Joburg Post Interview: Sanlam Pan-Africa CEO, Junior Ngulube

By Musa Mdunge

South Africa has long been lauded as the gateway to Africa, however, often this title evokes the names of foreign multinational players in the continent, ignoring the fact that some of largest players in the African economy are themselves African companies such as MTN, Standard Bank, Sasol and Sanlam. South Africa’s economic presence shines bright in many African countries where the banking, telecom and retail giants have made African markets their home. Trade liberalisation in Africa with the new free trade deal open the continent up for fresh inflows of investment but raises questions around free movement of labour across borders. 

Given these contending issues, I sat down with Junior Ngulube, the CEO of Sanlam’s Pan Africa division. The soft-spoken father of three has an impressive career history in the insurance sector that dates back to the dark days of apartheid. When asked to tell us about himself, he stated that 

“that is a difficult question, it is like asking about the meaning of life. Well, let me give some background about myself.”

However, he indulged me, stating that

“I studied Agriculture at university and people wonder how a person who studied agriculture ended up working in financial services. I worked in the Agriculture sector for seven years before joining the Munich Reinsurance Company of Africa Limited.  I was developing crop insurance products and supporting crop insurance clients in SA, Zim and rest of Africa from 1987. I subsequently worked in most of the departments of the company, from crop insurance underwriting to treaty underwriting and did marketing on the continent. I had a stint as head of human resources and strategy, a role from which I learnt the most. In 2003 I took over the responsibility for the South Africa Treaty portfolio. During 2006 and 2007 I was at the Munich Re head office in Germany, heading up a global IT project. I then came back to SA in 2007 when I was appointed the CEO for Sub Saharan Africa.

In 2016 I joined Sanlam to create a new business cluster called Sanlam Corporate. Before that, Sanlam had four business clusters; Santam, Sanlam Personal Finance, Sanlam Investment Group and Sanlam Emerging Markets. I created the fifth one which focuses on corporate clients and employees of corporate clients. In October 2016, I was appointed CEO of Sanlam Emerging Markets. This came about after my predecessor was appointed as the Group Financial Director of Sanlam.

Sanlam Pan Africa CEO, Junior Ngulube

It felt good to sit across a black man who has walked the journey of the private sector and who exuded the aura of black excellence and there was no doubt that we need to shed light on people who are shining the lamp for young black children who will find it easier to excel in the business sector. 

We went on to discuss the importance of insurance in Africa I for one always found it irritating when the call centre agents would call selling insurance or funeral policies but I was quickly schooled by Mr Ngulube, who clearly pointed out that insurance is not a new concept in Africa, admitting that traditional insurance companies have generally failed by introducing insurance as if it is a new concept to Africans, particularly the economically excluded ones. 

“If one looks at how Africans have historically done risk mitigation, there are mechanisms they used, for example, as a family unit; everyone knows you will meet some disaster or misfortune. You were able to depend on the extended family to rally to your support and rescue, which I call social capital. You invested in social capital by supporting your extended family and got a return when your turn came."

He continues to state that, 

For example, we have been trying to sell funeral insurance in Nigeria, but on close examination they don’t really need it to the same extent as South Africa for example, because the extended family unit is still intact, and it works. Maybe one would need to package funeral insurance differently for that market. There are also other mechanisms such as Stokvels, which is a form of risk pooling and mitigation. When I grew up, we had burial societies before the funeral cover was sold, where families and regions would come together and make monthly contributions in order to be able to bury someone. So, insurance is not new, what is new is our social setting. We have been removed from the extended family setting. Now you hear people talk about black tax, which has been given a bad tag. You are exposed and isolated as an individual and need products that will protect you from risk exposure. So, it boils down to the language that we use and the assumption that people are ignorant about the concept of risk mitigation and so we decide to speak in tongues i.e. legalistic insurance policy language (he chuckles).”

While the insurance space in Africa is complex and the continent continues to have the lowest insurance penetration rate in the world, Sanlam has been successful in expanding in the continent, which was evident in its acquisition of Moroccan insurance giant, SAHAM Finances. Ngulube took us through the rationale for the move and how it fits into Sanlam’s greater Africa strategy.

When we concluded the deal, SAHAM was in 26 countries in Africa and the Middle East. They had a presence in 19 African countries and so did we; therefore, it was a meeting of two organisations with this clear pan African vision. After the acquisition, we are now in a combined 33 African countries. Our vision is very simple; if we look at the future of this continent, the GDP growth and the low insurance penetration, we see great potential for growth. Ours is about being part of that growth story and playing our part in it.”

Signing ceremony in Paris between Sompo and Sanlam on the 19th October 2017

He added on that,  

We want to be the leading Pan-African financial services player, by being number 1, 2 or 3 in the markets we operate in. Being in 33 countries gives us a unique position to be the go to partner to multinational corporate clients and their employees such as MTN and Dangote. Moreover, it finds favour with brokers and other intermediaries who service the multinational clients who would have to broker many different countries but if they come to us, we do it once for them given our reach. We want to be strong in-country but also provide an eco-system that supports multinational companies across the continent. We have partnered with Santam to drive specialist insurance classes and reinsurance in Africa.”

As I was about to jump to the next line of questions he quickly interjects! 

What I didn’t add was that because of our continental footprint, other international insurance companies such as SOMPO, a Japanese Insurance company have now come to us to support their Japanese clients in Africa. We have done the same with one of the largest Chinese insurance companies. There are many others seeking such cooperation with Sanlam Pan Africa.”

While Sanlam has enjoyed success in Africa, some South African firms have found themselves wanting when it came to their regulatory responsibilities on the continent. 

 “We work with partners in the countries we operate in and they would have a shareholding in the local business.  We also have local management to run our business, which promotes job creation. At times, our partner chairs the board and we are represented by one or two people. We also have under our risk team, a compliance team that ensures we do not fall foul of any regulations.”

He adds that,

“Our partners help us because they are normally successful businesspeople and understand how things are done in those countries. We also have an open relationship with regulators and have a formal stakeholder management plan.  We manage relationships with regulators in order to ensure that if there are any issues we can have open and frank conversations or, when we need guidance on planned regulatory changes we are able to engage. 

As we spoke it dawned on me that rather than seeing Africa as our backyard, we ought to see it as our front yard and South Africa’s future. However, I could not have ended this talk with Mr Ngulube without pressing him to comment on what South Africa’s economy needs to work again. 

He began by diagnosing a key problem of a trust deficit that exists between government, labour and business. 

“Business and government lost each other, and I am including black business too. Throw in labour and we talk past each other."

 Therefore, I think business, labour and government must agree on the national agenda. The NDP was an excellent piece of work and could have served as the rallying point for all stakeholders, government, labour and business. That should have been the natural agenda.”

After an hour-long talk between us, I left Sanlam feeling hopeful but challenged about how South Africa and the larger continent must think about how we build economic integration and ensure that the fruits of greater economic integration are shared between larger economies such as South Africa and smaller economies such as Malawi. Moreover, locally, South Africa needs to re-think how we coordinate the development of economic policies, including trade and industrialisation. Talking past each other will not work and we can learn from China and Japan on how fruitful strong public-private partnerships can be.


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