Washington, DC — In his memoir, "The Savage Way, Successfully Navigating the Waves of Business and Life", Frank Savage writes about a love of the continent that began before he went there for the first time as an adult.
In an interview with AllAfrica he talks about meeting African leaders who were fighting against colonialism, his first business experience on the continent and how those experiences helped guide him in his future endeavors there, including recent efforts to help bring food to West Africa and improve the economy of Togo.
Why is Africa important to you?
When I was about eight years old, my mother, Madame La Savage, a successful single parent and entrepreneur in Washington, DC, took me and my sister, Frances, with her to the International Beauty Show in New York City. She was the only African-American beautician there. When she returned to Washington, DC, she set out to re-define herself, and to differentiate herself from all of the other beauty parlors that were in DC. She did that by going out and discovering the international community in Washington and changing the name of her beauty parlour to "Madame La Savage Beauty Clinic International".
At that time in the 1950s, there were only two ambassadors in Washington from African countries. One was from Ethiopia and the other one was from Liberia. So we met with the ambassador from Liberia and it turned out that his daughter, Clavenda Bright, went to Banneker Middle School with me. Once we discovered that, Clavenda, my sister and I became best of friends and that was the beginning of my introduction to Africa.
That seed that was planted in me didn't re-emerge until I was a political science major at Howard University. There was a professor there by the name of Bernard Fall. He was a very well known academic and also a journalist. When he started talking about Africa, something happened to me. I said, 'Africa for me. I am a black person, so I should have a comparative advantage working in Africa, and plus it is exciting!' And I remembered Clavenda and that was the beginning of my rediscovery of Africa.
When did you first visit Africa?
The last year before I graduated from Howard I had the privilege of going to Africa under the auspices of Operation Crossroads Africa, which actually was the pre-cursor to the Peace Corps.
I didn't have enough money to pay for the trip but my mother met Angier Biddle Duke, who was the chief of protocol at the State Department. She told him that I was an African studies major, wanted to go to Africa but didn't have enough money to pay for it. I went to visit him, he liked my story, he arranged for me to meet with the Kaplan Foundation and they lent me the money.
I went to Zambia, to Zimbabwe and to Kenya. This was during the struggle against colonial rule. I met with Jomo Kenyatta - he was still under house arrest. I met with Kenneth Kaunda and Robert Mugabe. So I met with all of these leaders in the early days, before these countries were even free. Can you imagine the impact that it had on me? That sealed my love for Africa for all times.
Explain how you got involved with TAW International Leasing, and your role in that company.
It was through the ingenious work of Tom Wood, a pioneer who was the first African American to have a company on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). Tom loved Africa and he had found out that Zambia was having trouble getting around the blockade that South Africa's government put on the country that prohibited the shipment of copper from Zambia's mines down to ports in South Africa. So he came up with an idea to ship the copper north, rather than south, by truck up through Zambia and up to the ports in Tanzania and in Kenya.
He had great partners - General Motors, Ryder Truck Rental and Fruehauf - and they put a project together. Tom went to Zambia and convinced the government that he could actually build out this system to enable them to get around this blockade.
Tom Wood was well known to a great friend of mine, Hughlyn Fierce.
Hughlyn called me and said, 'Frank, I want you to meet this guy Tom Wood. He is on our board but he's got this project and I think you can help him.' So Tom Wood comes to meet me and when he started talking to me about Zambia and what he could do and all, I must tell you, it just resonated with me.
But we were up against terrible odds. The roads going from Zambia up to Tanzania and Kenya were in terrible shape! We were going to have to build truck stops all along the way. We had to specially design reinforced trucks that would be able to handle the load. There were no trained African drivers that had done anything like that, so we were going to have to train the drivers. Next, you had a big crime problem.
Copper is very valuable so people may want to hijack the trucks. So we had to build that entire infrastructure and the cost kept going up and up for us, so we were constantly trying to raise capital.
