A Chat With Dynamic African Youth Leader – Achumile “Ace” Majija

Achumile Majija

VENTURES AFRICA – Achumile Majija is a young, dynamic and talented African and youth leader living the African dream in the diaspora while paying close attention to his origin. As a youth leader, Ace, as he is sometimes called, has served as the Director of Inqubela Investment Holdings. He has also represented South Africa at the World Youth Congress in Scotland, the World Business Dialogue in Germany, the G20 Youth Summit in Canada, and the World Youth Congress in Turkey.

Today, he sits on various boards including UTHANDO SA, Inqubela Investment holdings, and AIESEC University of Cape Town while working Group Lead for the Risk & Capital MI at Prudential Momentum PLC, an international financial services company with insurance and pension portfolios in the UK, Europe and the US – he is the first African on the Prudential Momentum Program (an international leadership development programme for the group). Ace has received several accolades for his work, including the “Rising Star of the Year” South African Business Awards (2011) and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Alumni Awards, Rising Star Category (2012).

In this interview, Ventures Africa speaks with Ace who is of the opinion that “playing an active role in society is a great privilege and honour.”

VA: Who is Achumile Majija?

ACE: A 28 year old, ambitious and self-motivated individual, God fearing and spirit led individual. I graduated from University of Port Elizabeth (now the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University with a B.com (Economics and Finance) , a diploma in International Trade and Finance (from Nuertingen University, Germany), B.com Hons (Financial Analysis and Portfolio Management) from the University of Cape Town, and an MBA with Merit from the University of Leeds Business School in the UK. Always wanted an international flair and experience, having travelled a couple of time while I was a student (on world youth conferences, student exchange etc).

I was born in Umthatha, into a family of 6, (mother and father and 3 siblings) in the Eastern Cape (South Africa), lived there for most part of my life, before moving to Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. I now live and work in London, UK. Being the last born at home, I’ve always learnt from the past mistakes of my siblings and always strived to do better using the resources at my disposal; this ensured that I made my own mark whilst leveraging off learning’s of others

I have always dreamt big, imagined things bigger than myself. I have never allowed my surroundings to define who I am, nor have I allowed my past to determine my future. I don’t believe in setting boundaries, mainly because of my motto: “Nothing is impossible, as long as you work hard to achieve it.”

VA: You are sometimes referred to as ‘Ace” or the “Young Obama from Africa” – how did you earn those names?

ACE: Ace is just a nickname from when I was still young. I guess people had high expectations. I must say, the name became more popular in my later years and people used to struggle calling out my full name and were more comfortable to settle for the nickname. I did live up to it though (I thinkJ). I believe in excellence and always going the extra mile.

I was introduced to one of my mentors – Mr Simon Sussman through a friend of his here in the UK. After our first meeting, he called me the “Obama for Africa”. This was based on the vision and the passion I had to make Africa a better place. I did however joke with him and laughed as I said: “Obama is from Africa!” I also believe in leadership, not just as a concept but a value that needs to be instilled in society. I am of the opinion that we all have the ability to play a leading role in any aspect of our lives.

I had quite an active role as I grew up, something that others viewed as “boring thing”, “too serious” for my age and all. Also tried to surround myself with older people so as to be challenged and not just think games or toys. I got involved in leadership structures, always playing a leading role, being curious and setting myself for a challenge. Always looking for new ways of doing things and just being different.

I kinda (kind of) learnt early on to live for a purpose greater than myself, to change one life at a time, this was not only focused on my immediate surroundings but rather how you can make a difference on huge scale across the world, with particular focus on Africa. That is all I have been working towards all my life.

Obviously as a child, I also had material ambitions, being successful (all possible definitions), great career, travel the world and accumulate great wealth. Over time, I got to define things differently and viewed things from a different perspective.

A vital part of your life have been on volunteering and attending youth conferences/programmes, how has this affect your life and how will you say it has been an eye-opener for you?

It’s always important to place yourself in someone else’s shoes. A lot of people believed in me and saw the potential; they continuously encouraged me to strive for excellence. I am concerned with the state of affairs in society generally – that is why I make it a point that I extend a helping hand to the next person – to change someone’s life for the better.

Having been involved in international youth conferences creates an awareness of the possibilities out there. It also makes you understand that young people are facing similar changes across the globe. I was really excited in my first conference(s), but you get used to them, sometimes they become a talk shop like some other conferences or summits!!!

