Busi­ness

When Côte d’ivoire needed in­vest­ment af­ter years of civil war the Le­banese com­mu­nity dove straight in. In to­day’s more com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment, some are look­ing to for­eign part­ners for ex­pan­sion

The Africa Report - - CONTENTS - Julien Clé­mençot

The Le­banese di­as­pora is look­ing for deals

Ask a Le­banese busi­ness­man to speak about his suc­cesses, and he will of­ten play it down. “I have no de­sire for the tax man to show up and make me pen­ni­less,” jokes Has­san Hy­jazi, a leader of the Le­banese com­mu­nity in Abid­jan who is ac­tive in the real es­tate, re­tail, chem­i­cals and tex­tiles sec­tors. He adds: “You should not make gen­er­al­i­sa­tions. Not all Le­banese have made a for­tune. A lot of them live sim­ple lives and of­ten ex­tremely mod­est ones that are sim­i­lar to hun­dreds of thou­sands of Ivo­rians.” Es­ti­mated at about 80,000 peo­ple, the Le­banese di­as­pora in Côte d’ivoire is the largest Le­banese com­mu­nity in Africa and is al­most ex­clu­sively based in Abid­jan. Most Le­banese in the coun­try have Ivo­rian na­tion­al­ity and op­er­ate in a tight-knit busi­ness com­mu­nity. At the end of the post-elec­toral cri­sis in 2011, Le­banese en­trepreneurs es­ti­mated that they con­trolled some 40% of the na­tional econ­omy. They are strongly rep­re­sented in re­tail (Prima Cen­ter, CDCI and Pro­suma), car deal­er­ships (Rimco and Kia), fur­ni­ture and equip­ment (Orca, Ga­leries Peyris­sac and Nasco), tools and con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als (Bern­abé, Tech­ni­bat), agribusi­ness (Thun­nus Over­seas Group, Sipro-chim, Carré d’or, Yo­plait, Pepsi), the co­coa trade (Safco and S3C) and also small and medium-sized man­u­fac­tur­ers (Sotici, Sotaci, Coti­plast, Aciéries de Côte d’ivoire). Many Le­banese busi­ness­men have rein­vested their prof­its in real es­tate. The Cham­bre de Com­merce et d’in­dus­trie Libanaise de Côte d’ivoire (CCILCI) es­ti­mates that Le­banese peo­ple own 50-60% of the real es­tate in the Abid­jan neigh­bour­hoods of Mar­cory – also known as Lit­tle Beirut – Yopougon, Ad­jamé and Tre­ichville. In re­sponse to the prej­u­dices they face – like French com­peti­tors com­plain­ing that Le­banese traders are not both­ered by the au­thor­i­ties be­cause of cor­rupt deals – a group of Le­banese busi­ness­men founded the CCILCI in late 2010. It has 273 com­pany mem­bers that have a com­bined an­nual turnover of 1.6trn CFA francs ($2.8bn), em­ploy 300,000 per­ma­nent work­ers, ac­count for 8% of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct and 15% of tax rev­enue. The CCILCI helps mem­bers to be in con­tact with the au­thor­i­ties. “Those ex­changes al­low us to be in­formed of reg­u­la­tory changes and to alert com­pa­nies about up­com­ing dead­lines but also to de­fend their in­ter­ests bet­ter,” says Michel Rus­tom, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the CCILCI. Thanks to this lobby, Le­banese com­pa­nies ac­tive in the plas­tics and re­tail sec­tors con­vinced the gov­ern­ment to hold off for two years on its plans to ban plas­tic bags.

NET­WORKS OF TRUST

The Le­banese busi­ness com­mu­nity has the gov­ern­ment’s ear be­cause it was at the fore­front of the coun­try’s eco­nomic re­boot af­ter Pres­i­dent Alas­sane Ou­at­tara took power in 2011. Since then, thou­sands of for­eign in­vestors have gone to Côte d’ivoire to scout for busi­ness prospects, and Le­banese busi­ness op­er­a­tors are aware that they need to up their game in the face of the seem­ingly un­end­ing am­bi­tions of com­pa­nies such as Car­refour and CFAO. Their man­age­ment styles are very cen­tralised and of­ten com­mu­nity-based. The head of a top Le­banese com­pany says: “Some­times, we trust some­one with mer­chan­dise, not be­cause the per­son is qual­i­fied but be­cause he is from the same vil­lage in south­ern Le­banon. It is a ques­tion of trust.” Some Le­banese en­trepreneurs are form­ing al­liances with for­eign part­ners to ex­pand their in­vest­ments. In 2007, Yasser Ezze­dine – the head of re­tailer CDCI – opened up his cap­i­tal to Cau­ris Man­age­ment. He wel­comed more for­eign back­ing in 2014 in the form of Moroc­can com­pany La­bel’vie and in­vest­ment firm Ame­this Fi­nance. He handed over a ma­jor­ity stake to them last year in the hopes of push­ing the com­pany to another level of com­pe­ti­tion. But not all of Ezze­dine’s coun­ter­parts are ready to tran­si­tion from en­trepreneur to in­vestor. Hy­jazi, whose com­pany runs shop­ping cen­tres, says: “We do not want to open our­selves up to in­vestors be­cause we do not have enough ex­pe­ri­ence in this field.” Ac­cord­ing to one fi­nancier: “Maybe we will have to wait for the next gen­er­a­tion, who have gone to univer­sity, to take over to see a change in men­tal­i­ties.”

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