172: Oyinda Akanbi

Oyinda Akanbi is making a difference beyond finance in her position as CFO at the leading diagnostics provider in Nigeria.

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It’s my great pleasure today to welcome Oyinda Akanbi, who is CFO at Synlab Nigeria, that’s a European-based medical diagnostics provider. It’s an interesting company providing a range of medical tests with the aim of improving individual health through better diagnostics. Oyinda is a member of ACCA and she has an MSc in international banking and finance from the University of Salford in the UK. Could you tell us a little bit about Synlab Nigeria and what it does?

Synlab Nigeria is part of Synlab Group in Europe, which is the leading diagnostics provider in Europe, we are also the leading diagnostics provider in Nigeria. We’ve got locations which include mini labs and blood collection points in about eleven states in Nigeria. We have 27 of those and we offer a range of laboratory testing services. We have about 350 employees in Nigeria. We are specialised mainly in medical testing, but we also branch into environmental testing if the needs arise from any of our clients. We also do Covid testing, and we were awarded as the best private lab for Covid testing in 2021. Covid testing has accounted for roughly 50% to 60% of our revenue in the last two years.

I see you had two stints at Synlab, with a break in between at GBfoods, tell us about that, what was the reason for that?

At the time, there was a bit of a disagreement between the shareholders and, of course, being in finance and being the CFO, I was in the middle of it and it was wise for me to remove myself from that situation, which is what I did. I went onto GBfoods as the opportunity came, and then when the issues were resolved, I was offered my old job back, which I happily accepted.

I love working at Synlab, I love being in the diagnostics space because I feel like you’re really touching lives.

So beyond finance, for me it’s the fact that you’re really making a difference and that was the attraction for me to come back. It’s been fun, it’s a lot of work but it’s been fun. I have been back now for about six months and I’m definitely staying for a while longer.

Give us a sense of business and economic conditions in Nigeria at the moment. Nigeria is one of the world’s largest producers of oil but yet you mentioned that you’ve had a fuel shortage. On the one hand, I would have thought that Nigeria is absolutely rolling in money at the moment but on the other hand, you’ve had a fuel shortage. Explain the conditions there.

I would say that right now business conditions are a bit uncertain, we’re just coming out of a fuel scarcity, which we had for about two to three weeks. The irony of it is that Nigeria is one the largest exporters of crude oil but unfortunately Nigeria does not produce its own petroleum products, being diesel, petrol, kerosene and all the finished products that you get from crude oil. So what we tend to do is export the crude oil and buy back the finished products, and that leaves us exposed. I think the major cause of the fuel scarcity a few weeks back was due to the importation of bad fuel, bad petrol. That caused, besides the panic, some fuel stations to shut down because they had imported the bad fuel and it couldn’t be sold. Unfortunately, that slowed down economic activity because people couldn’t get around. Even in our business, even though it’s diagnostics, we actually felt the hit with a slight drop in our revenues and that was the only thing we could pinpoint it to.

The crude oil prices are going up worldwide and that is supposed to be good for Nigeria, we should be rolling in the money but on the flipside of that it means that the finished products that we import will also be going up. So whatever money we’ll be generating from the crude oil, we’ll probably be spending two to three times more in importing fuel products into the country.

I just wanted to talk for a minute about the inflation aspect of Nigeria.

Inflation right now is about 15%, food inflation is about 17% and, of course, with that everyone who is business-minded or financially inclined will think it’s best to preserve the value of whatever I have now and one of the ways to do that is to buy forex. So if you’re buying dollars or euros or pounds or even now, crypto, at least you are guaranteed that that value is preserved against that foreign currency. I think that’s why a lot of Nigerians are probably looking to crypto to be able to do that and also, there’s also the fact that it’s digital. The central bank has tried to introduce its own e-naira but that hasn’t gained much traction. In fact, since it was introduced, I don’t think I have heard of it being used anywhere in the business space. So the central bank would have to do a lot of work to encourage the adoption of that digital currency.

Let’s turn to your role as a CFO, before we went on air I said that I thought you had a rather unconventional path to the CFO position but you don’t seem to think so, you’ll tell us why in a minute. You’re a member of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, you also studied for an MSc from the University of Salford in the UK. So why did I say it’s an unconventional path, because in South Africa I guess the majority of CFOs would come from the CA path. But you’ve taken a different path, explain the decision to pursue the path that you did.

