Arm your travellers with good preparation, local contacts, cash and a flexible attitude, and they’ll be set to do business in West Africa, says Jane Labous
WEST AFRICA IS officially open for business. Foreign investment is growing; property, agriculture and financial services markets are booming and there’s a burgeoning need for consumer goods fuelled by a growing middle class. It’s estimated that Africa’s middle class will expand from 313 million to almost a billion in the next decade.
A recent survey by Ernst & Young of the biggest economic growth markets in the world came up with four in Africa; two of them in the West.
Ghana has been the superstar of recent years – in 2011 it was the biggest growing economy in the world and, buoyed by oil finds and gold mining, growth of 13.5 per cent is predicted for 2012.
Nigeria, the other star-performing pupil of the two, has long been a favourite; the majority of middle-class Nigerians are, according to a recent survey, educated to a post-secondary degree and in full employment, with a bank account. If the nation can transform itself from a bun-fighting minority bickering over oil wealth to a stable, positive prospect for foreign investment, it will represent a truly elephantine opportunity for business.
Some of the companies entering the West African market include Heineken and Diageo, Mango and Walmart. Easyjet’s Stelios Haji-Ioannou has announced plans for a low-cost carrier linking Ghana to six other West African countries. Hotel chains, including Kempinski, Marriott and Wyndham, are all aiming to enter the Nigerian market for the first time – and, of course, don’t forget the Chinese who have made the region one of their top destinations for investment.
It’s important to understand the geopolitics of West Africa, which constitutes, under the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), 15 countries operating as a peacekeeping and economic union – Benin, Burkino Faso, Cape Verde, Côte d'Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.
There are also those not in the union: Equatorial Guinea, crippled beneath ruthless dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has ruled for 33 years, wealthy due to its vast oil reserves, but the majority of its population living below the poverty line; and democratic Gabon, one of the most prosperous countries in the sub-Saharan region.
From Senegal in the north, down the Atlantic coast to Gabon in the south, most are French-speaking, with a scattering of Anglophone countries; Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria and Gambia. Guinea Bissau speaks Portuguese.
Eight of these nations (Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo) form the monetary and customs union of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) and share a currency – the CFA franc.
Making the Connection
Keelan Morris, corporate communications manager of Nigerian carrier Arik Air, says lack of infrastructure within the region is one of the main challenges for travel buyers. “It’s mainly a point-to-point market with either non-existent or, at best, inadequate air or road transport links,” he says. “Connections via air or on the ground often require long waiting times and are very slow.”
Arik Air operates to 21 points in Nigeria from Lagos and Abuja, and to eight regional destinations: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, Gambia, Burkina Faso, Angola, Benin and Senegal. It has three long-haul routes: London Heathrow, Johannesburg and New York JFK. Other reputable (read: safe) services currently include Senegal Airlines, set up last year and running reasonably regular flights from Dakar to Bamako, Ouagadougou and other west African capitals.
Visa regulations are also a challenge. Last month, arriving in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, a colleague was denied entry and flown back to the UK for not having the right visa stamp. Paul East, chief operating officer of Wings Travel Management, advises arriving early for flights – and always checking visa regulations. “Visa requirements in each country make it difficult to book travel as they’re all different. In some places, domestic travellers need to check in for a flight two or three hours ahead of schedule; if the plane’s full an hour before scheduled take-off, it will leave.”
In terms of hotels, it’s still best to rely on recognisable international brands where available.
What can go wrong?
The first thing you learn in this region is that things rarely go to plan. A favourite saying, muttered at the end of sentences, such as “I’ll see you tomorrow morning” or “see you at the meeting”, is inchallah, meaning “God (Allah) willing”. There’s no other way to sum up the prevailing attitude here, which comes down to the philosophy that what will be will be – and no amount of remonstrating or foot-stamping is going to make it happen any quicker.
It’s an understandable attitude: in a place where, if one were to get stressed about every minute lost, every broken exhaust or every bump in the road – both practically and metaphorically – one would be consigned to the asylum. Africa is a place where people manage to achieve everyday tasks in the midst of often extraordinarily difficult conditions, demonstrating resilience, tenacity and determination. But it’s also balanced with a hefty dose of flexibility and laid-back fatalism where everyone sees the joke – grasping this attitude is important for operating effectively on any level in the region.
Lack of infrastructure – bad roads, poor internet connections, power cuts, corruption at local and national government level, an often fragile political situation – means that if something goes wrong, it goes badly wrong. At times, travelling across the region, I’ve experienced that cold-sweated, dry-mouthed heart-bump of fear as the rules of my safe, cosseted world melt away and I realise my fate lies in the fickle hands of a few strangers. Travel buyers should not underestimate this lack of support once travellers are in the field. Having some kind of back-up system that kicks in when everything goes pear-shaped is invaluable.
On a small scale, this can be as simple as always carrying photocopies of passport and key documents; making sure your travellers have emergency cash stashed on them somewhere, and always carry a first aid kit and a pack of water purification tablets.
