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Interview with Jean-Louis Billon, AfroChampions Vice Chair for Western Africa

Interview with Jean-Louis Billon, AfroChampions Vice Chair for Western Africa

Jean-Louis Billon

AfroChampions Vice Chair for Western Africa, Jean-Louis Billon, underlines the need for Africa to think of international trade in a different way.

Why did you take on the role of Vice Chair for AfroChampions?

It seemed to me that the challenge of working alongside the trade commissioners at the African Union and with the support of chairs Thabo Mbeki and Aliko Dangote to galvanise the free trade area was a formidable challenge. It’s too big a challenge for the public sector to take on alone. First and foremost, the private sector must get involved, since it is businesses who trade with each other. In reality, products and services are traded by businesses.

Why did you take on the role of Vice Chair for AfroChampions? It seemed to me that the challenge of working alongside the trade commissioners at the African Union and with the support of chairs Thabo Mbeki and Aliko Dangote to galvanise the free trade area was a formidable challenge. It’s too big a challenge for the public sector to take on alone. First and foremost, the private sector must get involved, since it is businesses who trade with each other. In reality, products and services are traded by businesses. For us it was obvious that we should set an example and support the AU so that the process moves along more quickly. I would even go as far as to say that it’s our duty.

How are you going to structure the organisation?

We already have an executive committee in Accra, who are working full time, travelling around Africa to raise awareness and make themselves known, along with the AU, through information and educational work with the African private sector in general. Moreover, we have structured ourselves by designating vice-chairs for all regions of the African continent. The charter gives us a roadmap for matters such as the development of the private sector, the development of SMEs, jobs for African young people, and for promoting local capitalism in each country so that African businesses and African people are the first to benefit from the large African market, before it becomes a territory to be conquered from the outside. This presupposes that the

How are you going to structure the organisation? We already have an executive committee in Accra, who are working full time, travelling around Africa to raise awareness and make themselves known, along with the AU, through information and educational work with the African private sector in general. Moreover, we have structured ourselves by designating vice-chairs for all regions of the African continent. The charter gives us a roadmap for matters such as the development of the private sector, the development of SMEs, jobs for African young people, and for promoting local capitalism in each country so that African businesses and African people are the first to benefit from the large African market, before it becomes a territory to be conquered from the outside. This presupposes that the African private sector will get stronger and be ready for the competition.

You are a business leader; you know the reality and rationality of business. We get the sense that Africa functions without a central support structure, particularly where industrialisation is concerned. How will Africa structure the free trade area?

I would say first of all that we don’t have a choice! If we don’t take action, the whole world will come to Africa, seeing it as an area for opportunities, or even to be preyed upon. So we are forced to structure ourselves. The AU sensed this clearly, and decided to prepare itself for a new economic era. Africa does not have much time to prepare its businesses for this new phase. A whole new legal, legislative and regulatory arsenal is currently under construction, to support businesses and help them to develop business deals among themselves.

Is the objective of a common area and a common prosperity realistic?

I think that it is. At the time of the signing of the free trade area agreements in Kigali this March, we only expected around 20 or countries to sign up, but in the end, 44 did so. We have no doubt that the 11 who haven’t signed will soon join. They just need more information before being able to do so. Yes, this free trade area will create a massive shake-up. A market as big as this one will require competitiveness, regulation, and infrastructure. And the population’s need for better quality products and better prices are already shaking things up. In an ultra-connected world, with the rapid and global spread of information, African consumers are just as hardened as any other consumers in the world. They need their market to offer them the same opportunities, without which they will turn to other industries and other markets. We cannot allow ourselves to waste so many opportunities on our own continent.

How do you prioritise?

It’s precisely on this point that the osmosis between the private and public sectors is interesting. The private sector concerns all of the different economic sectors, whether primary commodities, agriculture, crafts, manufacturing, or services… Everyone needs this structural change in the African market. That’s why in each country, all governments, all government departments, the various institutions, and the AU, etc, are going to implement this modernisation we’ve been talking about.

Africa’s major problem today is the skills gap.  Does Africa have what it needs?

I have no doubt about that. Too many Africans emigrate to find the answers to their problems elsewhere. Take Côte d’Ivoire, for example. Nowadays, thousands of managers and executives move to Europe, the US, Asia, or even to other African countries when all they want is to live at home. They don’t want to leave but do so because they are looking for opportunities. If Africa enabled its young people to fulfil their dreams and to find, on their own continent, the opportunities that today they go looking for elsewhere, these young people would prefer to stay in Africa.

What is it that makes you so optimistic?  Are you an Afro-optimist, an Afro-pessimist, or an Afro-dreamer?

I’m an Afro-pragmatist! Today there are 1.3bn individuals on our continent; by 2030 there will be 2bn of us… Once again, we have no choice. We must address the concerns of African young people, and of Africans in general. That has to happen by way of an economic boost.

What has your experience in politics taught you about this kind of change?

When you’re in politics, you work on the very long-term level, and not on the day-to-day. The laws, draft laws, and texts that we adopt all head in this direction. I take the example of the laws on SMEs and Project Phoenix, dedicated to the development of Ivorian SMEs. It all takes time, but when the programmes are successfully completed, the economic sector emerges much stronger than before. The state transforms entrepreneurs’ fears into opportunities.

How do you approach your specific responsibilities that come with your role as a vice-chair of AfroChampions?

By accepting the mission I’ve been entrusted with, and committing to it. We are aware of the challenges we face. Taking responsibility means, above all, trying rather than doing nothing only to regret it tomorrow.

 

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Written by African Business Magazine

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