By Onome Amawhe
African CEOs will be arriving Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire for the 4th edition of the annual AFRICA CEO FORUM. To be held from March 21 – 22 2016, participants at the forum will discuss a range of economic issues and current affairs. Based on the event’s central theme for the year, issues such fall of commodities prices and slump of foreign direct investments are expected to hog the limelight in the wake of Africa’s uncertain environment.
As one of the most important dates in business calendar, the AFRICA CEO FORUM attracts more than 800 influential top government officials, business leaders and experts from both Africa and around the world including over 500 CEOs. The meeting enables participants, such as bankers, investors, financial market specialists, heads of global institutions as well as other international figures, to meet face-to-face in a friendly atmosphere where they can exchange views and ideas designed to benefit Africa’s economic future.
AFRICA CEO FORUM, a Groupe Jeune Afrique event, made its debut in 2012 in Geneva, and has since become a major African business event earning reputation as “the foremost international meeting for African CEOs, bankers and investors”. The Abidjan-based African Development Bank and Rainbow Unlimited, a Swiss company specializing in economic promotion events has partnered the event since inception. Previous editions of forum were held in Geneva, Switzerland. In bringing home the event, the organizers chose Abidjan, the Ivorian economic capital.
In a statement, the President and Founder of the AFRICA CEO FORUM, Amir Ben Yahmed, noted: “For the forthcoming edition we have chosen a country and a region that is showing clear signs of robust economic development. The fact that the African Development Bank is based there-our partner since the first edition-was a further contributing factor.”
In this interview, Amir Ben Yahmed discusses the challenges—and opportunities—that he sees awaiting African CEOs on the horizon.
When you started the Africa CEO Forum in 2012, did you envisage that the event would turn into a global brand within the short period of its existence?
Even if it can sound presumptuous, it was our objective from the very beginning to create the best event dedicated to African private sector. We observed through our publications, especially Jeune Afrique’s TOP 500 African companies ranking, the extent to which African CEOs from different countries were not connected and didn’t know each other. They needed a place to gather and network. A place to exchange best-practices and to learn from each other. A place where African CEOs would promote economic integration and intra-regional investments all together. There was also a need for dialogue between public and private decision makers. No such platform existed before. Because we were responding to those growing needs in Africa’s business spheres, the success was immediate. And we are just getting started; we are growing and improving year after year.
At the time you started, what were the signs that signalled your first success?
The resounding and unanimous positive feedback. Whether from CEOs or media. We introduced something different. Something that they couldn’t find at other forums, either because they were too sector specific or too focused on the public sector. Based on the success of the first forum, our participants have requested unanimously that the discussions initiated in this pan-African setting – which is particularly conducive to business networking – be continued every year. This is highlighted by the fact that 82% of our 2015 participants stated that they plan to attend the 2016 event. Now that the forum has gained so much success, countries are competing to host future editions.
How has the forum performed since inception? What has been some of its key achievements?
With more than 1300 companies represented since the first edition, The AFRICA CEO FORUM has now established itself as the unparalleled international event dedicated to promoting African private sector. As such, the event brings together an increasing number of top African and international CEOs and investors. The results of this growth and success are illustrated by the statistics of the 2015 edition: 821 participants (incl. 500 CEOs) attended. 63 countries were represented, including 43 African countries. The event comprised 50 sponsors and partners, 18 panels and more than 100 top-level speakers (including famous American economist Jeremy Rifkin). 13 Ministers of Economy, Finance or Industry from all over Africa also took part in the event.
What are some of the issues and challenges faced in organizing the forum?
Bringing together Anglophone, Francophone and Portuguese speaking African top CEOs, as we did, is a real tour de force. The challenge is to find a way to address their challenges and strategic priorities in innovative and new ways every year. But that’s also the main key performance indicators for the forum which makes it successful: We aim to bring CEOs from neighbouring countries together that were not connected in the past, even though they have a lot in common. This allows them to explore new synergies which might not have been possible before.
How do you plan to grow the forum to retain its position as a foremost gathering of top business executives from the continent?
We plan to keep our standards high because they are critical for the forum’s success. These high standards depend on the quality of our participants (only CEOs can attend the event) and our programme, which focuses on African CEO’s strategic priorities. In this regard, the forum is a place for cutting-edge discussions, where CEOs can engage with new concepts and ideas that will help them develop their businesses. Also, innovation is key to maintaining our competitive advantage. One example is introducing new formats such as the “CEO Roundtables” that were appreciated by our participants last year. Another example is developing new tools to enhance the on-site experience. For the next edition, we will unveil a brand new mobile app that will make the networking experience even better.
What is your ultimate vision for the forum?
Our goal is to expand its footprint outside of Africa’s boundaries. As Africa is attracting an increasing amount of international investment, one of our aims is to gather those investors at the forum. For previous editions we had delegations coming from Japan, Europe and the US to name a few. We are now seeking to attract investors from China, India, the Middle East, Brazil and other leading emerging regions.
