The AfCFTA holds out great possibilities for Africa’s private sector. Samba Bathily, Chairman of ADS Group and a founding partner of the AfroChampions Initiative talks to Dounia Ben Mohamed about the ways his company and the Initiative are working to help bring about economic transformation on the continent
You are one of the founding partners of AfroChampions. Its mission is to drive regional integration.What’s the role of the private sector and civil society in the AfCFTA?
Yes, it is our role, and more importantly, our responsibility. There are a number of African companies from which we can draw inspiration, the likes of Ecobank, MTN, Dangote. The African private sector needs to be the driver of the continent’s development, it cannot happen any other way. When I look at my team, it becomes evident that a truly African company transcends borders. We have Rwandans, Beninese, Malians, Nigerians, Ghanaians, Senegalese, Guineans, Ivorians, South Africans, Cape Verdeans… It makes for a formidable team, with continental if not global ambitions.
You’ve been working closely with the African Union, putting forward proposals in terms of the AfCFTA. It seems that your voice is being heard…
The partnership with the African Union has been extremely fruitful since it was officially concluded in March 2018 at the Extraordinary Summit for the signing of the AfCFTA in Kigali. Our proposals have been well received, both with its Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, and within the different departments, including the Commission for Trade and Industry headed by Ambassador Albert Muchanga.
We have been working with the AU teams on various practical initiatives – road shows to explain the AfCFTA to the private sector, launching the Pan-African Fashion Initiative, creating mechanisms to support our craftsmen, developing new approaches for vocational training, giving advice to help countries frame their economic development plans within the AfCFTA framework. The objective is to make sure that this agreement translates into real opportunities for the private sector, from the SMEs and startups to larger businesses.
And in February we saw the heads of state endorse our ‘Trillion Dollar Investment Framework’, which will trigger $1 trillion of investments by 2030, to help the implementation of the AfCFTA. Through this mechanism countries will be able to receive funding for AfCTA-enabling projects. A fund will also be created to invest in high growth and high potential companies, the champions of tomorrow.
Given what we’re currently going through, it is also hoped that this investment framework can be a vehicle for strengthening our health infrastructure – physical infrastructure, hospitals, drug and equipment manufacturing plants, of course, but also human infrastructure – by increasing the number of skilled health workers and practitioners in Africa.
From what you’re saying, you have committed to mobilising $1 trillion for the AfCFTA, and to promoting the “AfroChampions” companies. This is an important moment…
Yes, the AfroChampions of tomorrow are companies with great potential. But these companies need to be able to be part and lead projects of significant scale and they will need financing to achieve this. We need African companies to be more involved in the development of major projects on the continent even if we recognise the expertise that foreign players bring to the table.
I’m all for partnerships, and we collaborate with international partners, such as what we have done with IDEMIA, the global leader in ID and authentication. We’ve seen this also in the Gulf where they’ve brought in international expertise but developed their own world-class organisations.
Today, when you look at the life of an African, he wakes up and consumes imported soap, drives an imported car, drinks imported water. An African who earns $100 spends $95 to buy goods imported from outside Africa. We are told that our industry is not competitive and that the unit cost is high, because the basic inputs – water, energy, transports – are high. So it becomes a chicken and egg problem. My response to this is that it is up to Africans to create the conditions for the industrial development of the continent.
There are some simple, easily implementable solutions. In fashion, buy African for example. We need to create 20m jobs a year over the next 10 years to avoid crises, unrest, and popular uprisings. The fashion and creatives sector is just one of many sectors where these jobs can be created. Imagine having to dress 1.3bn people. Such demand naturally brings down production costs and you develop a whole ecosystem around this.
If you want, you can say that AfroChampions is a project that aims to achieve greater economic justice, where we capture wealth on the continent, as well as the establishment of (truly!) mutually beneficial, win-win partnerships with external counterparts. We’ve shown that it can work. Africa Digital Solutions, a subsidiary of ADS, that has partnered with Tata Telecommunications, the Indian group, is developing the Western Africa Digital Pool, a project to provide interconnectivity in West Africa.
Your group ADS can be considered an AfroChampion. Your business operates in energy, infrastructure, telecoms… Does the growth of your group depend on regional integration?
Indeed, regional integration is the driving force behind the development of ADS. From the very beginning, the group has been designed as a pan-African player, and if you look at the chronology of our activities, you will see that we started to operate very early on outside of Mali, my home country.
It seems logical to have a regional or continental perspective. Why limit yourself to one country, when being multi-national allows you to generate more substantial revenues. But what drives us – and I am careful to recruit people who share the same vision – is the transformation of the continent. Major projects have a greater transformative impact. In Africa, you can make money, but you can also change lives.
Our perspective when looking at projects is always multi-country and how it can be scaled or replicated at a regional level. It’s something that you see throughout our group: Solektra, off-grid electrification project, has been deployed to 1800 localities, and we have two solar academies in Bamako, Mali and Diamniadio, Senegal. STML, our maritime and logistics subsidiary, whose first projects aim to connect the West African coast and Cape Verde by sea – the boats are expected this summer and we will hopefully be able to see what role they can play in opening up Cape Verde once the borders in Africa have reopened.
The AfCFTA is therefore an important mechanism to help companies such as yours in the creation of jobs and value?
The AfCFTA is an opportunity for companies that want to change Africa. I have read about entrepreneurs and businesses that are worried about increased competition from the AfCFTA. They also worry about more complexity through added red tape and regulation. I tell them that what it does is to offer a new market for their products and ideas. But it’s up to us to take advantage of it.
AfroChampions has joined with the African Union and Africa CDC to create a special fund to help the continent respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. Can you tell us more about it? What is your personal involvement?
It is a platform designed to bring together as many people and businesses as possible to address the risk of the pandemic, under the aegis of the African Union and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC). It is important to adopt a pan-African approach, with central coordination – precisely so that all countries can be supported, otherwise there is a risk that only those with the strongest economies will be able to withstand this.
The partnership aims to raise an initial $150m for immediate needs to prevent transmission and up to $400m to support sustainable medical response to the Covid-19 pandemic by pooling the resources required for the procurement of medical supplies and materials for protection and treatment, and distribution in a way that is aligned with national needs, in public and private hospitals.
I’m following this project personally. If we do not show African solidarity on this issue, then nothing we have done so far – the AfCFTA, the regional integration programmes – will be credible. I am already raising the awareness of my network of business partners and inviting them to contribute to this fund, because there is no point putting forward these proposals and ideas if you don’t have skin in the game.
Volontaires d’Afrique, the foundation that I have had the honour to chair since 2014, is getting ready to donate more than $1m in diagnostic and protective equipment to 12 African countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Rwanda and Senegal).
This is a project that we had in mind even before the launch of the fund, but rather than acting on our own and without consultation, we are in contact with the CDC to coordinate and ensure the effectiveness of this initiative.
Let me also mention that ADS Group’s health subsidiary, Equally Africa, is currently working on aggregating solutions for the treatment of severe cases of Covid-19 and, above all, solutions for quick and easy diagnosis and telemedicine that can be used in hospitals and beyond, for example in transport infrastructures and in companies. Equally, teams are already responding to calls received from several African countries.