The United States has recently launched an investigation surveying the contemporary military footprint of China in Africa, the latter, well-entrenched superpower hosting a firm grip on world trade.
Founder and executive chairman of Paramount Group, South African businessman Ivor Ichikowitz, has first-hand knowledge of not only the impetus for enhanced American involvement in Africa’s unbridled ascendance, but hosts compelling plans for Africa’s autonomous industrialisation through the defence industry, a model he believes to be applicable on a global scale.
Ichikowitz, named as one of Africa’s ‘100 Most Influential People’ by New African Magazine, continues to demonstrate commitment and determination to the continent’s industrialisation, not dissimilar from what he has showcased in scaling Paramount Group to achieve dynamic, multinational success.
Paramount Group was founded in 1994, from developing and deploying cutting-edge defence and security solutions meeting Africa’s regionally diverse challenges, Ichikowitz’s leadership has enabled Paramount Group to be transformed into what is today a global enterprise, working with sovereign governments across five continents, with manufacturing facilities in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Forbes International recently caught up with him in Johannesburg, where we talked about the exceptional opportunities for next-generation industrialisation alongside America’s prospects at achieving success in partnership on the African continent.
Q. Firstly, tell us about the correlation between defence and security and economic stability and growth…
The world goes through cycles. Those cycles tend to be economically driven, politically driven and typically periods of political or economic uncertainty drive periods of significant threats to democracies and to the very core of civilisation.
We are currently in a period of extreme uncertainty; a period of shifting allegiances, realigning alliances and a reopening of a historical conflict between east and west.
Many countries, especially in the developing world, are experiencing such extreme uncertainty, and with it comes instability and insecurity both internally and externally. The world is also experiencing, for the first time, asymmetrical threats to security, something that’s been largely until this point ring-fenced to the so-called developed world. Sovereign states are now dealing with fundamentalist movements and are at war with ideologies, as opposed to historically under threat by those looking to capture land and pursue economic gain.
As a result of these evolving trends, governments are forced to think differently about defence and security. At the heart of any government’s ability to protect sovereignty and maintain a stable environment for economic activity and investment is a fundamental desire to have its own defence industrial capability, what we have foreseen for many years.
Governments want to control their own destiny as opposed to having it dictated to them.
This is why we have styled Paramount as an organisation capable to support sovereign states in the rapid development of indigenous, industrial defence capabilities. From our proud heritage and vantage point of Africa, tackling the regionally diverse challenges that comprise it has put us in a strong position to deliver in the defence environment, not only in the developing world but also in the developed.
Traditionally, Africa has been a net consumer of the developed world’s technologies in the defence environment. We have been able to break that mould and have manufactured world beating technologies in Africa, which bear huge relevance to the developed world, and we have been able to manufacture customised equipment and concepts of operation that are ideally suited to the kinds of non-conventional warfare most of the world finds itself faced with today.
We, as a continent, were once an importer; now we serve as an innovator and exporter.
We proudly bring next-generation, customised and localised solutions to the table for our partners, so as to ensure sovereignty is maintained alongside and aligned with economic trajectory; to counter threats and in doing so, aid not just the peace effort, but industrialisation and economic development in all its forms.
Q. How does Paramount Group collaborate with sovereign governments in providing defence and security solutions?
Paramount Group works side by side with sovereign governments around the world in enhancing our partners’ defence and security intelligence and capabilities. We do so all the while serving as a proud symbol of Africa’s contemporary technological stewardship and future potential.
Paramount owns most of its own technologies and, within the confines of the legal framework in which it operates, we are prepared to utilise those technologies as the basis for the development of defence industrial capabilities in our customer countries, accomplished through long-term partnerships with sovereign governments. Often, we work with these governments to enhance our intellectual properties and to then develop products which are customised for that country’s operational requirements.
No two countries ever have the same operational requirements. We pride ourselves on developing highly customisable systems designed with flexibility in mind.
We are also unique in that we are quite happy to work with large and small customers on the same basis. Through being innovative, creative and by enhancing the art of the possible, Paramount is as comfortable working with the most sophisticated in the developed world, as it is collaborating with the smallest in the developing world.
I’ll add that we at Paramount, as leading actors within defence and aerospace, serve as drivers of economic growth and the innovation culture of any country that embraces the industry. And the defence and aerospace industry is typically the incubator for some of the most important technologies that have impacted society in the last century, not only in the security sphere, but in environmental conservation, encryption technologies found within the banking industry and financial services sector (of which South Africa is so too a world leader). Any country that invests in defence or aerospace is nurturing and investing in an innovation culture.
Countries without a developed aerospace defence sector, tend to lack the skills and resources required to participate in the global technology revolution. These are the countries that will, sadly, stay in the third world.
Q. So, there is an inherent social footprint in your defence and security solutions?
No question. It’s an onus of responsibility I take very seriously.
Having had the privilege of being brought up in Africa at a time of seismic change, having participated in South Africa’s transition to democracy, which brought about a social, political and economic revolution, we’ve always seen our involvement in the defence and aerospace industry as being much more important than just the economic component.
