By Onome Amawhe
Switzerland based Rainbow Unlimited is a business facilitating company with specialty in driving business links between Switzerland and Africa. The company was founded in March 2008 by Thomas Seghezzi and Michael Rhenneiger who combined years of marketing expertise at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) of the South African embassy in Switzerland and their established international and Africa networks. Rainbow Unlimited was founded on the principle that its business promotional initiatives must deliver sustainable and measurable results. Since it was established, the company has initiated an array of board and executive team workshops, conferences, meetings and retreats. These include their flagship event; the Annual Africa CEO Forum, convened in partnership with the African Development Bank and Paris based media company, Groupe Jeune Afrique. Since the maiden edition of the event in 2012, The Africa CEO Forum has rapidly earned reputation as one of the most important dates in business calendar, attracting more than 800 influential government officials, business leaders and experts from both Africa and around the world including over 500 CEOs. As an organizing partner of the Africa CEO Forum, Thomas Seghezzi has consistently demonstrated his capability to bring together adistinguished group of CEOs of the largest African and international companies, and political decision makers from more than 40 African countries to meet face-to-face in a friendly atmosphere where they can exchange views and ideas designed to benefit Africa’s economic future. He bares his thoughts on the founding of the ACF and more in this interview.
The Africa CEO Forum has attained the status of being one of the most prestigious events in Africa’s business calendar, and is now in its 5th year. How did this idea come to life?
The idea to create a forum centered on the needs of African CEOs dates back to 2011. Prior to that time, we had established regular contacts with Jeune Afrique as media partners in our events in Switzerland. In 2011, we thought about creating a Europe-African Business Forum. Just at the same period, Groupe Jeune Afrique was also building a portfolio of business events. And because what we were both working on was similar in nature, we decided topartner. That was how we came up with the concept of the AFRICA CEO FORUM. The first edition was held in 2012 in Geneva
How would you describe your role in event?
As with every partnership, responsibilities are shared according to strengths and experience both partners bring in. Although all aspects of the Forum (structure, content, logistics, etc.) are organized together, we particularly built on certain areas where we bring in added value such as our network in Anglo-phone Africa or contacts from our own country, Switzerland.
What have been the highlights and challenges since the maiden edition of the ACF?
The biggest highlight for us is of course that over the past 5 years, we have managed, with our partners in Paris, to position the AFRICA CEO FORUM as the foremost meeting for African business leaders. It is difficult to pick out specific highlights, as each edition of the Forum has had its own peculiarities. But, looking back at the last Forum of March 2016 in Côte d’Ivoire, the highlights were the attendance of the Presidents of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, with the Deputy President of Kenya.
Can you describe what Switzerland business relations with Africa was like before the advent of Rainbow Unlimited?
Business relations between Switzerland and the continent did always exist and dates back to the period when large-sized companies like Nestlé entered continent. However, for some reasons, each company worked for itself in its own “silo”, without much exchange of information with other actors that are active on the continent. When we came into the market 8 ½ years ago, we started to collect business information and alsocreated business events forSwiss companies ontopics regarding doing business in and with Africa. With the economic growth of the last decade, the number of Swiss companies active in Africa has increased substantially.
How was the idea of Rainbow Unlimited conceived?
My associate, Michael Rheinegger, and I had worked at the South African Embassy in Switzerland between 2005 and 2008. Both of us wereemployed as Marketing Officers by the South African Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and our remits included promoting business links between Switzerland and South Africa. When we left the Embassy in 2008, we felt that it would be a shame to venture into new activities and waste the Africa know-how that we had acquired during the period we worked at the embassy. We therefore created our company with the idea to continue to promote business links between Switzerland and South Africa, but expanding beyond SA. Our company name – rainbow unlimited – refers to South Africa as the “rainbow nation”, the “unlimited”-part of our name simply implies that we are not limited to promoting trade links with South Africa alone. And as a matter of fact, only a small part of our services and activities concern South Africa, the focus has shifted to the main economies in the rest of the continent.
How would characterize the Swiss-Africa business relations today?
Relations are gradually getting tighter, but with the rhythm typical for Swiss businesses. We estimate that approximatively 400 Swiss companies are active in Africa today, comprising the big multinationals and small companies and individual investors. Swiss Companies have now started to discover Africa as an alternative to other emerging markets like China, India or Brazil.
In whose favor is the balance in terms of trade? (Nigeria or Switzerland?)
The total trade volume with Africa today is 11,3bn CHF, which represents 2,2% of the global Swiss trade. This figure illustrates the still marginal importance for companies today. Biggest trading partners are South Africa, Ghana and Egypt. Nigeria ranks 5th with 6% of the total trade volume. In 2016, the balance in terms of trade is in favor of Switzerland. This is however fluctuating from year to year depending on the import of oil from Nigeria. Trade with Nigeria is a neglectible part of the total trade volume with a share of 0,8% of all exports and 0,3% of all imports, the products being predominantly oil (98%) in import and pharmaceutical/machines (50%) as exports to Nigeria.
What are progresses rainbow unlimited made so far?
Since we set up shop, we have positioned ourselves as an indispensable partner in Switzerland for doing business in and with Africa. At the same time, we have established a wide network in Africa, reaching all the major countries in terms of economic output. Our business models is based on 4 pillars: 1) the organization of events such as the annual AFRICA CEO FORUM, AfricaBusiness Day in Switzerland, themanagement of the Swiss-African Business Circle, an association with 85 membersactive in Africa, the establishment of Swiss Hotel Management schools, and the management of an online Investment Projects Platform which bridges the gap between Swiss and Swiss-based investors and owners of projects in Africa.
How do you view the potential of the Swiss-Africa business relations?
Potential is huge and Swiss companies are increasingly aware of this. Many of the markets in Africa can rightly be called frontier markets because many sectors are virgin. Switzerland is a small country. Beside the large companies (Nestlé, Novartis, ABB, et al), PMEs are the backbone of its economy. These SMEs are often active in niche markets and clearly have their chances in emerging markets like Nigeria. We see the following sectors as most promising for Swiss business: ICT, Health, Education, Engineering, Financial services and services for the consumer market.
What are your thought on the Swiss-Nigeria relations?
Well, Nigeria is on one hand the biggest and inevitable market in Africa. On the other hand, the country has always been, and continues to be a challenge for companies. Red-tape in many areas are still hindering expansion of business;the search for reliable, solid local partners is also not easy. The difficulties created by the drastic drop of the oil price have of course not helped too. At the moment, companies are waiting to see how the country copes with these multiple problems.
I understand that Rainbow Unlimited opened an office in Nigeria to enable it offer more tailor-made services to clients. How has it been operating an office in Nigeria?Who are your typical Nigerian clients?
Our branch office in Lagos is “dormant” at the moment. We had opened it in 2014 with the idea to manage projects in the field of hospitality education in the country. Unfortunately, we did not succeed in finding the right local partner and infrastructure to open a school. This however does not mean that we won’t reactivate the branch office again. In fact, we have found a valuable local partner and plan to open a Swiss hospitality school in the 2nd half of this year in Abuja.