Malian entrepreneur and AfroChampions advisor Samba Bathily explains why Africa must revolutionise its trading practices.
Within the AfroChampions initiative, what do you consider the most fundamental or essential feature in overcoming the problems you face in your day-to-day work?
The most significant, first and foremost, is that it is bringing us together at last. It is this unity which is most lacking currently in Africa. The shared ownership of networks and also resources. In most of our countries, economic operators spend their time doing battle over projects, rather than uniting to build the Africa that needs everyone for its development. You cannot develop successfully without unity. And we must achieve this union first of all at the level of the African economic operators, because this will allow us to speak to the public sector with one voice.
Implementation of the AfCFTA, the Kigali forum on the digital single market… How do these initiatives tie-up with the ambitions of the group you head and which will be promoting its own operations?
2018 is a real turning point for us. The agreement which created the continent’s free trade zone, the AfCFTA, was eagerly awaited by all Africans! It is the only way out for Africa. There is no other way! We cannot continue to think at the level of the individual country with 10 or 15m inhabitants. If we do, we will not cope. The whole purpose and the mission of AfroChampions is to mobilise the private sector to turn the AfCFTA into a reality and a success. That is what we said to the AU when we began the discussions. You can make all the laws and take all the decisions you like, but if the private sector isn’t with you, nothing will happen! The message got through. Now, we have to work to make the project a success within the next two to three years.
Do you judge that mobilising the private sector is the key to everything, and will result in different and more successful public-private partnerships?
The public sector must also get involved. When we launched the AfroChampions initiative, we knew we had to bring together the private sector whilst, at the same time, embarking on a dialogue with public sector participants and heads of state, to raise their awareness of the need to support emerging African participants.
Most of our economies are not controlled by the African private sector. We are asking for an equal share. We agree to open up to the world, to other foreign investors, but Africa must be able to keep a part of its wealth. Our countries’ stability depends upon it. And the stability of the world! If we don’t retain the wealth locally, we will not be able to create jobs.
Today, 12 or 13m people are coming onto the employment market. What is going to happen if we can’t offer these young people a job? Our countries will be destabilised and then our Mediterranean neighbours will follow. If Africans don’t have opportunities on their own continent, there will be a billion people crossing the Mediterranean.
And are all governments equally receptive to this narrative? Because the situation in one country is very different from that in another…
If there is one thing that is felt by all heads of state and all politicians, it is the problem of youth employment. They all know they are sitting on a time bomb. If they don’t encourage a dynamic private sector today, in order to create wealth and to contain this wealth, they know they will not stay in power. That is something they understand very well. Yes, all of them! It is a message that we have delivered loud and clear. They are perfectly aware of the fact that they must cultivate local participants.
Returning to you and the ADS group, which project are you most proud of, and which captures the spirit of AfroChampions?
What I am most proud of is that when I cross Africa, I see projects that I have helped to finance, and which are about to see the light of day. I have contributed to the installation of more than 28,000 km of fibre optic cable. I have been involved in the production of more than 1,000 MW of hydro-electric power, the delivery of more than 1,800 km of high-voltage power lines, the creation of data centres and solar installations in more than 1,600 localities, benefiting between nine and 10m people… I have not only worked on the implementation of these projects, but also on structuring their funding. It was no mean feat! Every time, I had to battle to win people over. From the president to the lowliest technician.
And in which projects did you encounter the greatest difficulties? What is the typical scenario of a failed project?
Usually, the most difficult problems concern people. You come to a country, you have a contact in the system who likes some people but not others… The people he likes are going to help the process along, and those he doesn’t like will make it difficult. Most problems in Africa are people problems. When that challenge is overcome, 70% of the work is done!
Are the continent’s inherent structural challenges surmountable?
Everything is surmountable! Personality clashes, which we encounter in every African country, are out of order and are not allowed to block the projects. Within any group of business people, there are going to be slightly differing aspirations… We have to take up the major projects in which everyone has something to gain and shares the same philosophy. And then everyone will win.
