Africa CEO Forum head talks about the continent’s economic prospects

Amir Ben Yahmed, founder of the Africa CEO Forum

Amir Ben Yahmed, founder of the Africa CEO Forum

Amir Ben Yahmed is founder and president of the Africa CEO Forum, an annual event for the continent’s business leaders. How we made it in Africa asked him about Africa’s economic outlook and why this year’s Africa CEO Forum has been moved from Geneva to Abidjan.  

After years of rapid economic growth, many African countries are facing headwinds in the form of falling commodity prices, less accommodative global financial conditions and a strong US dollar. Are you getting a sense that business leaders are worried about the continent’s prospects?

The last edition of the Africa CEO Forum flagged indicators that were the first signs of the current situation. For example, last year, the South African rand lost 25% against the dollar, partly because of lower commodity prices. (The currency plunged a record 9% lately, its biggest drop since October 2008, reaching $1 against 17.91 rand, before recovering partially.) Nonetheless, the discussions showed that African CEOs do not intend to give up on the continent even though the “Africa Rising” narrative is being questioned elsewhere in the world.

On the other hand, there are also promising trends. Like the fact that Africa is witnessing the phenomenon of repatriates coming back from the western world loaded with skills, money and ambitions. Africa is also now officially on the growth agenda of almost all multinationals.

The next five years will be decisive, business leaders will have to understand the stakes and the challenges of the continent to win the game. Future winners will have to balance bold moves and resilient fundamentals. “Succeed in challenging times” will be the main theme of this year’s Africa CEO Forum.

What do you expect to be the other main talking points at this year’s Africa CEO Forum?

Amidst the past 15 years of sustained growth, African companies have structured and implemented bold development strategies, resulting in the expansion of their businesses to new markets. As the foremost platform for thought-provoking discussions and private-sector promotion, the Africa CEO Forum has always showcased the positive evolutions of the continent.

In the same vein, the 2016 edition of the Africa CEO Forum will follow the latest developments, bearing in mind the economic bottlenecks Africa is currently facing, around various talking points:

  • The key strategies countries and companies will have to implement in order to perform in this volatile economic context,
  • The business opportunities for Africa in the new energy landscape,
  • Making public-private partnerships work to tackle social challenges in Africa,
  • Bridging the gap between French-speaking Africa and English-speaking Africa,
  • The alternative financial engines in the face of a looming credit crunch.

As always, we will also provide CEOs with the latest innovative management tools they can use in their day-to-day work to support African growth and counteract the economic decline. In order to support their organisations’ growth, fields such as CSR, HR, finance, strategy, corporate cultcure, and branding will be discussed in depth.

After having been hosted in Geneva in the past, the Africa CEO Forum is this year held in Africa for the first time. What is the reason for this?

The Africa CEO Forum was initially held in Geneva in order to showcase African capitalism to the world. By hosting the event at an international location, we gave the event a global dimension, and Geneva is home to the headquarters of many international organisations, such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation, amongst others. The forum is still headquartered in Geneva to remain close to international investors, but it will take place in a different African country every two years.

With economic growth standing at around 10% per year since 2012, investment rates now climbing above 20% of GDP and exports constantly on the rise since 2009, Côte d’Ivoire is the driving force of regional integration within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and a natural host for this first edition in Africa. The fact that the African Development Bank (AfDB) – our partner since the first edition – is based there, is a further contributing factor. It is also important for us to welcome the new president of the AfDB, Akinwumi Adesina, by hosting the forum there.

Now that the Africa CEO Forum has gained so much success, many African countries are competing to host future editions.

Which African country and industry do you believe hold the greatest potential for foreign investors?

In this context of economic downturn with falling commodity prices, oil and gas producing countries will suffer, whereas diversified economies will keep on performing, provided they fulfil four other key conditions: political stability, macro-economic discipline, good governance and a strong determination to accelerate structural reforms encouraging entrepreneurship. Some Africans countries have been successfully following this path such as Morocco, Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Côte d’Ivoire.

As for the sectors, it’s difficult to only name one. Firstly, I would point out the “mature” sectors such as construction, banking and ICT. Then, for over 10 years, with the continent’s fast-paced development, new priority sectors have emerged and have been particularly attractive for foreign investors such as transport, agriculture and agro-industry where an increasing number of international groups have found fertile grounds for investments in Africa. More recently, you have the consumer goods and the retail sector, answering the needs of the mushrooming African middle class, forecast to represent 42% of the African population by 2060. If you take South Africa for example, a Deloitte report found that the local luxury goods market grew by 65.2% in the five years between 2009 and 2014.