“They understand the dynamics, they understand the politics, they know the people, they can quickly de-risk. The unfortunate thing is that they are not deep-pocketed enough to finance the big infrastructure projects, the oil and gas projects, so you still need international funds.”
Cole sits on the board of Atlas Mara, the banking vehicle formed by former Barclays CEO Bob Diamond and entrepreneur Ashish Thakkar, and says that he hopes the institution will work towards filling this gap.
“The whole thinking behind Atlas Mara, why it’s such a good proposition, is that there is this huge gap, this huge need for local financing that can attract international [backing],” he says. “Atlas Mara will play in that gap, and hopefully will be able to spur like-minded investors or financiers to come in and finance.”
International banking groups flooded into Africa in the late 2000s, looking for transactions that could offset the slowdown in developed markets. Some have moved away again, while the rest are mostly chasing a small number of deals – typically involving either sovereigns or a narrow pool of ‘champion’ companies, with strong corporate governance and international reputations. This has left the next tier of African businesses and entrepreneurs without access to finance.
“It’s a big concern. A big concern,” Cole says. “It’s very easy to identify companies that have put in place good corporate governance principles, who are doing good business, who are growing, and create champions out of them. But if you are not careful, you begin to create a wider and wider gap between the haves and have nots.”
Those champions – like Sahara – do have a responsibility to address the structural inequities in the system, according to Cole. It was partly this that led Sahara into the power business,
“It was clear to everyone that if you’re going to develop an economy and make the economy thrive, then there’s an absolute need to develop the power sector… every sector of the economy is impacted one way or another if it’s done properly. It’s almost beyond imagination what is possible.”
Tonye Cole was born in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. He attended Corona School, Victoria Island and later King’s College, Lagos before proceeding to King’s School, Ely, Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom. He is also an alumnus of the University of Lagos and Universidade de Brasilia, Brazil. A merit honours graduate of architecture, Tonye Cole worked as an architect for frontline Brazilian architectural firm Grupo Quartro SA in Goiania Brazil (’90-92).
Upon his return to Nigeria, Tonye Cole was recruited in 1993 as the Director of Operations EMSA S.A., a Brazilian civil engineering company, the 7th largest engineering firm in Brazil that was awarded World Bank-financed water projects for Lagos State Water Corporation. The company, in a joint venture with Sakamori Limited successfully executed three World Bank sponsored contracts valued at $58m and one ADB sponsored contract for Anambra State Water Corporation valued at $15m.
The MD of Sahara Energy Resource Limited which he co-founded in 1996 with his friends, Tope Shonubi and Ade Odunsi. Sahara Energy started out as an oil and gas company whose core business at the time was the trading of excess fuel oil from the Port Harcourt and Warri refineries.
Within five years of operations, Sahara Energy, with funding from BNP Paribas, had diversified into storage depot and vessel ownership, building depots in Lagos, Onne and Abuja with a combined capacity of 55,000 metric tons and a fleet of five vessels moving products across West Africa. Today, Sahara Energy has a staff strength of over 300 people.
Sahara Energy had set up a trading office in Geneva, Switzerland which actively trades in crude oil, gas oil, Jet A1, mogas and bitumen in various markets globally. The company also has presence in Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal and representative offices in Cameroun, France and Brazil.