And here you are talking about a black American company trying to raise equity capital to build an infrastructure project in Africa with the South Africans being against you. But one thing I got to say about Tom Wood is this guy had the same attitude that I had, that was instilled in me by my mother. We were not afraid to take on risk and we believed in ourselves and we were determined to make this happen.
In the long run though, we got undone. We had an agreement with the government to provide them with the trucks and we were working hard and all of a sudden, out of the blue, the government cancelled the contract on us. I got on a plane with my lawyer and went to Zambia and we started negotiating, but they had no intention of renewing that contract.
How do you reflect on your experience in Zambia?
TAW was my biggest disappointment. I think Zambia would have been a tremendous beneficiary because they would have probably for all time reduced their total dependence on the transportation system to take the copper to South Africa. That would have had a tremendous impact on their economy. Also it was going to create a tremendous number of jobs for Zambia. It would have opened up that corridor from Zambia up to Kenya - all kinds of stores, houses, everything would have been built.
It would have helped Tanzania and Kenya, too. But the most important thing that I think would have happened is it would have forged a link between Africans and African-Americans. I still believe that the day that we are able to work together as Africans and African-Americans, I think that will substantially advance economic development amongst people of color.
Can you talk about your role at Enron and how that affected your investments in Africa?
In 2001, I was at the high point of my life in terms of my business success and I decided that I was going to go forward with a fund to provide infrastructure financing to Africa. So I formed my own company called Savage Holdings, which I have until this day. The first project was going to be the Africa Millennium Fund. I got great support from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). I went to the Middle East and got great support from investors there. I went to South Africa and formed a relationship with a partner there.
After September 11th, no one wanted to talk about investing money in any funds; they definitely didn't want to talk about investing funds in emerging markets, and my respected Middle East investors didn't want to come close to the United States.
So I decided to step back, and then the next thing that happened was when Enron started to come unraveled. The killer was when it became obvious that there had been some criminality in the company. Once that cloud came, it descended on all of us. I had only been on that board for two years; I didn't know anything but I could not do anything.
The lawyers we had at the time said, 'Frank, I think you should close down the African Millennium Fund. No one is going to invest in this fund.' I said, 'No way, I am going to make this fund work' because I had that commitment.
Ultimately it killed the fund in 2003, but any other prudent person would have shut that thing down in 2001 but I didn't because I loved Africa.
Despite your experience in Zambia, and the unraveling of the Africa Millennium Fund, you have had a lot of success on the continent in various capacities. Can you tell us about some of these and what you are doing now?
I created a fund that invests in Egyptian companies to provide capital to those companies. I teamed up with Merrill Lynch and created the Southern Africa Fund, which I established just after Nelson Mandela got out of jail. We were the second largest American company to come into South Africa after Mandela got out of jail. We actually trained black South Africans and other South Africans in the investment and research business. We created a research company and then sold it to the South Africans.
And then when Thabo Mbeki became president I worked with him to help improve the economy of South Africa. I was an advisor to him for almost 10 years.
A lot of us who worked with Mbeki are now working for the president of Togo to try to help him come up with a plan to stimulate economic development. Because of the geography of Togo - there are several countries around it - we are looking to try to build an economic corridor through Togo that would fully transform the economy.
I am also working on a major project now to help to solve the food security problem in West Africa. I have been acting as an advisor to the CEO of Greenpark Petrochemical Corporation. I have helped them to think through their capital structure and I am pleased to tell you that OPIC approved U.S.$250 million in financing for the establishment of a urea plant which is going to produce over 600,000 megatons of urea a year.
It's going to draw on the gas that is being flared off in Nigeria and produce fertilizers for farmers not only in Nigeria but in the surrounding region.
These are the kinds of things that I want to do in Africa now. I am interested in doing things that are going to be game changers. I want to help build a viable economic and business segment throughout the continent.
My commitment to Africa is for life. Africa has played a great and a positive role in my life to date and I think it will continue to play a great and positive role in my life. I can't imagine it not being important to me. It is part of me, it is me - I can't live without Africa.