One gets to learn on what people are up to and the opportunities they need us to take full advantage of. In most of these conferences, I was always a minority, if not the only one from my country. This made me realise that our people are not aware of the opportunities out there, and those that know, do not share them or funding becomes a hindrance.

I have made great contacts, learnt from others, collaborated in some projects with other delegates, and also used the opportunity to showcase my country. It’s always with pride when you act as an ambassador for your country and flying the flag high.

You are an avid volunteer and youth ambassador before venturing into business professionally; have you always know this is where you will be heading to and what spiked your interest in business?

I always knew that I had a greater calling, to live for a purpose greater than myself. Yes I liked the idea of being in business and driving the economy as a first point of making a difference. But I also felt the need to be responsible at an early age and place myself in someone else’s position. By being a volunteer for a number of initiatives helped shaped my leadership skills whilst providing solutions to some of the country’s problems. I am of the opinion that we should not rely on government to address all ills of society. We ought to take ownership as citizens and drive the country forward.

Although I would love a fulltime role on the socio-economic space, I decided to build my professional career first, get all the necessary skills and knowledge that will later be vital in addressing some of the issues that the world is facing. I enjoy what I do; I enjoy the challenge, level of professionalism, the exposure, and seeing the results of my hard work. No day is ever the same, and there are always different aspects of business that one can venture into. The skills are easily transferrable. I started off in Insurance Operations, within no time; I was on the Hedge Fund space, then investment operations space, and now in Risk and Capital Management, all within Financial Services. No experience was ever the same but the level of exposure and experience can never be substituted for anything else.

VA: As the first African to join Prudential Momentum, how has it been as a young person with this accomplishment and will you say that your working experience(s) is a major factor in shaping where you are now?

ACE: It is my desire to break on new grounds, to try things and help pave a way for others. Being first in some things (not all things), is much more easier than following in someone’s footsteps, you get to set the standard for others to follow (and hopefully they will do much better than you). By trying new areas, you make it easier for others to follow; it becomes a testimony that it’s doable!!!

I have always been the first / youngest in most things, but that to me doesn’t really mean much, what matters is how I use that opportunity and create more space for others to follow suit. The circle can never be too small; each one must create an opportunity for others too.

Being the first African on Momentum is a challenge for me to create more opportunities for other Africans. That means I have to work extra hard and create a positive image for my fellow brothers and sisters.

The Momentum Programme is a Fast Track Leadership programme for the group, with the aim of producing the next set of leaders for the group. This is done through 3, 18 -24 months international rotations across the Prudential regions (Europe, Asia and the Americas). This is a great opportunity for one to gain international experience in different geographical regions, functions and businesses. The experience has been great so far.

VA: You work as a financial advisor in the diaspora, will you say it is easier to make it there than in Africa?

ACE: Success comes with some level of challenge despite location or market. It’s important for one to face every little challenge with an open mind and embrace the learning derived out of the challenge. I am not really a financial advisor, but rather a Risk Manager (in Risk Management). I am currently based at the Group Head Office, as a Group Lead for the Risk & Capital MI and the Use & Embedding for the Internal Model Application Process (IMAP). This is a new stream created as a result of the Solvency II Risk Management Framework and Reporting – a new EU regulatory framework for risk management and capital measurement in response to the economic crisis, focusing only on European domiciled insurance companies.

No market is the same, one need to unlearn some things and adapt to new ways of doing things. The challenge for me was being placed in Risk Management role having no prior experience and expected to perform over and above everyone one else as I was being fast tracked. Sometimes you find yourself pressured to prove your competence: firstly as a minority but also as a result of being in fast tracked role. I must say though, I tend to thrive with ambiguity and embrace all challenges that come my way. I have learnt so much in the past year and have not been shy to share my knowledge and experience with all those I make contact with.

Also, it’s important to have a support structure (both socially and professionally). Living on your own, in a foreign land can be lonely and depressing, one needs to be able to stand on their own feet and fend for themselves.

The African market still has a unique offering: high potential growth, untapped markets, unique products to be offered in the market etc. However, a lot still needs to be done to develop the market. The market is fairly concentrated on 2 or 3 major players. There is obviously room for more and there is a market for it. Its also very expensive for most people to afford the services on offer, opening up the space a little will make things more competitive and hopefully more affordable.

The insurance industry needs more regulation, especially in aspects of risk and capital management. This can never be more emphasised given the economic conditions. The European insurers are well on the way to implement a set of regulation for tighter risk controls and capital measurement. Africa needs to take a proactive role and upgrade its current level of regulation. The aim should be focused on increasing protection for policyholders and reducing the possibility of consumer loss or market disruption.

