups now advocating for better representation of women. Companies are also realizing that it is in their interest to include women on their boards and senior management.
In terms of the balancing act of career and family, I believe mothers are natural multi-taskers. Being a mother is my biggest accomplishment so far. I have missed my share of soccer games and piano recitals and it’s something that I have learned to accept, you just cannot be at all the places you want to be at and it is important to prioritize particularly when you have children. This is a dilemma every working parent faces. Thanks to technology we are so much more connected now and no matter what part of the world I am in, I get to speak with them. Having a supportive partner also allows me to travel and pursue the things I am doing.
You openly talk about the adversaries your parents and family members had to go through during the socialist Derg regime in Ethiopia. How influential was the life you spent abroad to your personality and career life today?
The entire country suffered during the Derg period; my family was not unique. While my parents and grandparents had properties expropriated, it does not compare at all to the loss of lives, particularly the generation of youth that were slaughtered by the Derg regime. We all need to tell those stories so they are not forgotten. My most impressionable years were probably during my time in Kenya. I met so many people from many parts of the world for the first time in my life and that had a long term impact in my life as it made me more open-minded and gave me a greater appreciation for human diversity.
Some say as someone who was not born American but naturalized, the most challenging career you had pursued was when you were the legislative staffer on Capitol Hill. Was it an eye opening career for you? Something that made you believe you can get what you want whenever you want to?
It was not the most challenging but obviously this was 19 years ago and things were very different and there were not many immigrants/non-citizens working on Capitol Hill but it did not stop me from pursuing it. I wanted to work on Capitol Hill because I always had an interest in public policy. You can read about how laws are made but there is nothing like being in the middle of how laws are made and participate in one of the most vibrant democracies in the world. It also made a difference that I worked for a Congressman who is incredibly ethical, hard working, and dedicated to his constituents. He gave me a lot of room to grow by giving me the foreign affairs and trade portfolios, which were exactly the issues I was interested in.
When you were at OPIC and deeply involved in supporting electricity projects in Africa, you often talked about how hard life was for your grandmother who had had to live and die without having seen electricity and how that drives your passion to make your work a success. Do you still carry that spark in you?
To this day my late grandmother’s village does not have electricity. That is a story that can be told a million times. There are many children doing homework under a street light in many parts of Africa or cooking food under the worst type of conditions and breathing unhealthy fumes. I used my grandmother’s example to personalize the other 600 million people; I think people relate to someone they know that is in front of them and I wanted the Senators in the room to know that I was not talking about statistics from a text book; this is someone that I know.
In 2012 you came to Ethiopia with the CEO of OPIC, Elizabeth Littlefield. As part of your trip you witnessed the lives of some of the hardest hit women struggling with life without electricity. As someone who was born in Ethiopia, how did that single experience affect you?
Yes, OPIC’s CEO Elizabeth Littlefield and I were in Ethiopia when the country hosted the World Economic Forum. We traveled on the outskirts of the city and saw a sight which is quite common when you live in Ethiopia: Women, both young and old, transporting heavy bundles of firewood on their backs. What looked like an excruciating and laborious chore was ultimately just part of daily struggle to heat their homes and provide a source for cooking family meals.Currently, three billion people in the world use inefficient stoves to cook their food. World Health Organization data shows indoor air pollution kills two million people every year and even more are harmed by accidents. In addition to the health effects, the hours that women and children spend collecting fuel for these stoves is time they could be spending bettering themselves through education and even developing small businesses for additional household income. OPIC supported several clean stove initiatives in partnership with the state department; it was something we were committed to as a corporation.
Photo Credit: Addis Standard