They should have two phones – one of them a simple mobile fitted with a local SIM and number – and swap numbers with the colleagues they’re travelling with. They should carry a paper document of crucial numbers and contacts, and enough of any medication to last for several days longer than envisaged. The back-up of a reputable travel management company is ideal.
Wings’ Paul East says: “We’re able to keep track of travellers and provide real-time data to companies about them. This is helpful whenever there’s a security or emergency issue. And, if there are ever times when there’s potential for unrest in an area, we can help accommodate for any eventuality.
“For example, knowing that a recent election might have had the potential to create chaos or a disruption in service, our people in West Africa had a plane standing by to evacuate travellers who might have felt threatened or stranded. As it turned out, the plane wasn’t needed, but having the ability to provide that extra comfort level is what makes us stand out.”
It’s all about contacts
One thing you should add to the list above is – find a fixer. Whether you’re arranging a 4x4 and a driver, trying to find a good hotel or getting a meeting with that crucial government official, it’s all about knowing the right people.
In my experience, a good, reliable on-the-ground, preferably local fixer is absolutely the one thing you should have in West Africa. When business takes me there [the author is also a documentary and feature-film maker] I have two fixers – Yamar from Origin Travel in Senegal, and Amadou Thiam, director of business travel agency DMC Africa in Mali. Both have, during the times we’ve worked together, doubled as translators, drivers, camera crew and police negotiators. They’ve set up the most improbable events, ranging from training with a champion Senegalese wrestler to getting a local magician to make a spell for the camera. I can safely say that the documentaries and features I’ve made in the region would not have been possible without them.
Amadou Thiam says: “There is without doubt a West African way of doing business – any business, even if it’s simply hiring a car – and, because I know this, I can make things happen and ensure everything goes smoothly. As a local, I have a really strong network of contacts. If I don’t know the person who can do it, I know someone who knows someone and I put in a call. This is how Africa works and things are generally possible with the right contacts.”
East agrees: “Things can go wrong on a daily basis and being on the ground helps. We had a case a few months ago where a colleague from Cape Town phoned the Angola office to ask why UAE jets flying into Luanda were suddenly being cancelled – for the next month. One of our guys in Angola went to the airport and talked directly with airport officials; it turned out the runway was being repaired. We called our airlines, who were able to use smaller planes to land on the smaller runway. Without actually going to the airport, it may have been a real headache for many more travellers.”
Health issues are always something to consider when travelling to Africa. The threat of malaria, tuberculosis, hepatitis A and B and typhoid is not to be underestimated. Travel buyers should ensure travellers’ vaccinations are up-to-date, and brief them on the obvious precautions of not having ice in their drinks, being sensibly wary of salad and raw vegetables and fruit, and generally being fastidious about hygiene.
And always carry cash. As Paul East puts it: “Cash is king in West Africa. Credit cards are not widely accepted, especially with domestic travel. The US dollar or the euro – which can be easily converted into CFA francs – are the best forms of money to bring.”
Make your travellers aware, too, that for taxi rides a receipt will rarely be available. Best to record each ride and its cost in a notebook if they intend to claim expenses.
When doing business, always take a phone number and a card. Many people don’t have Blackberrys, iPhones or any means of checking email on the run, but everyone has a mobile phone.
Security issues are perhaps the one obvious concern for business people travelling in certain areas of West Africa. In just the last five months, working in the safer part of the region, I’ve faced a cornucopia of risks including an imminent military coup, riots and kidnapping, none of which are particularly fun.
Always check British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) advice before sending travellers to the region; and register all your travellers on Locate, an FCO service that means the British Embassy knows their whereabouts in the event of an emergency.
It’s also worth consulting your ground contact. Amadou Thiam says: “For projects in Mali last year, before the political unrest, I’d always consult with my clients about the security situation in the north and advise them as to what we considered to be safe options.”
Factor in that you may need to consider armed guards or at least an escort. Make sure you hire a reliable 4x4 and a good driver – good drivers are, like fixers, absolutely invaluable and, from my experience, will generally act as bodyguard and helpful sidekicks in difficult situations.
Wings’ Paul East agrees safety is a key issue. “There are oil bases in the region in which every company doing business in that area is located,” he says. “Competitors in the oil and gas industry are living in these bases for security reasons; essentially, they can pool their resources to create a safer area for all concerned.
“Military coups are not uncommon. Civil unrest in the Middle East and North Africa has a spill-over effect, and in Nigeria, where kidnappings of oil and gas expatriates are common, there have been widespread bombings throughout the country.”
Arik Air’s Morris agrees: “The continent can be quite volatile, and the political situation in many countries is precarious. Nigeria is the most obvious example, with heightened terror threats and kidnapping warnings in the delta region. Arik only recently launched a route to Bamako, Mali, and has had to discontinue it due to the current uprising.”
It is also wise to avoid many of these countries during election periods, as there is a tendency for violence to flare up around such events .
Getting it right
However, from a business traveller’s perspective, West Africa is appealingly undiscovered and the great thing is that, done right, things can happen here. There are obstacles, yes, but with the right contacts, a well-equipped grab-bag and a healthy dollop of fatalism, you’ll find that, like many Africans, you can achieve extraordinary things. Inchallah.