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The husband-and-wife team of Susan Edwards '10 (left) and Varsay Sirleaf '10 work on bringing investment opportunities to Africa.

Husband-and-wife team of Susan Edwards '10 (left) and Varsay Sirleaf '10 work on bringing investment opportunities to Africa.

Returning to Africa

With wife at his side, Varsay Sirleaf '10 invests in his homeland

By Patricia Riedman Yeager

8/14/2013 - Varsay Sirleaf ’10 spent his formative years in the U.S. before returning home to help build Africa’s economy. The homecoming – with his wife, Susan Edwards ’10 – was hardly surprising. Sirleaf’s aunt is none other than Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, current president of Liberia, who has striven to boost the war-torn country’s resources.

“You can see that people are really hustling to grow their businesses,” said Edwards, a Stanford chemical engineering grad, who met Sirleaf at Kellogg, and eventually moved to Kenya in 2011. “If you are not establishing or building business on the continent in the next three years, you're going to miss out.”

From farming to finance
Sirleaf’s first African startup was a rubber farm management company. Through that experience, he discovered International Finance Corp., the private-sector arm of the World Bank. They shared his philosophy. “The idea was to move away from traditional investment banking to development finance,” Sirleaf said.

Sirleaf, who grew up in the Republic of Liberia in West Africa, is now an investment officer at IFC, where he is a leader in the firm’s agribusiness investment practice in East Africa. Edwards works at Abraaj Capital Ltd., in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi (where the couple lives), providing financing to private healthcare companies in the region.

Advancing Agriculture
As a recent panelist at the 2013 Kellogg Africa Business Conference Panel, “Harnessing Africa’s Green Revolution: Seeding New Innovations in Agriculture,” Sirleaf talked about some of the advancements the IFC has made to ease the process for African farmers to get financing.

“In Africa, the biggest assets farmers have are the crops themselves,” he said. “We’re unlocking the value of their business as the collateral.”

And as for his aunt’s influence, Sirleaf said, “She definitely inspires me.”