French and African business leaders gathered in Paris on Monday for a two-day conference to explore new opportunities with Africa, amid intense competition from China and a host of other countries. However, France’s hopes for greater trade ties are still being hindered by negative perceptions of the African continent.

Ambition Africa 2018 will be one of the most important

Paris conference: France and Africa, always hand in hand

French and African business leaders gathered in Paris on Monday for a two-day conference to explore new opportunities with Africa, amid intense competition from China and a host of other countries. However, France’s hopes for greater trade ties are still being hindered by negative perceptions of the African continent.

"It’s still very difficult for OECD countries to get away from some of the perceptions of Africa," says Bolaji Balogun, CEO of Chapel Hill Denham, the leading investment bank in Nigeria.

"Some people will not travel to Nigeria because they think they’re going to get kidnapped or killed by Boko Haram," he told 54 Etats, but insists "Boko Haram is in an area of Nigeria which is 1,300 km from Lagos, and is further than travelling through many European countries."

Finding common ground to iron out some of these misunderstandings and ensure France becomes a hub for Africa, was one of the primary aims of Monday's Ambition Africa conference held at the French Finance Ministry.

According to organizers’ Business France, Paris is currently Africa's largest European trading partner and is responsible for 19% of the European Union's exports to the African continent.

"Ambition Africa 2018 will be one of the most important, if not the most important display of France’s economic relationship with Africa," Christophe Lecourtier, the managing director of Business France, told audiences.

Yet this keen interest in the African continent contrasts with France’s indifference a decade ago.

"French companies left," points out Mossadeck Bally, CEO of Azalaihotels, a chain of 5 star hotels across the continent. "They thought that the continent didn’t have a future."

Africa is the future

"The continent is open for business," Bally said. "But if they [France] come back, they will have to adjust, because today you have African business entrepreneurs who are very savvy investors. And you also have investors from China, India, Turkey, Portugal, Brazil, the whole world now is looking towards Africa, because it’s the last frontier."

Some are calling it a "new scramble for Africa." China has been in the lead over the past decade, followed by Brazil and Turkey. France now is playing catch up.

Since President Emmanuel Macron came to power in May last year, he’s sought to reshape France’s vision of the African continent, promising to loosen France’s paternalistic grip in Africa in his iconic speech in Burkina Faso shortly after he became president.

The 39 year old leader has also stressed that commercial opportunities exist beyond France's traditional francophone stamping ground, but also in English speaking Africa, as his visit to Nigeria in July showed.

"France is willing to have a global approach to Africa," says Jeremy Hadjenburg, a member of the Presidential Council for Africa, an entity set up to help shape France’s new Africa policy, and who travelled with Macron to Nigeria.

"There are countries where links and roots are long-lasting and should be maximized. But it goes without saying that French companies also want to build with African giants, such as Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa and their neighbors," he said.

Reward and Risk are link

As for Bolaji Balogun, head of Nigeria’s leading investment bank Chapel Hill Denham, "the most important thing to recognize is that what Africa needs is investment not aid."

"There’s so much entrepreneurial talent on the continent, all it needs is a trigger," he says, arguing that improved infrastructure, power generation and transportation will help businesses to thrive.

"If Africa doesn’t develop in a sustainable manner, the sheer demographic size and scale of Africa is such that it will represent a problem for the rest of the world," he comments, referring to the migration crisis, which if not managed could "cost about seven and a half trillion euros" to maintain a migrant in Europe.

As for the risks in doing business in Africa, he tells French investors to look at the rewards to be had.

"I think that if you’re a good businessman, you will recognize that while this continent is risky, it does provide tremendous opportunity and exceptional returns. If you engage with it correctly, you will have a unique opportunity to succeed," he told.

Fabien Loubayi
Rédacteur en chef