The AfroChampions Initiative has been designed for everyone. We only speak for ourselves. We want there to be champions in every sector. Scores of Dangotes, in every country! That will enable the continent to make huge investments tomorrow. Because there is money in Africa, but it goes elsewhere.
The money earned by Africans must be reinvested in Africa. It is one of the fundamental points in the AfroChampions Charter. Why? Because Africans do not consume their own products. For example, if we were to produce the clothes that we wear, just imagine how many billions of dollars would stay on this continent. If every African were to wear clothes manufactured by Africans, for just three days a week, that would create jobs for designers, for tailors, for suppliers of African fabrics. Let me give you another example. We don’t stay in Africa for our medical treatment. If someone has the money, they go elsewhere for their healthcare. Imagine the number of hospitals that we would be able to create in Africa! And even export our expertise outside the continent… Africans don’t go on holiday in Africa! If someone has the money, they go somewhere else… If you add all this up, everything Africa earns leaves again. It is high time that we retained part of our wealth to develop this continent.
What are the particularities of this African model that AfroChampions is calling for? How is it different from models in other parts of the world?
The African model must be simple. For a start, it must be based on our history. Originally, there were no countries. There was no Mali, no Senegal and so on. The borders are a recent thing! The AfCFTA accords speak of a “free trade agreement” but trans-Saharan trade has existed, in the past, for thousands of years! Caravans used to go from north to south unhindered by customs barriers… Why don’t we return to these values today? Remove the borders! That is what the AfCFTA is asking for. Do away with the borders so that everyone can travel and invest freely. The problems arise with the question of nationality. We have been divided into Senegalese, Guineans, Malians… Although this doesn’t fit with anything. What’s the point of keeping these shackles that were designed simply to make us weak? We must get out of this situation and return to our values.
Returning to our values also requires a cultural revolution. Because we have a wonderful culture, with values of sharing which have been forgotten! In days gone by, everyone in the village was involved in the upbringing of a child, not just the parents. Today, everyone is confined in their homes, in their own little place. Africa used to have everything! Mansa Musa, the 14th century Emperor of Mali, was the richest man in the world. Africa was the wealthiest continent.
Today, we have reached a critical size. We have a population of 1.3bn which will soon be 2bn. We are going to overtake everyone! If we retained this wealth, if Africans traded with each other, if the money earned in Africa was spent in Africa and, above all, if part of the value added resulting from opening up Africa to foreign investors were to stay on the continent… That is all we are asking! This pillaging of Africa, this plundering that we suffer every day, cannot be allowed to continue. Africans must recognise that they have power and that they are powerful. That is why they must unite.
What concrete impact are you expecting immediately from the AfroChampions initiatives – the Club, the Djondo Fellowship, the Research Centre, the awareness-raising roadshows?
I return to this idea of synergy which transcends national borders. All these projects are aiming to encourage more champions in every country and in the widest possible range of sectors, and to bring them together. Then, if I want to develop a solar energy project, I will know that I can find a reliable contact in every country who will be able to help me speed up my development.
This is not currently the case?
It’s often difficult… When you go into another country, the people see you first and foremost as a competitor, whereas we could be partners! Because everybody benefits from regional integration. I have experience which I can add to the experience of others.
Creating synergies will help everyone. A country with no value-added should not see a project coming from another country as a competitor, but as a way of helping them integrate in the region. In this regard, we are anticipating a further AfroChampions’ effect, namely, access to the ear of business leaders. Being able to get messages through, which will contribute to the development of the group and, in time, of the continent. I have often noticed that business leaders are less lacking in ambition than in information. There must be a better flow of this information between business leaders, participants in civil society and economic operators, those who can lend their support to projects once they have understood the profit they can derive from them. The lack of information is one of the reasons why countries such as Nigeria chose not to sign the AfCFTA agreements. They did not understand its full extent, even though given the size of their population and economy, they would be the ones to make the most profit from it.
The first winners will be those who are already, today, in a favourable position…
Yes, there is a lack of information! Some people have even claimed that Dangote is blocking it, but this is not true. It is Africa’s biggest cement producer. If its production can be channelled into every country, then Nigeria will be the winner!