Matthew de la Hey, CEO and financial director at the technology company inploi (www.inploi.me), says he ended up as a finance manager through pursuing entrepreneurship. After graduating from Oxford’s Said business school he worked briefly in private equity before founding inploi.

“My co-founder (Alex Hanson-Smith) and I have a range of skills, and mine, by virtue of education and experience, included financial management. It was thus natural that I would assume this position in the company. I was subsequently also asked to serve as on the executive team as finance director of the Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance, a network of young African entrepreneurs spearheading high impact social and business ventures across the continent.

De la Hey says the biggest challenge he faces at this stage of inploi’s growth is the allocation and management of capital. “As we are still in our early stages, building the infrastructure and critical mass of users necessary to become cash flow positive, the raising and subsequent use of investment is paramount to the success of our company. The upside (and greatest responsibility) of this is being in a position to direct resources towards initiatives that generate the greatest value for our company, and thus shareholders. A key risk here then is the external funding environment, and our ability to raise capital for an early stage venture.”
Although he would like to network more, de la Hey says he currently only does so to a limited extent.

“Managing operations at inploi and getting the company off the ground is an all consuming task, leaving limited scope for networking beyond our immediate objectives. I do network with other founders periodically, and have found these interactions insightful. It would certainly be beneficial to develop and learn from a network of other people in a similar position, and from more seasoned and experienced finance professionals who have no doubt a huge amount to share.”

“Whilst technical skills are essential, in a rapidly changing and increasingly connected world well-roundedness is essential, and particularly so for a CFO”

On South Africa’s role in the global financial world

“South Africa is Africa’s largest economy, and for many companies is the gateway into Africa. It has deep and liquid financial markets, although frustratingly due to our position as an ‘emerging market’ the effects of global and domestic events arguably have a disproportionate impact on our economy. Nevertheless, opportunity abounds on the African continent, and South Africa is well placed as the entry point for this to be accessed.”

De la Hey says South Africa has arguably become more of a risky place to invest under the tenure of its current leadership, whose policies and politics have damaged investor confidence, the country’s stability, and thus the economy more broadly. “Nevertheless, it is still a large market with a lot of opportunity. The middle class is growing and diversifying, and I think the quality of human capital available in the country is seriously underrated.”

But, he says South African companies are extremely well placed to benefit from the continents growth potential, and are uniquely suited to do so. “The continent’s potential and opportunity is abundant. However too often foreign companies look at Africa as an undifferentiated, underdeveloped black hole. They do not understand it, and are blinded by legacy narratives of the continent. This gives South African companies (and South African’s) a significant competitive advantage, for they know that this is not the case and they have built businesses operating in a market with many similarities, developing an understanding of how to do so effectively.”

He says a second, related point is the issue of intra-African trade. “A 2013 report by EcoBank found that only 12% of the continents trade is with its own countries, with the majority flowing to Europe and the U.S. This is an abysmal state of affairs and one that for the sake of the continents development ought to be addressed. “

“South African companies, and the South African government should be in the vanguard changing this.””

According to de la Hey, the greatest risks South African companies face stems from political instability and a lack of a clear, actionable policy agenda. “Uncertainty breeds indecision. The erosion of the independence of state institutions and government’s inability to adequately address long term structural issues like unemployment and education pose a significant threat to the country’s stability and economic development. It is vital to be cognizant of the impact of these things on companies – they do not operate in a vacuum.”

On the impact of Brexit   

De la Hey says it is probably too soon to tell what the Brexit will have on South African companies and investment in Africa, as it is still unclear how Britain’s exit from the EU is going to play out.

“African countries should however be aware of and prepared for a Britain that unencumbered by European Union trade agreements that will be on the search for new trading relationships.”

On the changing role of CFOs

De la Hey says he does not believe that, in their current form, the nature and content of accountancy qualifications in South Africa are particularly well suited to training the business leaders that we need.

“Whilst technical skills are essential (and make for excellent financial managers), in a rapidly changing and increasingly connected world well-roundedness is essential, and particularly so for a CFO. I think that this element is not sufficiently developed and is essential for business leadership – the ability to think creatively, strategically, and laterally. Many of the country’s smartest people pursue accountancy or finance as a career path, but in order to realize their full potential it is important to produce well rounded individuals who have many skills in addition to technical ability.”