Our motivations are driven by a real mandate, to develop a business that will make a material impact to help governments innovate through infrastructure, protect sovereignty and the assets of their people. As we near 25 years of operation, the continent has seen significant successes, while the number of conflicts has diminished significantly. Due to a resurgence of fundamentalism and terrorist-related activity, conflict is unacceptably high, but today, most African governments have the ability to manage many of their own defence and security issues. This fact has taken a big load off developed economies which were previously forced to intervene, to help and support their allies in the developing world.
In addition to that, I believe the best way to resolve conflict is through effective dialogue. Both the African Oral History Archive of which I oversee and my Family Foundation play host to a number of initiatives under way to promote dialogue and foster understanding between individuals and between social and political interest groups worldwide.
One of our key initiatives was to set up and to capture original testimony of individuals involved in the political transformation of South Africa. This holds many lessons for future generations to come regarding the art of conflict resolution and the role of dialogue in achieving peaceful outcomes to major problems without bloodshed.
In addition to the roles that we have played in helping African governments across the continent and around the world, we use our experience in the defence environment to support conservation authorities to combat poaching and other wildlife crimes throughout the world.
Light aircraft, land and sea patrolling alongside tactical reconnaissance software has been effective in Pan-African anti-poaching activity. This variant of organised crime has gone unabated for far too long and was previously an unspoken security priority, as the illicit practice has become increasingly more violent, run by criminal outfits that also trade in drugs and human trafficking.
In Gabon, for example, nearly 90% of the country consists of rain forest, sheltering close to a remarkable 60% of Africa’s remaining forest elephants. We’ve worked alongside Gabon’s National Park ranger teams, making great strides in the anti-poaching of wildlife of all varieties, such as elephants and pangolins. This is, again, a security concern. It’s tragically understood that poachers will fire on sight and often with automatic weapons.
We invest in tangible initiatives and intervene to make a real difference, be it through the donation of patrol vehicles, to the training of park rangers to upskill them to be more effective against poachers or to deploying K9 units. Intriguingly, the deployment of well-trained dog units has proven to be one of the most effective methods of deterring poaching activity, one dog in particular in Kruger Park, aptly named ‘Killer’, who the United Kingdom’s Prince Harry decorated with an award, has caught over 100 groups of poachers.
We believe wildlife conservation is, to date, in crisis; the fight against poaching is, in fact, a war and must be treated as such, and taking action is critical to preserving our ecosystems, our heritage and our future, and those of our neighbours as well.
Q. We come to the question of American integration in to Africa on the backdrop of a recent probe undertaken by the US House Intelligence Committee as to China’s military footprint on the continent. How can America hope to ‘compete’ with China in effective African partnership?
For many years, the United States has been absent from the African landscape; the only countries the US engaged on the continent were known terrorism incubators, which directly threatened sovereign interest. As the US remained absent, a vacuum has been created which has been ably filled by the Chinese.
The Chinese, for many years, have seen African countries as important allies and partners, and China has invested significantly in these partnerships. Much of the growth spurt that Africa has experienced over the last decade has been almost entirely due to China’s aggressive policies towards building these African partnerships at a time when the US looked inward.
However, I do not believe the Chinese influence in Africa should be seen as a threat to the United States. I believe that instead the US should follow China’s lead and look towards complementing its engagement by partnering with African governments, sharing strategic skills and expertise and supporting the further growth and development of the African continent, to date only scratching the surface of its true potential.
From a foreign policy standpoint, Africa offers the US one of the most underdeveloped consumer bases for American products. The continent is a source of significant human capital, millions of hectares of undeveloped land suitable for agribusiness and the custodian of some of the most important natural resources in support of US tourism.
The current rhetoric around an ‘either or’ strategy in relation to the US and China on Africa is simply unfounded.
Most African governments remain open to and highly supportive of the notion of closer association with the US, from a strategic and commercial perspective. Over the last few years, however, their stories have changed. Now, most are no longer simply recipients of aid. They are today able to stand toe to toe with the United States, strategic partners in the fight against terror, partners fostering significant economic activity, which has the potential to benefit the continent and the globe.
Ultimately, there is much in turn that Africa can do to help, as President Trump would say: ‘Make America great again’. And as recent history indicates, such investment considerations are long overdue.
Where do you envision Paramount Group in future?
Paramount Group is a good example of a proudly African organisation that has justifiably found global relevance. Our group has expanded way beyond the African continent and today has partnerships with Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe.
We are one of the first companies in the defence industry worldwide to embrace the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ with conviction; pioneering the concept of portable production and leading innovative thinking sector-wide.
We see the group expanding significantly to more developed markets around the world in future, while continuing to maintain our proud, African heritage, significant brain trust and manufacturing base.
A prime example of our evolution is found within our BRONCO II programme, which involves the introduction of our advanced high-performance reconnaissance light aircraft (AHRLAC) into the US in partnership with several major companies, including Boeing subsidiaries like Aviall.
This revolutionary concept is just one example of an African company leveraging its true potential; more enterprises have the power to do similarly in their specific areas of expertise.
With regard to the continent, we envision, in future, an ever vigilant, Pan-African defence industry, with unabated opportunity to prosper. We’ve set our minds to accomplishing this.
African industry is heeding the call of the fourth industrial revolution to ‘adapt or be left behind’, and many of the initiatives we have undertaken in the continent’s industrialisation have been bold and pioneering in this regard. But we live by the late former president Nelson Mandela’s credo, that “…it always seems impossible until it’s done”. I trust our efforts serve in some part as a continuation of his vision.