Jean-Louis Billon is a young man carrying a heavy burden on his shoulders. In 2012, while on business in Geneva, he was summoned by the President of Côte d’Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara, to return home and take over the Ministry of Commerce, Crafts and SME Promotion.
Effectively, this was nothing short of asking him to restart the country’s economic and commercial life – frozen by 20 years of political instability, including two damaging military conflicts.
Although Alassane Ouattara had won the 2010 elections against the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, it was not until April 2011, when Gbagbo was arrested and shipped off to The Hague to face trial for crimes against humanity that the new government could concentrate on the business of governing.
In the 1970s and part of the 1980s, Côte d’Ivoire was widely lauded as Africa’s ‘miracle economy’. It was (and continues to be) the world’s largest producer of cocoa at a time when global prices for this essential ingredient in the manufacture of genuine chocolate, were at a dizzying pace. Rubber, pineapples, palm, tea and oil all contributed to make this West African country the envy of the rest of Africa and to provide a relatively high standard of living for its population.
‘We have been in crisis for the last 20 years. It is only now that we are resuming our development process’
Then a series of political conflicts, centred on the issues of ethnicity and citizenship, split the country and development ground to a halt. A bitter conflict between 2002 and 2010, which raged with varying degrees of intensity, and a final violent upsurge in 2011 brought economic activity virtually to an end.
Nevertheless, throughout the period of unrest, the country’s immensely rich agricultural sector continued to function, even if in very low gear. Key to this was the outstanding management of the country’s largest company, SIFCA, and its subsidiaries.
The agro-processing firm, which employs 25,000 people, grows, processes and markets palm oil, natural rubber and sugar and is also involved in neighbouring Liberia, Ghana and Nigeria.
SIFCA was founded by Pierre Billon – who until his death in 2001, was one of the most charismatic and progressive business leaders in Africa. His son, Jean-Louis, joined the family business in 1995 after a stint with Grace Cocoa in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, US.
He worked his way up to general manager of the firm and stepped into his father’s shoes as chairman of the board. The fracturing political situation at home as well as a very rapidly changing global commercial and economic landscape, required managerial and tactical skills of the highest order.
For SIFCA, and the tens of thousands who depended on the company for their livelihood, this was sink-or-swim time. Could the young Jean-Louis Billon, who had obtained his higher educational degrees from French and US academies and cut his commercial teeth in a US company, adapt to the very special demands that Côte d’Ivoire presented?