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Africa Business Day: Dialogue between the private and public sector

Opportunity and necessity have invigorated a general interest among European businesses and government agencies for the African continent. One of the consequences of this emerging trend has been the German push for an African equivalent of the Marshall Plan, recently coined as the “Compact with Africa” . In Switzerland, investments in Africa have received less public attention, but do not be fooled, Swiss businesses, many of which are among the world’s best when it comes to innovation, machinery and civil engineering, have long been seeking to break into African markets realizing the continent’s potential. However, African markets are very different to those in Europe. Dialogue between foreign companies and African governments is needed in order to bring greater ease of doing business on the continent and ultimately increases much needed investment. One of the key organizations that provides a platform for Swiss companies active in African countries as well as Swiss and African Government officials to exchange on their experience within the African market is the Swiss-African Business Circle (SABC). On 23rd June 2017 the SABC’s major annual meetup, ‘Africa Business Day’ took place in Zurich. This year it was centered around the ongoing digitization in Africa and the opportunities this holds for Swiss companies.

The centerpiece of the day-long event was a panel discussion made up of leading African and Swiss business executives. While the panel discussed mainly the consequences of digitalization, most of the subsequent questions from the guests, many of whom were African government officials, revolved around securing investment. When confronted with these questions, Tobias Becker, one of the panelists and the Director for Africa of the Swiss-based tech conglomerate ABB Group (which has a presence in 10 African countries), stressed the importance of establishing productive competition among African countries. This, he said, was one of the main preconditions for attracting more foreign businesses to Africa, especially in the manufacturing sector.

Fellow panelist Ayotunde Coker, Managing Director of Rack Centre, West Africa’s leading data centre, also shared that he saw the situation as improving in recent years, especially in relation to customs clearance. Using Nigeria as an example, Cocker said that provincial elections are becoming more transparent and governors are being put under increasing pressure to deliver simple yet practical solutions to many of the issues surrounding ease of doing business. Becker, in turn, was keen to stress that a working administration is not enough by itself for African states to attract investment but that communicating countries’ assets in the right way is what is important. To support his point, he used the example of Botswana, whose relatively small size makes it difficult to attract manufacturing investment:  “Rather than running as a bull against the wall in search of securing manufacturing investment, Botswana should use her unique achievement as the most transparent country in Africa as a brand and attract jobs which are connected to trust, for example, in financial services and data storage.”

The importance of tailoring one’s communication to fit the expectations of Africa’s increasingly digitized society was then at the centre of focus at one of the workshops that took place after the panel. Titled, “Understanding Your Customer”, the workshop highlighted the fact that with more than 300 million internet users in Africa, digital platforms, tools and payment methods are increasingly influencing consumer behavior on the continent. Social media use in Africa actually rose by 50% in 2016 alone and there are now around 170 million active social media users, of which 150 million are mobile. A strong web presence is therefore becoming ever more important in establishing a solid footprint among African consumers. However, Djembe’s Digital Director, Walid El Alaoui Mrani, one of the workshop leaders, questioned the application of traditional consumer logic.

“In Africa, 42% of internet users have an account on Facebook. That means there is huge potential for marketing and communication on social media. However, what I would like to stress is that we need to go beyond traditional marketing strategies and see African web users more as members of communities.”

Walid went on to point out that the average internet user in Africa is a 20-year-old who has just finished studying and can be characterized as dynamic, reactive and easily mobilized through social media. Because there is still a large amount of the population that does not have internet connection, those who are connected are often influencers among their families and friends. For each internet user reached through digital media, there are more people that receive the message through their friends who they trust more than a traditional ad they may see. This creates a unique market environment which gives businesses a lot of potential to spread their message wide, if they understand the community they are targeting.

Communications will therefore continue to play an important role for any business that hopes to make it big in Africa. Both specifically in the digital sphere and overall, as a branding mechanism to secure investment. Most importantly, however, businesses need to realize the unique features of the African market and, reciprocally, governments need to help them if they want to be identified. This is why events such as ‘Africa Business Day’ are important.

Learn more about the Swiss African Business Circle and their upcoming activities and events.

By Thomas McEnchroe, Switzerland