TALK about investing in other African countries is a hot topic in South African boardrooms but even as companies start to think more seriously about opportunities in their hinterland, most of Francophone Africa is still a bridge too far for most.
The recent coups d’état in Mali, and in Portuguese-speaking Guinea Bissau, which is sandwiched between two Francophone countries, have not provided any comfort to businesses concerned about the risks of doing business in countries outside Anglophone Africa beyond those with strong links to southern Africa.
Military takeovers are nothing new in West and Central Africa, where most Francophone countries are located, although English-speaking countries in West Africa have contributed their fair share of coups d’état during the post-independence period.
Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Campoare, who came to power back in 1987 through the barrel of a gun, is, ironically, a key player in trying to find a solution to the political crises resulting from the military overthrow of two of his regional counterparts.
SA’s mining giants, Randgold Resources and AngloGold Ashanti, are the biggest South African companies operating in Mali but there is little business interest in Guinea Bissau, despite the fact that we have a diplomatic mission there. Political turmoil in this tiny, poor country has held back investment, despite its location in a rich resources belt.
Language is also a key factor keeping South African companies back, alongside the different legal systems and business cultures that are part of the fabric of Francophone countries. There is also a lack of knowledge about opportunities and the overall environment in these countries.
Mostly as a result of persistent conflicts, the Francophone countries remain largely undeveloped, with exceptions such as Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire. Trading in these countries is also difficult, with complex regulatory environments, tortuous bureaucracy, a lack of adherence to due process and an obsession with politics that is more pronounced that in Anglophone countries, according to those who have done business in both regions.
The strong hold of France on politics and business in former African colonies has also been a factor in keeping South Africans and investors from many other countries out of these markets. France has been strategic in keeping its colonies close, and political developments in Europe have been almost as important to the fortunes of Francophone countries as events in the countries themselves. The CFA franc, the currency used in 14 French-speaking African countries, is an enduring symbol of colonialism. It was pegged to the French franc from 1948 and is now at parity with the euro — although this also offers currency stability across a big region.
Growth in the West African Economic and Monetary Union is predicted to reach 7% this year and although protracted crises in the region may reduce this number, there are large untapped markets across French-speaking Africa, which spans nearly 25 countries. As these markets mature, consumers are becoming defined less by national borders than by age, income and other measures.
A huge resource base, notably oil and gas, gold, bauxite and iron ore, has some of the world’s biggest mining investors streaming to countries such as Guinea, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and even Chad, which many regard as Africa’s most difficult market. The size of these investments is generating increased economic activity and spin-offs into the wider economies of these mostly underdeveloped countries.
There is no doubt that a strong stomach is still required for investment in most of these countries, where reform of the regulatory and business environments has been slow, where SA has limited influence, and where language presents an added barrier.
But as competition for business increases across Africa, Francophone countries present a good future opportunity and still offer advantages of being first to market