George Weah: Sports, business and African politics
WRITTEN BY THOMAS STONE
In Africa, it seems - more so than other places - fusions between sports and politics have been known to produce surprising and positive effects.
There is the canonical example of the Springboks in South Africa: the rugby team that helped to unify black and white populations in South Africa during the end of apartheid.
In 2011, as Outtara takes power in Ivory Coast, and that region begins to re-stabilise, we recall to mind the 2006 ceasefire between North and South. When Les Éléphants qualified for the World Cup, hostilities stopped, and Gbagbo declared an end to the civil war.
This spring, just a few hundred kilometers to the west of Abidijan, in Monrovia, a former FIFA World Player of the Year is running for the Vice Presidency of Liberia. He’s traded his football boots in for a pair of Mephisto Black Ambassadors. Originally entering the race with the intention to run for the Presidency of Liberia under the banner of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), Weah will now be running as Winston Tubman’s running mate.
The General Election to be held in Liberia this year is a far cry from the election that took place there over a decade ago. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the current President, can be credited with changing the tone of the political debate, but she also is burdened with compromises that she’s had to make along the way.
In the upcoming election, Weah and Tubman, of the CDC, will face Sirleaf (the Unity Party), Brumskine (the Liberty Party), and a host of other contenders - including the infamous Prince Johnson, a former warlord, who will be running under the banner of the Destiny Party.
Leaving all questions of Weah’s political legitimacy aside, a quick examination of his track record as a philanthropist is an inspiration.
Weah emerged from Clara Town, a slum in Monrovia, to become the ‘African Football Player of the Century’, an honour he was awarded on top of multiple awards including the FIFA World Footballer award, Ballon d’Or (European Player of the Year) and African Player of the Year in 1995 – the third time he won the accolade after receiving the accolade previously in 1989 and 1994.
Instead of withdrawing to Europe or the United States to live a comfortable life of luxury after raking in millions as a football player, Weah remained committed to his country of origin, supporting philanthropic and educational initiatives in Liberia throughout the Civil War and returning to run for President in 2005.
Unlike so many of his successful peers of his generation, Weah’s enduring commitment to his country has created real change and opportunity for many of the underprivileged youth in Liberia. In particular, his Junior Professionals Football Club encourages players to stay in school and several of his other ventures have donated their proceeds to children’s programmes in Liberia.
Both as a role-model and as a philanthropist, Weah has innovated real roads forward for many young Liberians. Whether or not these efforts will bear fruit as political capital remains to be seen.
Billionaire Kumar Birla Champions Regional Supply Chains
As the head of the Aditya Birla Group, a US$46bn firm that operates in 36 countries, Kumar Mangalam Birla is no stranger to splashy strategic moves. Yet his recent announcement that he no longer wants to acquire globally distributed supply chains stood out. While many companies have struggled to cope with shipping backlogs, his firm has chosen to pivot and focus on regional networks. Said Birla: ‘We wouldn’t look at a company or a business where you source in one corner of the world and sell in another’.
He cited protectionism, the pandemic, and the limited movement of products and people around the world as ABG’s primary causes of lost profits. And they aren’t alone. Over the past year, 900 of the U.S. and Europe’s biggest IT, defence, and financial services firms have lost an average of US$184mn apiece.
An Era of Global Disruption
Over the past few decades, low shipping rates and rapid delivery times have lulled multinational firms into a false sense of security. In the early 2000s, companies chose to take on significant global supply chain risks in exchange for increased profits. First, it made sense to manufacture higher-value goods, such as electronics, in low-cost regions throughout Southeast Asia, India, and Africa. Second, first-tier suppliers started to outsource the manufacturing of specific components to second-, third-, and even fourth-tiers—leaving supply chains with extremely limited visibility.
So when COVID-19 disruptions struck certain regions, companies were caught unprepared. Usually, these events come few and far between. But over the past ten years, we’ve seen a number of ‘black swan’ events that have thrown the supply chain industry into chaos. Here’s a quick history of the most significant events in recent years, thanks to the MIT Sloan Management Review:
- 2010. China creates export quotas for rare earth elements.
- 2011. The Tōhoku Earthquake hits East Japan; flooding sweeps throughout Thailand.
- 2016-present. Trade wars between the U.S. and China hurt suppliers.
- 2020-present. COVID-19 pandemic shuts down international shipping ports.
Now, Kumar Birla is one of many who want to re-evaluate how we run our supply chains. Though his company has acquired 40+ companies in the last quarter decade, Birla intends to build up local hubs rather than expand operations.
Why Pursue Regionalisation?
Combine Chinese economic dominance, global supply chain vulnerabilities, and major government policy shifts around the world, and you have a storm brewing on the horizon for big multinational firms. As Brookings noted, ‘the biggest risk for trading opportunities in the developing world is growing protectionism in more advanced economies, often dressed up as national security protection’.
Altogether, from the U.S. to the European Union, governments are trying to protect their domestic supply chains, secure adequate stockpiles of materials, and build world-class local networks. Consider Biden’s recent executive order, which seeks to bring semiconductor manufacturing back to home soil, or Japan’s bid to open more memory chip fabrication factories near Tokyo. The Aditya Birla Group intends to react in kind. Said Birla: ‘We’re looking at regionalism as a very big theme’.
Will Others Follow Suit?
In the post-pandemic economy, global businesses must decide whether to expand or contract. On one hand, the Alibaba Group’s Cainiao Smart Logistics Network recently launched a direct flight between Hong Kong, China, and Lagos, Nigeria. On the other, the Japanese government is desperate to make its chip manufacturing domestic. Indeed, as two supply chain strategies diverge in a post-pandemic world, the one businesses take may make all the difference.
Yet Birla is confident that regionalisation is the right call. According to his words at the Qatar Economic Forum, even necessary cross-border transactions should be smaller in scope. And as the Bloomberg Billionaires Index now lists his net wealth at US$10.4bn, up 52% from 2020, he may have the cash to test his theories out. ‘Regional hubs, regional presence, regional employment, catering to regional demand’, he stated. ‘We’re a global company rooted in local economics’.