VA: You once said that you are on a fact-finding mission with the plan of going back to your home country( South Africa) to apply what you have learnt; do you plan to come back home anytime soon and can you please share some of your experience in this “fact-finding mission”?

ACE: South Africa is where my heart is and this will continue to be the case for as long as I live. Being abroad is a learning path for me, I take it as a fact finding mission. All the knowledge and skills acquired will be useful in my little effort in building a better South Africa when I move back. I have seen how things are done in SA, I now have a taste of Europe, and will try some parts of the world, preferably Asia before eventually moving back. Each of these markets have great characteristics that make it vital for one’s development. The EU is developed and Asia still emerging. The skills that one can acquire in any of those markets could be useful in taking African industries into greater heights as the economy becomes more open for free trade. This might sound like a long term plan, but not at all, 5 years will be a max that I will be away from my home country. I do travel to SA every year and am still involved in some projects back in SA, not as involved as I would love to but enough to keep me busy and up to date with issues.

I do however encourage people, especially the young to travel more, experience things differently and to move from comfort zones. Travelling opens one’s mind, you get to see things differently, which could enhance ones view point and decision making.

I have a couple of young people that I mentor, involved in structures like the BMF young professionals (even though I am here), still serve in some organizational boards in SA and continue to share opportunities with fellow South Africans. We are also building a network of South Africans that live abroad to share on experiences but also to create a “home away from home”

I also give talks or interviews on radios to try and encourage young people in playing an active role in society, but also for them to take ownership of their own personal destiny. Yes this is not new, but I am of the opinion that the message is well received when a young person delivers this message.

VA: How has the journey been so far and what do you hope to achieve in the near future?

ACE: I believe in crafting my own vision and taking charge of my personal destiny. I need to live a legacy within the corporate space. Without a doubt, I will be at the forefront of a top multinational at some point and help drive the strategic direction. I do however believe in making a difference in the wider society. I am particularly concerned about socio economic and political issues that we are faced with today. I hope and pray that one day I will play an active role in International politics, be it the UN or the World Bank; and tackle the issues of poverty, unemployment and youth empowerment on a global scale. But before doing that, it is important for me to build a good track record.

VA: How will you say Gandhi’s famous quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”, applicable to your work?

ACE: I consider myself to be an ambassador for SA… whatever little I do, will in one way or another create a perception about where I come from. That is why it is important that I represent my nation well, and help create a positive image, so that more people can have access to similar if not better opportunities.

Some of the people that I come to contact with will never in their life time come to SA, so I am the closest experience that they could ever have in their lifetime. So I am the living brand.

VA: You are involved with several business organisations, how do you balance work and pleasure?

ACE: I have found ways to incorporate my socio engagements around my work. One gets to learn so much from these engagements, things that are not easily acquired at work or school. So it’s important that for a young professional to seek out any available networking opportunities, but also to continuously build on your knowledge and align yourself with current affairs. This helps one have a better perspective on things, but also link up with like-minded people.

I always focus on things that I am passionate about and make priority calls on what to be involved in. I structure my days in such a way that I still get me own space and time to reflect on things. That’s very important to keep sane and not always be on the rush. I do take holidays too from time to time, just to recharge. I have also reduced my involvement in organisations unless I have time to serve properly. It’s pointless to be a member of a lot of organisation and yet add no value to sustain its growth and development. I join so I could be active, and thereby making a difference

VA: You have won several accolades as a youth leader and as a rising business enigma; how has that affect your personal brand and will you say you are satisfied with what you have achieved so far?

ACE: The ability to never give up even when things are against you is a principle that I apply in my life. I believe that nothing is impossible, as long as one works hard to achieve their set goals. I always give myself time. The willingness and the change of mind-set makes it easier to thrive in any environment.

The ability to sell my story, living up to it has helped me build a reputation that commands respects across all levels. The willingness to learn and humility does set one apart.

I have been featured on a number of media platforms; have been asked to share my views at conference / gatherings. But for me, the accolades are not the reason to do things. Playing an active role in society is a great privilege and honour. Sometimes you go about doing your own thing without realising that people are being inspired. The accolades are just confirmation that more young people are needed to play an active role in changing society. It’s an affirmation that we can rise up against anything and be counted. It’s not an age thing, but we ought to take charge of our destiny and empower those that are around us.

VA: Do you have any youth programme you are into at the moment? If so, can you tell us about it?

