It's time for Africa! How this Indian CA went on to become the CFO at Lagos Free Zone in less than 5 years

Ashish Khemka, CFO of the Lagos Free Zone

  • CA Ashish Khemka never knew Africa would be his calling. 
  • His mentor first thought Ashish would not make the cut for the job, but offered him the job anyway. 
  • After a decade of working in Nigeria, Ashish Khemka believes Africa is the future. 


An opportunity in Africa 

I was not a studious kid growing up. 

My parents told me stories that when I was younger I did not want to go to school. My dad used to put me on the school bus and ask the driver to drive away. 

I have no regret in saying that in the first year of my school I was retained in the same class. But I believe failures are pillars of success. 

It was my sister who changed everything for me. She was studying to be a Chartered Accountant (CA) and she was very well respected in my family. This inspired me to become something and I decided to pursue CA. 

Fast forward after qualifying, like more Indian CAs I too chose opportunities in the Big 4 and Banking sector. 

In the beginning, I was with ICICI Bank (one of the largest private sector banks in India) in their corporate office based in Mumbai. 

The Nigeria stint happened when a friend of mine suggested I give the interview at Tolaram Group (a company with diversified business interests in consumer goods, fintech, infrastructure and industrials; employing more than 16000 people globally). 

The role was to be a part of the corporate strategy. 

Coincidentally my father worked in Nigeria from 1983 to 1984, which is considered the golden years of Nigeria. So, yes growing up I did hear a lot of stories about Africa. I decided to go for the interview! 

Ashish Khemka has also worked in EY and ICICI

India to Nigeria: A bold decision for many

I was interviewed by the CFO who is now my mentor. I remember I was nervous and prepared for the interview the whole night.

I showed up to the interview wearing a suit. Whereas he was in jeans and a t-shirt in the hotel lobby. 

The interview lasted for two hours. 

I must be honest that when he saw my CV he was not sure about me. 

He told me, later, that I had changed too many jobs and he felt I was not the right fit

However, he offered me the job right away because I had my foundations in place and I was willing to learn. It was almost like I was destined to work in Nigeria. 

That interview also changed my life. 

When I told my dad that I got this opportunity he said go for it and the rest is history. 

In India still, there is some kind of mindset that Africa is not safe. People believe you might get into trouble. It is not true.

Like any country, there are certain dos and don'ts. Just follow the rules and you will be safe. 

For me, settling down in Nigeria was not an issue because my family had stayed here. They knew what was the reality on the ground. 

In the next forty (Feb 2013) days after the interview, I was in Nigeria. 

Also Read

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Extensive career growth in Nigeria 

Professionally, I got the opportunity to work with some fine people in the company. 

In 2013, the financial and accounting standards changed in Nigeria, as the country moved to International and Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). 

My first assignment in Nigeria was doing IFRS accounting for the company which involved big internal restructuring. I was to prepare the first year of accounts after the restructuring.

Naturally, I had to study the Country's Tax Laws. Like most people, I too got accustomed to the local laws and taxes by studying. 

When I look back, it seems like diligent studying truly helped me. I can now confidently say that I got to a level where I can advise anybody on the local laws and taxes operating in the country.

In 2014, I moved into the internal audit aspect of Tolaram Group. 

Then the US company Kelloggs acquired a stake in Tolaram's distribution arm in Africa. 

I got the opportunity to work on the sales side of one of the biggest merger and acquisition deals of that time. 

This enhanced my knowledge drastically and enabled me to have CXO-level conversations. Then I was moved to a different arm of the group itself, which is the infrastructure arm. 

In the arm of the company, I became a chief financial and operational officer. I am now the CFO of the Lagos Free Zone. 

Also Read

This CA left India for Nigeria at the age of 22: How his bold decision led him to become a CFO under the age of 30

Salary expectations for CAs in Africa 

At the start of your career, you should not look at the money that you are getting, you should look at the quality of the work. 

Just grab the opportunity, because once you perform well, the organization understands your value and they will take care of you. 

As for the salary expectation, there are different models in Africa. Any salary should take care of your local expenses and savings. 

I would say for a new aspirant, it should be in the range of $2000 to $2500 per month, which will take care of your housing, your transport, your travel, and your visas.

The other details would be taken care of by the company, which hires you. 

Also Read

Gareth, a Chartered Accountant from South Africa joined the World Food Programme. He is the Finance Officer there and believes finance professionals can contribute a lot to the non-profit space

Should finance professionals look at Africa as a market?  

I had around three and a half years of experience when I came to Africa; more of a fresher.

Coming to Africa gave me an early push in my career.

Firstly, the organization I chose to join, Tolaram provided several opportunities for me.

Here I was directly reporting to the Group CFO. This offered such great learnings and eventually, in less than 5 years I was made the CFO of Lagos Free Zone.

Would I get the same growth pace in India? Maybe, no. 

The reason I am saying this is because when I look at many of my wonderful colleagues with whom I started my career in India, only a few have grown to CFO roles.

The speed at which you can grow in Africa, cannot be compared.

I am fortunate enough that I took the right decision of moving to Africa and it has certainly paid off.

The future is Africa. Nigeria is one of the largest populous countries in the world. 

The population currently stands at 200 million people and is expected to become the third most populous country in the next 30 years.

Sectors that finance professionals should look at are consumer sectors and infrastructure

Lastly, to make a career one needs to create values and stick to them. You need to have dependability, integrity, enthusiasm, and courage. 

You, should not sway from hardships in your life. Have an open mind. You get a lot of benefits, and privileges when you work hard. 

Edited by Preeti Mondal and Videos by Subhankar Dutta

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