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 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.”