My Notes From the Field: The Ivory Coast

I’ve visited some of the African Anglophone countries (Kenya, Tanzania and parts of Nigeria) over the last eight years, but this is my first time in Abidjan, the “capital” of the West African Francophone. I would like to share with you my field notes which contain my first and lasting impression of the idiosyncrasies of the “Côte d’Ivoire.”

No amount of preparatory reading and research could have prepared me for the marvels awaiting me. Of course, these are only my first impressions from a short visit and, to business people in this part of the continent, some of my comments may sound trivial or misguided. Hence, I expect and look forward to your comments.

Skyline view of Plateau District buildings and the Ébrié Lagoon, in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. Source: Wikipedia, Zenman
Skyline view of Plateau District buildings and the Ébrié Lagoon, in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Source: Wikipedia, Zenman

Love at First Sight

  • Abidjan seems at first sight, a pleasant and civilized city to live in, by any sub-Saharan African standard. Traffic is still an issue, yet less so than in places like Lagos, Nairobi or the Kampala-Entebbe link. And the services on offer (hotels, restaurants) are splendid.
  • The French influence permeates all areas of life in Abidjan and surpasses the description in books and travel guides. From cultural and gastronomical tastes to education. I was delighted to see the offer of bread and patisserie in the breakfast menu of the Hotel du Golf. (which by the way, does not belong to any of the chains of the French Accord group – like Novotel, Ibis – which are well established in French West Africa). It permeates the education of the Ivorian high class – I learned that in Yamoussoukro, a public elite school had been created in the eighties, modeled on the Ecole Polytecnique in Paris. And it influences greatly the way business people behave: I found formality and rigueur were high, especially in comparison with the business culture in the other places of the continent.

Business As Usual?

  • From a business point of view, probably the most relevant aspect is the impact on competitive landscape. It appears that almost all the key industries work in a form of oligopolistic competition or de facto monopolies, where a French conglomerate is involved. Please excuse my political incorrectness, but I have always considered the French to be  particularly good at developing a state-backed market situation quite amenable to the large industrial groups in France. And at the end of the day, this is also reflected by the large number of French nationals you meet around the place and in the airport, where they often outnumber Africans on flight passenger lists.
Les rues du plateau. Source: Flickr/Willstephe Vaho
  • To put it bluntly, the market is strongly dominated by French corporations and Lebanese diaspora, but opportunities for companies of other nationalities have opened in recent years. Actually, I was happy to hear that Spanish-led Industrial Group GB foods – which has long standing partnerships in the country – has not made a move to own the factories in the country.
  • Despite the French influence permeating their culture, I was also told that the emotional ties with France had weakened due to recent historical events* (have a read of my footnote if you are interested in why this happened). The most important example of this change is the increasing Moroccan business influence (albeit another country with the Francophone cultural and business influence). My colleague Leonce Ano, professor at MDE (one of the IESE Africa Initiative‘s associated business schools), pointed out that Morocco has become the first foreign investor in the country, ahead of France. Moroccan investment includes banking (la Banque Atlantique is one of the most important in the country), telcos (Etisalat group has delegated the management of several of the Franco West African operations to the Moroccan subsidiary after having acquired the vivendi stake in Maroc Telecom).
  • There is a strong industrial base, again compared to other diversified sub-Saharan economies, like Kenya or even Nigeria. For instance, visiting the Vridi district in Abidjan, one can see factories, of groups like Unilever, as well as many local ones run by Lebanese nationals (I assume I do not need to talk about the well-known Lebanese diaspora influence in West Africa). Again my colleague, Leonce Ano, who was accompanying me to visit some of these facilities explained that in the last four years, the industrial base has been growing at a rate of 10% per annum which is even more relevant since the Ivory Coast was one of the few countries in Africa which traditionally managed to maintain some industrial base after independence.
  • On the retail front, the market seems very active but, if you compare it with with Kenya or South Africa it looks underdeveloped. The Lebanese PROSUMA group with their main brands – Sococé, Cash Ivoire and Bonprix has a strong grip on the sector. Companies such as Carrefour have recently entered the market (in actual fact, Carrefour is developing a new continent strategy which is targeting places like Algeria, the Ivory Coast and Kenya). It still remains to be seen as to whether they succeed or not. Their previous efforts in Algeria from 2006 to 2009 were unsuccessful in part for the regulatory hurdles – but also because of the power of the well-positioned incumbent retail groups in all the target countries.

A Sense of Cross Border Community and Caring

  • The final surprise for me was that Abidjan really feels like the “metropole” of a largerFrancophone Africa.” There are three factors that cause this impression: first, when visiting the port area in Abidjan, the quantities of trucks (maybe hundreds) parked waiting to get a load is astounding. Many of these trucks – so I was told – come from neighboring countries Burkina, Mali and Togo, to bring skin and agricultural products and take back industrial goods either imported or manufactured in Abidjan.
In dark blue, countries usually considered as Francophone Africa. These countries had a population of 363 million in 2013. Their population is projected to reach between 785 million and 814 million in 2050. French is the fastest growing language on the continent (in terms of official or foreign language). Source: Wikipedia/CrazyPhunk
In dark blue, countries usually considered as Francophone Africa. Source: Wikipedia/CrazyPhunk
  • The second was a heated conversation about the upcoming Mali elections during a lunch with a group of Ivorian executives. None of them had worked or lived in the country but their level of knowledge and interest was surprising. In East Africa, there are similar economic ties among countries – for instance, most large Kenyan companies tend to have independent subsidiaries. However, my perception has always been that the interest of nationals of one country about what happens in the other was very weak and even dismissive (Tanzanians for instance, do not appreciate Kenyans very much). Yet here I found a close sense of bonding across borders and countries.

* Tension between Ivory Coast nationals and French is the result of the French military action in 2004 against the (at that time) nationalistic government of Laurent Gbagbo, and in favor of the current president and, then rebel leader, Alassane Ouattara. The short term consequence of that “intromission” was that population rioted against French interests and an important part of the French companies and nationals left temporarily the country. They had gradually returned upon 2011, when the country settled and Ouattara was finally appointed president. In general, educated people favor Ouattara technocratic approach (the macro numbers support this), but I felt an underlying resentment. The Gbagbo government has been badly portrayed in the western world as populist and nonsensical; however, I was surprised to see that a non-negligible part of the educated Ivorian populus I met supported his attempt at establishing some Ivorian independence from French and recover a sense of national pride (although they agreed Gbagbo’s approach was exceedingly naive from an economic development perspective). For them, French intromission was unnecessary. As a result, the love affair between the French and some of the Ivorian business elite seems to have weakened since.

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About Alejandro Lago

Alejandro Lago is Professor in the Production, Technology and Operations Management Department at IESE. Since 2007, Dr. Lago has been a visiting professor at Strathmore Business School (Nairobi, Kenya) and has been involved in several consulting projects in East Africa. He is the Co-Director of the IESE Africa Initiative and the Academic Director of the IESE MBA Module in Kenya on “Doing Business in Africa”. Dr. Lago sits on the advisory board of Strathmore Business School as well as Lagos Business School.

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