The West Africa Trade & Investment Hub started the new year under the leadership of a new Chief of Party, Robin Wheeler. Based in the Trade Hub’s headquarters of Abuja, Wheeler will guide the project in its mission to empower and work with the private sector to meet some of the region’s most pressing sustainable development challenges.
To accomplish this, Wheeler will leverage his three decades of experience, including through past roles at the chief of party, country representative, and regional representative level on nearly a dozen USAID and U.S. Government-funded projects. Just prior to joining the Trade Hub in January, Wheeler led the EnGRAIS Project, a 5-year (2018–2023) USAID-funded activity that is improving West African crop productivity by increasing regional availability to, and the use of, appropriate and affordable fertilizers.
Learn more about Robin in this Q&A, in which he shares his thoughts on his new role, insights about leadership, and why he is happy to call Africa his home.
Q: What attracted you to the Chief of Party role within the Trade Hub?
A: I was most attracted by the opportunity to run a project that would make a substantial difference in the lives of West Africans and by the unique nature of the project, including the focus on trade and investment through large grants. The Trade Hub is unique in its size, scope, and focus, and has the potential to make a substantive impact at a range of levels in the sub region.
Although I have worked on development projects in the region for more than 20 years, I know that the impact I have been able to have has been limited, and I am confident that the impact from the Trade Hub will far exceed these smaller interventions.
Q: What lasting impact do you hope the Trade Hub will have in West Africa?
A: I hope that the Trade Hub will help change the paradigm of trade and investment in West Africa that is typically characterized by small firms and farmers with limited assets and resources making unsustainable investments. Through the Trade Hub, we are creating strong, consistent trade links into major sustainable enterprises with innovative and expandable platforms that will benefit large numbers of people.
Q: You have designed and led major food security programs, including as the Regional Food Security Advisor for the United Nations World Food Programme. What drives your passion for ensuring sustainable agricultural development and food security, particularly within Africa?
A: Since I first stepped on the African continent more than 41 years ago, and over the years since living and working in over 30 countries, I have seen the issues/problems and also the tremendous potential of Africa, and have wanted to do what I can to make a difference. While I believe strongly that there need to be “African solutions to African problems,” I also feel that some experience and know-how from elsewhere can provide innovation and knowledge that can facilitate and speed up development.
Q: You’ve held a variety of leadership roles with large organizations. What do you think is the most important quality of a strong leader and how can those seeking leadership positions develop this quality?
A: I think the most important qualities are recognizing that you can only lead effectively if those around and under you believe you are worth following, feel that you will support them to excel in their roles, and care about them and their lives and families. Accordingly, staff needs to be inspired, mentored, and supported to thrive, or they are unlikely to perform the way you expect them to.
Q: What is one lesson learned from a previous leadership role that you wish you could share with every potential leader?
A: I learned from a combination of all my previous leadership roles that you can only be as good as those you can stimulate to follow you, and that in order to do that you need to be clear and consistent in your communications to them and follow through on your commitments.
Q: The Trade Hub now boasts more than 50 full-time staff members spread throughout West Africa, and like many companies operating during the pandemic, most work from home. What strategies have you found useful for building camaraderie and collaboration that both the Trade Hub and our partner companies should take note of?
A: I began dealing with the pandemic on my previous regional project from Day 1 of the pandemic’s declaration in West Africa. I found that maintaining close contact through not only email but chats, audio, and video calls and having carefully organized face-to-face meetings, when possible, during this period was essential. Leaders have to make a much greater effort to ensure and set the example so their staff stay engaged and encourage their managers to follow suit.
Q: The Trade Hub recently signed its 71st co-investment partnership and our partner companies range from well-known beauty and skincare brands like Alaffia, to robust but smaller companies like Senegal-based Club Tiossane, a fresh grocery delivery service. What is one piece of advice you would give for forging strong business partnerships?
A: Concentrate on partners who are committed to doing their part to make the relationship strong and fruitful, because otherwise, the partnership is likely to be short-lived and unsatisfactory for both the Trade Hub and intended beneficiaries.
Q: Though you’re a native of Nebraska, you’ve lived and worked in most countries on the continent, including all countries in West Africa. What has been your favorite country to live in so far, and why would you recommend a visit?
A: As you can imagine, I am asked that question a lot and have difficulty in answering it unequivocally because I have enjoyed different things about all 13 countries I have lived in over the past four decades. However, I have a particular love for West Africa since among other things my wife is originally from Guinea, and we have enjoyed our past 5 years in Ghana. I also enjoyed my time living in Nigeria, Togo, Niger, Liberia, and Guinea over my career.
Q: What do you admire most about West African culture?
A: Its vibrancy and diversity and culture, including its apparel, food, dancing, and holding family above all. The latter is problematic when allegiance to family, clan, and/or ethnic group trumps or complicates nation-building, but being married to a West African, I have a unique perspective and have been exposed to and understand more than most expatriates do.