Soraya Narfeldt started RA International while staying with her husband, who was living and working in Afghanistan.
During this stay she volunteered for the UNDP REEP programme and subsequently other UN agencies within various finance and procurement roles. She made a name for herself as a fixer and the go-to person.
Very soon, she was a private company providing support services to the country’s most remote places on behalf of the UN and other similar organisations from NGOs to embassies and multilateral organisations.
Given the stringent policies and procedures of the UN and other such bodies, she was forced to build a company with fool-proof structures and strict regulations. But what truly differentiates her from others is the softer-side of doing business.
Given the challenging terrain that she had to operate in, both literally and figuratively speaking, ensuring you understand the local community and working hand in hand with them is critical to the successful delivery of a project, she says.
As part of her reconnaissance trips she therefore ensures that she and her team have a deep understanding of the area where they operate, both the physical landscape and the cultural one. She also makes sure that the deployments are inclusive in that they involve the locals as much as possible – that is, making local content a key part of the solution, employing local staff, sourcing locally and consulting them.
It is part of the DNA of the company she says, to hire locally, train the people, not only to gain the necessary skills but to work within the strict guidelines of the project, thus instilling certain values and a work ethic.
RA International has worked in 10 African countries, including Somalia, South Sudan, Chad, Central African Republic, Senegal, Uganda and Kenya. It can set up a camp of any size anywhere in Africa, providing the whole support system needed for it to operate effectively.
Timeframes vary, although it generally means setting up shop within 30 days – sometimes even more quickly. In Somalia one deployment was done in 14 days. Another contract, which required deploying 180 people for a maintenance project, took just six days.
A lot of your early work came from servicing the UN, and UN-like agencies, and now you want to diversify into mining, oil and gas sectors. So what sort of services would you be offering those industries?
Nearly the same, because we realised early on that the “camp build” required is the same for a peace-keeping operation as it would be for a mining operation. Put up a camp for a couple of hundred people to live in; establish the water, the power, the food, the support services, like housekeeping, janitorial, vehicle maintenance; take care of the maintenance of the camp, take care of the roads that come into that camp; do the supply chain and re-supply for the camp and the mine itself.
It’s almost identical to peace-keeping missions, to UN missions that are in remote sites or in troubled countries – the only difference is the type of people that live and work in these places. While one involves going in for political stability or development, the other involves going in for a resource job.
We would like to be in a position where, potentially, we can offer a mining company a “per man per day” solution and take away the burden of them having to hire separate contractors to do separate jobs. Saying to them: here is your key and we are providing you with a serviced accommodation, food and water included, and your recreation and your power and all you need to do is press the button. We want to make life easier for them so that they can focus on their actual job, which is the mining for the gold, cobalt or potash.
Who are your clients in the mining sector? Are they the big miners or the smaller companies?
We are looking at the smaller companies, companies that have maybe never operated in Africa but can see new opportunities. We want to offer ideas and suggestions about different methodologies for the operations and project implementation drawing on our experience. We want to offer our risk mitigation solutions and ensure that we can grow with them as they grow their project.
And what’s your outlook on the mining sector? We had a commodities boom the first 15 years of this century, then we saw a rapid slowdown in 2015–17. Are there more conversations taking place? Is there more interest? Do you see the sector rebounding?
I think the sector is bouncing back. I was at a few banking conferences, oddly enough, where their resources outlook was very positive and promising. And I do believe, from everything that I’ve heard, it is picking up. We are seeing more and more enquiries; we are talking to a lot more people going into various places in Africa and the current resources that seem hot are gold, potash and cobalt. I think that investment is going back into developing new mines in new locations, or even reinstating them in old locations. The oil and gas industry maybe take more time, but in mining, I do believe it is moving in the right direction.
But let’s take a country like DRC, where there’s political instability but where the mining sector obviously is very important to the local economy and the global economy. What are the challenges in a country like DRC and how do you overcome them?