Funnily enough, my first degree was actually in information systems in engineering at the University of Manchester. It was interesting that when I finished that course, some part of me didn’t want to continue in IT, I found it too abstract. But I needed something that was real, as I say, we’re talking about the economy now and the effects on businesses and that is real for me, and I wanted something along those lines. Initially I was thinking about economics but then I changed my mind. So back to the course and I thought, what aspects of the course did I really, really enjoy and I loved data-based management.

I thought what industry really uses this the most and I thought of the banking and finance world and that’s really how I decided on going into finance.

With my MSc, I hadn’t really decided where I was going with that, but I thought that I want to be in the finance space somehow and then I went ahead, and I applied for the MSc. Now, you’ll appreciate that I was coming from an IT background and trying to switch, so there weren’t many universities at the time that were willing to take that risk because I didn’t have a finance background, why did I want to do a master’s in finance now. Thankfully, I got an admission into Salford University for international banking and finance, and it was a course a really enjoyed. I finished it and I thought, I am sure I don’t want to be a banker, but I enjoyed the finance side and the accounting side of it.

I think my journey has been just taking each step at a time and so with finishing the course and really enjoying the accounting and finance side of it, I thought it would be nice to actually have a professional qualification and then I had to choose between CIMA and AACA. So ACCA afforded me the opportunity to get a second degree, which I thought I also needed if I was going to work in accounts, so ACCA gave me another opportunity to get a BSc in applied accounting. That was attractive to me, so I went down that route.

At the time, I thought I might go into practice, although I hadn’t decided, and then with finishing my qualification, I thought maybe I would rather be in industry than practice. I just looked at what I wanted my future of work to be like, especially with having a family, I felt like it would be calmer for me if I was in industry.

Being in industry and being in accounting, there are so many different areas that you can go into, you could either go into the reporting side or focus on analysis. I did a few junior accounting roles, I did anything just to get experience in accounting. Looking back now, I am grateful for those jobs because they really built my foundation in accounting because right now as a CFO I am having to relate to people on this junior level because, at the end of the day, how they post their transactions has a knock-on effect on your reporting and your analysis. So if you can get it right at the beginning, it’s IT, and that’s going back to my IT degree, I remember GIGO, which is garbage in, garbage out, and that literally applies to ERPs. So if the junior levels can get it right in the way those transactions are posted, then it makes your job easier at the higher level.

Let’s talk about life-long learning, you are coming from an interesting and unconventional because of your planning and analysis experience, which is, in a way, what the CFO is employed to do, so that they can indicate what are the drivers of the business, what are the profits and loses. But I want to tie this back to the question of lifelong learning, the CFO (South Africa) designation was introduced basically to recognise the skills that are acquired on the journey to becoming a CFO and it’s not necessarily something that you’re going to learn in a classroom. Tell us about your viewpoint about that and what are these skills that the CFO is expected to know, research shows that these are softer skills like communication, strategy, team leadership and that kind of thing. What’s your view on that?

I think I would agree with you on those skills, I think the role of the CFO has changed dramatically in the last 20 years or so. In the past, it was just traditionally the reporting, and the CFO really didn’t do anything outside of accounting but right now, most businesses are looking for business leaders, they’re looking for people with leadership skills beyond the finance it’s touching on the business side of things and really being able to tell a good story with the numbers. For me, learning is a constant thing, we live in an evolving and changing world.

The role of a CFO today is to be a business leader, it could change in the next few years, there’s been a lot of focus now on data analytics and how you use data to drive the business forward.

I’ve been hearing so much about it, personally, and it’s something that has begun to interest me, so it’s on my bucket list for this year or next year to go back and do a data analytics course because it just intrigues me, I just want to know what exactly is this about and how would it help me do my job better. So it’s very, very important that a CFO stays abreast of the changes in the finance world or in the business. Again, we get a lot of that from the bodies that we are members of, with ACCA there are loads of webinars about things that are constantly changing, even for IFRS, for instance, that is always constantly changing. It is important that we are constantly developing as CFOs because the world is ever-changing and our role is ever-changing. A CFO might be required in some respects to represent the business in a major business decision or acquisition, so you’re pulled out of your finance role to actually be at the forefront of the business and being seen as a major leader.

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