How does the forum add to Jeune Afrique’s capabilities to sustain it place in its niche expertise?
Since it was first established in 1960, Groupe Jeune Afrique has played a key role in every major stage of African development and has promoted Africa’s progress worldwide. It is the leading publishing Group with the two biggest-selling international magazines dedicated to Africa: Jeune Afrique and The Africa Report. We are also the number one in digital media in Africa, with over 2 million unique visitors per month on Jeune Afrique’s web sites and over 1,7M followers on Facebook and 1M followers on Twitter.
In 2011, Groupe Jeune Afrique started to diversify its activities to become not only a major player in event management (AFRICA CEO FORUM since 2012, Investir en Côte d’Ivoire in 2014, Investir au Congo and Sino African Entrepreneur Summit in 2015) but also in photography (Jeune Afrique Pictures) and audio-visual production with the creation of “Galaxie Africa”, which aims to create content programmes for Francophone African TVs.
It works two ways: The forum reinforces Group Jeune Afrique and Groupe Jeune Afrique reinforces the forum. The forum embodies the Group’s expertise in addressing African decision makers’ challenges and needs. It also reinforces brand awareness of the Group amongst some of our participants who are not aware of the Group before attending the forum. People used to come because they knew Jeune Afrique. Now they come because of the forum and they can discover everything Groupe Jeune Afrique has to offer.
How do you see participating companies utilizing the forum to increase their brand awareness?
The AFRICA CEO FORUM is the unparalleled place for a company to promote its brand and activities in Africa and worldwide. The opportunities there are real. Beginning with the high level networking opportunities which allow companies to showcase their activities and find new partners. Also, they can benefit from extensive international media coverage. Last year we had more than 55 representatives from the international and African media that covered the forum in Geneva. This is a great opportunity for visibility. For instance, deals were even signed on site last year. For example, a major deal was signed between Nouvelle Société Interafricaine d’Assurance (NSIA) one of Africa’s biggest banking and insurance groups, and the National Bank of Canada. In fact, at the last edition, 70% of our participants identified or clinched business opportunities, which is a key indicator of how companies can make use of the forum to increase their brand awareness.
What are some of the examples of how the forum is different from other events of its kind?
Most forums and conferences focused on Africa have a strong emphasis on the public sector. The Africa CEO Forum is different because 90% of our participants are CEO’s. Yet, it is true that more and more business events are taking place in Africa, but few of them can claim to gather as many high-level international, Anglophone and francophone top CEOs in one place. Besides, the quality of our programme is our main competitive advantage.
What is the theme for this year’s meeting and the main idea behind this? / Are there certain topics you foresee dominating the economic or investing debate at the next meeting?
Africa is currently facing conflicting trends such as the fall of commodities prices, slump of foreign direct investments, multinationals disappointed at an African middle class not yet fully delivering on its potential. On the other hand, there are also promising trends. Like the fact that Africa has witnessed continued growth for the past 15 years with the emergence of a strong private sector or the phenomenon of repatriates coming back from the western world loaded with skills, money and ambitions. Also, Africa is now officially on the growth agenda of almost all multinationals.
It’s hard to say which of these trends will offset the others, but one thing is sure Africa’s near future is very uncertain. As a company what should you do in such an uncertain environment? Play it safe or play it bold? We argue for the latest. The 2016 ACF will strive to answer these questions and provide CEOs with the tools to navigate through uncertain times.
With so much uncertainty surrounding Africa, from the political and economic to social factors, how can the Africa CEO Forum help foster a cause to help the continent’s dynamism while maintaining its security?
It was already the theme we had chosen for one of our panels in 2015. The discussions showed that African CEOs do not intend to give up on the continent. Economic growth remains strong in Africa and business opportunities are growing. By bringing representatives of the African private sector each year, we provide the perfect setting to exchange on these matters.
What role do you see individual investors playing today, and what sector has the greatest potential for both social and financial return?
The private sector is already the main engine of Africa’s growth. As such, it generates around 70% of Africa’s output, 70% of its investment and 90% of its employment. And there is still a lot to be done on the continent. Obviously, the issues are not the same depending on the countries and the different levels of development. Infrastructure is a key sector, along with the development of the middle class. As for social return, we see emerging private investments in health and education which are supposedly to be handled by the state. It is now becoming private sector priority.
You’ve been able to pull some the continent’s biggest names in Business to attend the event. Who’s on that list that you’re still trying to get out there?
So far we have been able to attract high-level personalities to our event, aligned with our vision and our programme, which is elaborated in partnership with business leaders and experts renowned both in Africa and internationally. It is certain that our doors are open to all Nigerian CEOs, as long as they wish to attend the AFRICA CEO FORUM to share their experience and take part in developing Africa’s private sector.