Demystifying doing business in Francophone Africa

French-speaking Africa comprises a number of countries which are informally grouped together based on a common language and colonial heritage. The major economies in the region are Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Senegal, Republic of the Congo, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Francophone Africa is increasingly being viewed as an exciting region to do business in.

Ebenezer Essoka, GM of Standard Chartered bank in Southern Africa, says local partnerships are important in Francophone Africa.

Ebenezer Essoka, GM of Standard Chartered bank in Southern Africa, says local partnerships are important in Francophone Africa.

However, for many business people in the continent’s English-speaking countries, Francophone Africa remains a complex region with its own language, legal frameworks and social structures. During a panel discussion at the recent Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum, business leaders and experts tried to “demystify” the region. Here is what investors interested in doing business in Francophone Africa should know:

Economies differ: Just as the Francophone countries differ in terms of culture, religion and the people’s way of life, so do their economies, according to Jean-Francois Albrecht, Ernst & Young’s leader for Francophone sub-Saharan Africa. For example, he said that Cote d’Ivoire’s economy is mainly based on agriculture; Senegal depends on tourism; while countries such as Cameroon, Gabon and Republic of the Congo rely on the oil and gas industry. Mining is also growing in prominence in countries such as Burkina Faso and Niger.

Language issue can be overcome: Although many English-speaking business people might be deterred from investing in Francophone Africa because of the language difference, Ernst & Young says this is not an insurmountable obstacle.

“The African elite of the business world in these countries are fluent in at least two working languages (English and French), mostly graduating from Europe, Canada and America.”

No longer France’s exclusive backyard: Foreign investment into Francophone Africa was historically dominated by French companies. This trend is, however, changing. Australian companies are investing in the mining sector, while companies from the Middle East and Asia are putting money into the agricultural sector. Investors from North Africa and English-speaking countries on the continent are also eyeing the region.

Nigeria’s Dangote Group entered the Senegalese market and has also expanded into Gabon and the Republic of the Congo. Indian mobile telecommunications company Bharti Airtel also became a major player in Francophone Africa in 2010, when it bought the African assets of Zain Group. Bharti expanded its presence to include Burkina Faso, the Republic of the Congo, the DRC, Gabon, Madagascar, Niger and Chad.

Business culture: Like anywhere else in the world, Francophone African countries have their own unique business cultures. Gilles Atayi, managing partner at the Johannesburg-based G&A Group of Companies, said that a recent survey revealed some specific qualities Francophone CEOs and executives appreciate in their business partners.

The survey showed that “Francophone people are happy to deal with people who can teach and coach them in a civil manner, without arrogance, down to earth, and who are genuinely interested in other people’s development”.

Atayi noted that there is a “chief culture” in the region, where people expect the head of the organisation to have solutions for every problem. This is in contrast to countries such as South Africa, where there is a greater emphasis on team work.

He added that it is also crtical for foreign companies to have a positive impact on the communities where they operate. “Make your deal, make your money, but give back to the community.”

Importance of local partnerships: Ebenezer Essoka, general manager of Standard Chartered bank for Southern Africa, said that it is important to have local partnerships on the ground. “In Francophone Africa it is definitely something that will motivate people to look at you more seriously… The partner does not necessarily have to put money [into the venture]… A partner can have on the ground experience or knowledge you don’t have.”

He, however, warned against associating with politically exposed individuals.

“Doing business in a foreign country comes with a host of risks that can be avoided if the local environment is better understood. Local partners can provide support and guidance in this regard and will be able to assist with strategic execution, risk management, relationship building and opportunity identification,” says Ernst & Young.