North Africa Business

African Business: A rising force


Mines and oil still dominate the landscape of African capitalism, but new sectors are developing, generating jobs and added value.

Some things never change in the world of African business. The Algerian oil giant Sonatrach is the undisputed leader in Jeune Afrique's top 500 business rankings for 2012, just as it was in 2000.

Over the years its supremacy has even increased: the turnover of the public colossus is today equal to 8.5% of the revenues of the 500 largest African groups, against around 6% in 2000, the first year the rankings were published.

Over the intervening years, despite hopes and incantations, African capitalism remained firmly rooted in black gold and mines. 

In 2000, neither MTN, Vodacom or Maroc Télécom, nor the African subsidiaries of Celtel (Airtel today) or France Télécom-Orange got a look-in.

Today they are all in the high echelons of the continent's large business rankings, to the point where telecoms have dethroned mines as the second largest sector in Africa. 

The growth of a consumer middle class has helped accelerate the diversification of sectors beyond natural resources and trade.

According to the African Development Bank (ADB), this middle class now encompasses more than 300 million people.

Certain groups on the continent, like Dangote, have seized this opportunity to expand in a just few years from pure importing to being a local manufacturer and distributor of consumer products (pasta, cement, sugar).

Others will emerge, on the back of the arrival of new sectors: health, education, housing, supermarkets, among others.

International investors are slowly starting to view the continent in a different way, which goes beyond the coupling of mines and oil.

A new professionalism

More than just a sectorial evolution, this heralds a new managerial culture, which could become increasingly important with the advent of telecoms.

Plots, corruption, collusion and opacity are being relegated in the manual of the African manager.

"There is a clear trend towards professionalism with younger managers, often from the diaspora," says Sofiane Lahmar, a partner with pan-African private equity firm Development Partners International (DPI), which has provided capital for several large businesses on the continent.

A specialist in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), financier Jean-Marc Savi de Tové is less optimistic: "There is no entrepreneurial culture, and insufficient governance or strategic vision, especially in Francophone Africa," explains the associate director of Cauris Management, a West African private equity firm.

"The directors prefer to be CEOs than COOs, and that says everything." 

Raising equity

Certainly, private equity, which was scarce to non-existent 10 years ago, has exploded over the past few years and it is hard to find large international investors who are not interested in the continent.

In 2011, according to the professional association Empea, $1.3m was raised for sub-Saharan Africa, against $340m in 2004.

In relative value, however, the region remains on the sidelines: private equity for the south of the Sahara equals little more than 3% of the funds directed at emerging markets as a whole, against 5.2% in 2004.

African stock exchanges have not exploded as expected. And if their total capitalisation has been multiplied by four in 10 years, South Africa still accounts for three quarters of this figure.

For African businesses, these factors represent possibilities for strengthening their own capital, and hence for financing their growth.

The growth of a real African capitalism must now take place outside the boardrooms and COOs of major companies.

As of now, it is the SMEs who need a real capital boost.