Ashok Prayag has a way of putting those around him at ease. Perhaps his easy going nature and steady voice come from the fact that he lives and works on a picturesque island frequented by happy honeymooners and beach-going vacationers. Or maybe it’s because he’s doing what he loves – working in the analytical world of reinsurance and mentoring a high-performance team of dedicated young professionals from a multitude of countries.
A branch is born
In 1990, Munich Re was looking to establish a reinsurance office in Mauritius and Ashok Prayag, who had been working for the island’s Ministry of Finance was looking for a new challenge. “As I had heard only good things about Munich Re, I was thrilled when a delegate from the company approached me about heading the branch. I joined the company as the new office’s Regional Manager and have never since looked back with regret. We started off with a staff of two – an administrative assistant and me.” The branch grew and was converted to a full subsidiary of Munich Reinsurance Company of Africa in 1997. Its area of operation expanded from just Mauritius to the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa, with the exception of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland.
“Our motto is ‘partnering Africa’s development’. By providing protection against insurable losses, especially in large complex risks, for which our expertise is widely recognized, we make investments in Africa’s development feasible and viable. And our commitment to lasting partnerships in Africa is unimpeachable.”
Africa is a continent full of cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity – much of which is reflected on the 2,000 square kilometres island of Mauritius. Diversity is the norm and people’s differences are valued and seen as advantages. And it is this vast amount of diversity which fascinates Ashok Prayag about his work in Africa.
“I consider myself fortunate to be operating in markets which present huge diversity in innumerable respects. A lot of people who have never been to Africa have this idea that it is one country. Nothing could be further from the truth. Consider, for example, Ghana and Nigeria. As they are neighbouring nations and both English-speaking, you might expect their citizens to be similar in temperament, when in fact the opposite is true. Even within individual countries there exists a large number of ethnic groups and sub-groups with distinctive languages and dialects.”
But even with so much rich cultural diversity, there is, according to Ashok Prayag, a common thread: the importance of personal relationships. “It is often said that business is not done between companies but between persons in companies. Nowhere is this truer than in Africa. It’s important to take the time to really get to know the people you do business with on an informal, personal level. It is considered rude to simply jump straight into intense business discussions without first learning about the other person’s family, hobbies, likes and dislikes.”
Unique challenges in Africa
As the economies of many African countries continue to grow, competition both in the primary and reinsurance industries has intensified. But while several companies in Africa have undergone mergers, the industry remains highly fragmented. According to Ashok Prayag, these mergers are primarily happening at the top tier of the market, rather than at the smaller company level, where it would be more beneficial to the market as a whole. “Everyone stands to gain from a strong, robust and resilient insurance industry”, as Ashok emphasises.
Over the past several years, Africa has experienced a rapid infrastructural and industrial transformation. But increasing development also means increasing risk. “One just has to look at the buildings, factories, dams, bridges and railways we now have to get an idea of the values exposed to natural perils. Given the growing risk complexity, we need different skills to grasp, estimate and price catastrophic risks. And we especially need actuarial skills for risk-modelling. The industry would be well advised to invest in developing expertise in these areas.”
But Ashok Prayag also cautions against the trend developing in many African countries to “domesticate” reinsurance risk and discourage, or even prohibit, the free placement of reinsurance internationally. “This leads to a concentration of physical and economic risks within single markets or sub-regions. In the event of a major loss, already fragile, albeit developing, companies, insurers and national economies could be exposed to severe financial damage.”sicherer oder Volkswirtschaften, die sich noch in der Entwicklung befinden und vielleicht noch wenig robust sind, kann ein Großschaden schwerwiegende finanzielle Folgen haben.“
Exciting times ahead
Many African countries, and not only those that are resource rich, are currently experiencing unprecedented high economic growth rates. Additionally, the emergence of a large, expanding middle class has had a multiplying effect on economic expansion and, consequently, on the demand for insurance services – a demand that is expected to increase.
Historically, the biggest insurance markets and economic powerhouses in Sub-Saharan Africa have been in the oil-producing countries. Oil-rich countries like Nigeria, Angola and Sudan, for example, are seeing huge infrastructural investments. But there is also an increasing focus on renewable energy projects across the continent, from hydro power in Uganda to geo-thermal plants in Kenya to bio-mass and wind farms in Mauritius.
“Munich Re’s engineering expertise plays a key role in Africa by helping investors assess and protect a diverse range of large, complex projects. Exciting times are ahead and Africa can only rise.”