ACE: I am still involved with some of the organisations back home, and still represent SA in some platforms. Currently serve on boards looking at the socio economic aspects, especially focusing on youth development and empowerment. I am a member of the International Youth Council, a Board member of Uthando SA, a Strategy Board member for the Harambe Entrepreneurship Alliance, and a WEF Young Global Shaper.

VA: What will you say is the most challenging factor facing the African youth today and what solution would you proffer?

ACE: I draw strength and inspiration from different people that have proved to do great things for themselves and others. Some of those I have never met, probably would not even meet in my entire life. Even more so, I am moved by people that have made it against all odds, have little or nothing but have turned out to be great success stories of our generation. I am talking of politicians, business leaders, spiritual and leaders from the civil society.

I am also concerned by the level / lack of involvement of “some” young people (not all) in socio and political matters. When I think of our great leaders (present and past), I continue to worry as to who are the next set of leaders, who is going to take the world forward, how do we leverage and learn from the current leaders, how do we ensure that their experiences, knowledge and vision continue to live amongst us. How we can plant a seed of success that extends beyond an individual, how to live for a purpose greater than an individual…. These concerns play a vital role in me to empower and assist build the next set of history makers. I am not expecting this to be done for us, I am not expecting a messiah out there to come and hand out these opportunities for us, but what I am saying is what little can I do and others to make a difference. How can we use the little we have to determine the future? I believe the most difficult task has been done for us, we are no longer in the struggle mode, we have been liberated. Each individual can play a little part that contributes to the bigger picture.

Mentoring and coaching. Each one of us has a story to tell and one or 2 people can learn from an individuals’ experience. It does not take a 50 year old to provide good mentorship; we can all make a difference. As much as young people have mentors, they can in turn act as mentors of pupils in schools, thereby sharing experiences.

The environment and policies in place should facilitate young people engagement -to give and guide young people. I appeal to those in places of influence to give up some of their time to mentor and coach young people. Employers should also take a chance with young people, embrace their talent. It takes just one person to believe a young person and before you know it, you would have created a world leader.

VA: What do you think today’s youth lack and what opportunities do you think they have that most of them are yet to discover?

ACE: There are so many opportunities out there, it is just that people need to be more inquisitive and not limit themselves. From international placements to scholarship opportunities,international summits and conferences.

We also need to live a greater purpose. Success should not be limited to individuals, but one needs to look at how they can uplift and empower others in the process. One should find someone to mentor and help contribute to another person’s development.

We also need to learn to collaborate with others, share resources, information and time. It becomes a futile exercise when everyone is trying to achieve the same thing but working in a silo. There is a greater benefit in working together for a common goal.

VA: Any advice for African youths?

ACE: People are your greatest asset, there is always going to be someone who knows it better than you do. Nothing is impossible as long as one works hard to achieve it. Continue to strive for great things, challenge the status quo and never leave stones unturned!!!

Always be curious, never conform, embrace failure, set no limits and keep on pushing…

The road to success is often lonely as few are willing to take the challenges’ that linger on that. The ability to take that extra step when all are not willing, sets a winner or rather a leader from the rest of the field. One needs to take that extra step and dare to be different.

It helps to have a great support base, people that believed in you. This becomes a much needed affirmation when doubt kicks in.

Having a goal in mind and not allowing one to settle for the status quo. The hunger for knowledge, being inquisitive, the ability to spot opportunities and the need to do more and always go the extra mile.

This is also important for you to show others that it can be done, that we as young people are capable of taking things into our own hands and driving our own agenda.

Remember, failure is success half achieved, there is no better time than now to make your mark, let no limitations stand in your way

VA: Plans for the future?

ACE: Joining an international body like the IMF, UN, World Bank to further advance my interests in reducing poverty, unemployment and youth participation. The effectiveness of those institutions depends on the quality of people that lead them. I also plan to ensure the participation of empowered young people on a global platform for a purpose greater than themselves.

VA: What are your hope, thoughts and aspiration for this holiday season and how will this reflect on your plans for the coming year?”

ACE: I just hope for a relaxed holiday, time to spend with family and reflect on the past year, celebrate and just be in a joyous mood. Will be travelling to Puerto Rico and New York, am looking forward to having a relaxed time.

I am praying for protection for all my loved ones, for the less privileged to have as much joy over this season. And most importantly, peace all over the world.

Also looking forward to improved market conditions, stability on the forex markets, but also a clear and decisive leadership from all those in power.