The AfCFTA offers great opportunities for the African private sector. Samba Bathily, chairman of the ADS Group and founding partner of the AfroChampions initiative, talks to Dounia Ben Mohamed about how his company and the initiative are contributing to the economic transformation of the continent
You are one of the founding partners of AfroChampions. Your mission is to promote regional integration. What is the role of the private sector and civil society in the AfCFTA?
Yes, it is our role and, above all, our responsibility. There are a number of African companies that we can take inspiration from, including Ecobank, MTN and Dangote. The African private sector must be the driving force behind the development of the continent, it cannot turn out otherwise. When I look at my team, it becomes clear that a truly African company crosses borders. We have Rwandans, Beninese, Malians, Nigerians, Ghanaians, Senegalese, Guineans, Ivorians, South Africans, Cape Verdeans … It’s an impressive team with continental if not global ambitions.
You have worked closely with the African Union and made proposals for the AfCFTA. It seems your voice is being heard …
The partnership with the African Union has been extremely fruitful since it was officially concluded in March 2018 at the extraordinary summit to sign the AfCFTA in Kigali. Our proposals were well received by both the Chair, Moussa Faki Mahamat, and the various departments including the Commission on Trade and Industry headed by Ambassador Albert Muchanga.
We have worked with the AU teams on various practical initiatives – road shows to explain the AfCFTA to the private sector, launch the Pan-African Fashion Initiative, create mechanisms to support our craftsmen, develop new approaches to vocational training and provide advice, to help countries design their economic development plans under the AfCFTA. The aim is to ensure that this agreement offers real opportunities for the private sector, from SMEs and startups to larger companies.
And in February, heads of state approved our “trillion dollar investment framework,” which will trigger $ 1 trillion in investments by 2030 to support the implementation of the AfCFTA. Through this mechanism, the federal states can receive funds for AfCTA projects. A fund is also being created to invest in high growth and potential companies that are tomorrow’s champions.
Given what we are going through now, it is also hoped that this investment framework can be a means of strengthening our health infrastructure – physical infrastructure, hospitals, drug and equipment manufacturing plants of course, but also human infrastructure – by increasing the number of qualified health workers and practitioners in Africa.
According to you, you have committed to mobilizing $ 1 trillion for the AfCFTA and promoting the AfroChampions companies. This is an important moment …
Yes, the AfroChampions of tomorrow are companies with great potential. However, these companies need to be able to be part of and manage significant scale projects, and they need funding to achieve this. We need African companies that are more closely involved in the development of major projects on the continent, even if we recognize the expertise that foreign actors bring with them.
I’m all for partnerships and we work with international partners such as IDEMIA, the world’s leading provider of ID and authentication. We saw this in the Gulf too, where they brought international expertise but built their own world class organizations.
If you look at the life of an African today, they wake up and consume imported soap, drive an imported car, and drink imported water. An African who makes $ 100 spends $ 95 buying goods imported from outside Africa. We are told that our industry is uncompetitive and that the unit cost is high because the basic inputs – water, energy, transportation – are high. So it becomes a chicken and egg problem. My answer is that it is up to the Africans to create the conditions for the industrial development of the continent.
There are some simple, easy-to-implement solutions. In fashion, for example, buy Africans. We must create 20 million jobs a year over the next 10 years in order to avoid crises, unrest and popular uprisings. The fashion and creative sector is just one of many sectors in which these jobs can be created. Imagine if you had to attract 1.3 billion people. Such a demand naturally lowers the cost of production, and you develop a whole ecosystem around it.
If you want, you can say that AfroChampions is a project aimed at greater economic justice, where we will achieve prosperity on the continent and (really!) Build mutually beneficial win-win partnerships with external partners. We have shown that it can work. Africa Digital Solutions, a subsidiary of ADS that has worked with Tata Telecommunications, the Indian group, is developing the Western Africa Digital Pool, a project to provide interconnectivity in West Africa.
Your group ads can be considered an AfroChampion. Your company operates in the energy, infrastructure and telecommunications sectors. Does the growth of your group depend on regional integration?
Indeed, regional integration is the driving force behind the development of ADD. The group was conceived as a pan-African player from the start. If you look at the chronology of our activities, you will find that we operated outside of Mali, my home country, very early on.
It seems logical to have a regional or continental perspective. Why limit yourself to one country when you are multinational and can generate greater income? But what drives us – and I am careful about recruiting people who share the same vision – is the transformation of the continent. Large projects have a greater transformative impact. In Africa you can make money, but you can also change your life.
Our perspective when looking at projects is always cross-border and how they can be scaled or replicated at the regional level. You can see that in our entire group: Solektra, an off-grid electrification project, has been used in 1,800 locations, and we have two solar academies in Bamako, Mali and Diamniadio, Senegal. STML, our maritime and logistics subsidiary, whose first projects aim to connect the West African coast and Cape Verde by sea – the boats are expected this summer and we will hopefully see their role in the development of Cape Verde Being able to play verde The borders in Africa have reopened.
The AfCFTA is therefore an important mechanism to help companies like yours create jobs and value.
The AfCFTA is an opportunity for companies that want to change Africa. I’ve read about entrepreneurs and companies concerned about increasing competition from the AfCFTA. They also worry about more complexity due to additional bureaucratic effort and regulation. I tell them that it’s about offering a new market for their products and ideas. But it’s up to us to take advantage of this.
AfroChampions has partnered with the African Union and the Africa CDC to create a special fund to help the continent respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. Can you tell us more about it? What is your personal commitment?
It is a platform that, under the auspices of the African Union and the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), aims to bring as many people and businesses together as possible to address the risk of a pandemic. It is important to have a pan-African approach with central coordination – precisely so that all countries can be supported. Otherwise, there is a risk that only those with the strongest economies will be able to withstand it.
The partnership aims to raise an initial $ 150 million for immediate needs to prevent transmission and up to $ 400 million to support a sustained medical response to the Covid-19 pandemic by providing medical supplies and materials required for protection and treatment resources are pooled and distributed in a manner that is tailored to national needs, in public and private hospitals.
I am personally following this project. If we do not show African solidarity on this issue, nothing we have done so far – the AfCFTA, the regional integration programs – will be credible. I am already sensitizing my network of business partners and invite them to contribute to this fund, as there is no point in putting forward these suggestions and ideas if you have no skin in the game.
Volontaires d’Afrique, the foundation I have chaired since 2014, is preparing to donate more than USD 1 million to diagnostic and protective equipment to 12 African countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Ivory Coast). Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Rwanda and Senegal).
This is a project that we had in mind before the fund was launched, but instead of acting alone and without consultation, we are in contact with the CDC to coordinate and ensure the effectiveness of this initiative.
Let me also mention that ADS Group’s health subsidiary, Equally Africa, is currently working on aggregated solutions for treating severe cases of Covid-19, and most importantly, solutions for quick and easy diagnosis and telemedicine that will be used in hospitals and beyond can be used, for example, in transport infrastructures and in companies. Teams are already responding to calls from several African countries.
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