Africa, although rich in mineral resources, has the lowest level of intra-regional trade, according to the World Economic Forum. Fayelle Ouane, an entrepreneurship advocate and co-founder of Suguba, a regional platform that fosters entrepreneurship and regional integration in West Africa, says this is actually worse in West Africa, where the majority of Francophone countries are located. She takes a look at entrepreneurship’s key trends and opportunities in the region.

In 2015, only about 12% of exports from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) went to member countries, 6% to other African countries and 80% outside of Africa. The trend is even more pronounced in Central Africa, which is predominantly Francophone. In the same year, only 1.5% of exports went to the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS).

Poor integration is based on historical and geopolitical factors that date back to the colonial era, when trade was seen by Western Imperial powers as a way to get access to commodities and natural resources. France tended to favour mercantilist policies, and these left an institutional legacy that was less conducive to free trade than in British colonies. This matters because Francophone African economies are on average much smaller than their English-speaking neighbours.  Even after a recession, the Nigerian economy in 2016 was estimated at $405 billion. Meanwhile, the total of ECOWAS economies (excluding Nigeria & Ghana) was less than $120 billion in the same year, which is less than 30% of the Nigerian economy.

For example, a Nigerian entrepreneur could start a company today, turn it into a vibrant start-up within a year and a growing company within 3 years; there will still be ample domestic growth opportunities if he/she decides to remain in Nigeria. However, as an entrepreneur in Francophone Africa, if you set your sights on Cote d’Ivoire, Mali and Senegal, you will only reach 16% of the potential Nigerian market. Given the smaller size of economies in Francophone Africa, entrepreneurs and start-ups must have a regional mindset if they intend to reach substantial scale to attract investors.

It is important to focus on regional trade and integration along with developing strong and resilient entrepreneurial ecosystems in the region particularly connecting strong champions located in various African countries. Thus, it is critical to foster the development of strong indigenous value chains that will give them access to bigger markets and help them capture a greater share of the value of their local resources through processing and transformation.  

Meanwhile, some potential investors in Francophone Africa see the language barrier as an “insurmountable obstacle” according to a discussion at the Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum in 2016.

I am always a little surprised when I hear this. When Western investors decided to pay attention to the Chinese market for example, they didn’t let the language barrier derail their plans. Investors need to ensure that they can recruit team members who are Francophone. I actually think the major barrier is not language but rather the institutional and legal framework, which is completely different from the one in Commonwealth countries.

The majority of investors will tell you that the most important factor in determining an investment decision is the entrepreneur, not his/her idea or business model.

In order to spur innovation and promote entrepreneurship in Francophone Africa, we need to rethink the instruction models that are used from a young age. Currently the Francophone education system still focuses on memory-based learning vs. creative thinking. Aspiring Francophone African entrepreneurs need to unlearn the propensity they have developed for regimented problem-solving and relearn a new way of doing it, possibly focused on a free and unbridled approach.

Along the same lines, Francophone African entrepreneurs need to rethink the way they communicate with investors. The Francophone educational system has become prone to verbose, flowery communication that require flipping through several pages of background information before getting to the meat of the argument. This is not a strategy that would  suit investors who want  quick answers about the potential impact to assess an opportunity.

In recent years, Francophone African entrepreneurial ecosystems have been maturing at a rapid rate especially in countries such as Senegal. Our entrepreneurs have been gaining visibility in international competitions such as Coin Afrique in last year’s XL Africa, FireFly Media in last year’s PitchDrive and OnPoint at this year’s CEO Forum.

We have just as much potential as  our Anglophone counterparts but  in order to fully realize our  entrepreneurial worth , we need to optimize opportunity of regional blocs, adjust our communication and thinking to seize all opportunities so that our indigenous entrepreneurs can transform into agile regional gazelles.

Fayelle Ouane is an entrepreneurship advocate and co-founder of Suguba, a regional platform that fosters entrepreneurship and regional integration in West Africa

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