I think you have the normal challenges of operating there properly, within the existing governmental rules at a state level. We take it further by digging down to the actual jurisdiction, the area of the project itself. We try and look at what happened in a region over the past five or 10 years, from a political, financial, economic and growth point of view. What are the roads like? What is the security situation in reality? Have they had any outbreaks from a health perspective? Because all of it impacts on how [the camp] operates, on how that region operates, how the people operate. What are the traumas that they have gone through in that area? Just look at the decimation caused by Ebola – whole countries were shut down.
We try and look at it from the ground up, and factor in all of the risks there, before we look at the country overall, because our biggest risk is going to be quite specific to that region. Then we plug in the top details, which would be customs importation – what are the logistics blocks? How many containers come through a day? How long does it take to move from A to C? Are there 16 check points, or is it five? What is the level of education locally? Can we find skilled personnel? What can we procure locally? What must be imported?
And that requires knowledge at the micro level. It’s the decisions on the smallest level that can potentially have the biggest impact on the project, or at that mine with respect of deadlines and their ability to operate.
And those are what we try and mitigate by doing extensive research, ahead of time.
If you had to put timelines on this, how long does it take you to execute a project from concept, or from the time you are asked to having it up and running?
Our average mobilisation request by client is 30 days, but we are very, very, adept at fast mobilisation. Our zero to site in Somalia was 14 days, which is probably one of the fastest deployments ever for a department of peace-keeping operations. We recently deployed 180 people for a facilities maintenance contract and that was done in six days, which I thought was exceptional. I think the reason that we are fast in our mobilisation is because the amount of due diligence. Diligence that’s actually gone into researching the countries, the operations, or projects, the risks associated and the requirements ahead of time has allowed us to know what we need to slot in. So 30 days is our average, but we have been known to put boots on the ground within 72 hours of a call.
You’ve been to all the countries in which you have projects?
Yes, I’ve been everywhere, I’m always jumping on a plane to the next location, or some remote site where a client needs information and research. I try to be the first one there.
What is it like operating in this environment as a woman CEO?
In Afghanistan, I was surprised at the level of respect I received from the men. Maybe because Afghan men respect their mothers and saw me from that perspective, as a mother. And then when it comes to talking business, in these places they like to sit down and have somebody they can talk to about everything. There is a need to be a friend as business is not via email or messages, it’s face to face so it is personable and it’s on a handshake of trust as a start. As a female CEO I am very respectful and conscious of my making myself clear especially in places where English is not a first language. But, yes, I may be one of a few female CEOs in this industry, with a fantastic team of men supporting me and we try to hire as many women as possible in different areas working with different things. I can’t say I feel different or I’m treated differently. You get good people and you get bad people of every gender and every country. I think it’s all about how you approach people and less to do with the fact that I’m a woman or the colour of my skin.
How do you view the political landscape 15 years on? Are things are moving in the right direction?
That’s a tough one. If I look back and where I’ve been, to where it is today, and I look at somewhere like Somalia or South Sudan where I went in 2004 on my first recce, development is definitely coming; and it is moving faster than I even imagined. There are roads, there are supermarkets, roads, markets, internet and schools. People are endeavouring to create commerce; to create business; to create sustained work environments. And the young want to learn; the young want to do more. So yes things are moving forward.
So, you’re going to see less work on the humanitarian side and more work on the private sector side?
I think we might see less work on what we call the conflict rapid mobilisation – that is where there are major problems. But I think there’s more work on the developmental side. There’s more work on taking the country from stable to actually working. And that takes a lot of time, and the agencies such as the UN and its missions such as UNICEF, the UNHCR, the UNDP, along with the World Bank, Africa Development Bank, US State Department and the EU all play an integral part in development as well as private sector companies looking to invest. There will be ongoing projects and programmes, whether it be the healthcare system, the education system, policing or supporting the local municipalities. It’s all about sustaining the stability. n
This article was produced by African Business and Djembe Communications with the support of RA International