African billionaires are shaping the continent

To become a billionaire in Africa today, This is the title of a book published by Présence Africaine by Cameroonian journalist Michel Lobe Evane. This business expert analyzes both the origins of wealth in Africa and the evolution of African capitalism.

In 20 years, the number of millionaires in Africa has increased by 150%. It now has close to twenty dollar billionaires, the most iconic of which is the undisputed number one Nigerian, Aliko Dangote. For Michel Lobe Evane, this progress reflects the modernization and dynamism of African economies.

In the last 20 years, there is an improvement in the business environment, there is economic growth. There are countries that have encouraged the creation of national champions. I cite the example of Nigeria, which has done a lot to produce billionaires. »

For a long time, Africa’s great wealth was synonymous with the political world’s predation in the economic sphere, so the population still had deep-rooted mistrust.

“Becoming a billionaire in Africa today does not bring legitimacy. There are still many doubts about wealth. There is a lot of fantasy that politics is a source of enrichment. There are businessmen who are upset with politicians and have built all their prosperity by using privileges and corruption, they take away from the national wealth instead of adding to it. »

More diverse profiles than before

Today’s billionaires are not yesterday’s. Africa is gradually transitioning from a market-type capitalist system to industrial or tertiary capitalism. Michel Lobé Ewané explains that today’s billionaires therefore have very different profiles.

In the 1970s, billionaires were people who were engaged in trade, engaged in import-export, who had a position because they got a license. Today we see connections, they are more ambitious people, they focus on more advanced sectors, finance, insurance. Many billionaires have emerged investing in telecommunications, and more and more you find them in agribusiness, you find them in agribusiness, so there is diversification, and this is a marked difference from the old one, which was limited to a single sector and a single country. »

For Michel Lobe Evane, the characteristic of modern billionaires is above all to be pan-African in nature and to think on a continental scale. They therefore preceded the current economic union movement created by the continental free trade area. One thing remains: the proliferation of billionaires also reflects the incompleteness of social redistribution systems.

► Interview with the author of the book, Michelle Lobe Evane Becoming a billionaire in Africa today » Published by Présence Africaine.

RFI : Michelle Lobe Evane, you start with observation : Wealth has never been so healthy in the world’s poorest continent. Is it as paradoxical as it seems? ?

MLE: For me, it’s not so much a paradox, it’s a confirmation of the economic dynamics that have been set in motion over the last ten or fifteen years, where Africa has grown very strongly and the business environment has improved. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but it’s improved a lot. Business freedom has become a reality in most countries. Admittedly, poverty has not been eradicated yet, but I think it is a good sign that there are more billionaires and therefore more business owners who are starting to invest in important sectors. Businessmen and billionaires in particular are reshaping the economic landscape of countries like South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria and even Senegal.

RFI : How many billionaires does Africa have and how does it compare to other continents? ?

MLE: Africa has far fewer billionaires than Europe, Asia and the US. But there is clear progress. The latest ranking of Forbes (an American magazine dedicated to great wealth and business leaders, editor’s note) identified 20 billionaires in dollars in 2021. I would add that in 2019 there were 140,000 millionaires (ie those with at least one million assets). 699 with at least ten million assets and 310 with at least one hundred million assets.

RFI : In Europe, we often think that billionaires are a sign of imperfect redistribution of national wealth in the country. This is also the case on the mainland ?

MLE: Yes, of course, because a good part of the wealth and great wealth is in the hands of political leaders, not businessmen. And that’s not necessarily a good thing, because these are neither people nor companies that don’t create value. On the other hand, the more billionaires and therefore business owners there are, the more they can contribute to poverty reduction by creating jobs and paying taxes.

RFI : This is a bit like the runoff theory formulated by President Emmanuel Macron in France. However, we also see that the gap between the very rich and the majority of the African population, who are often very poor, is huge. Does this drip really work? ?

MLE: Clearly there are still many imbalances in Africa. We are a long way from a society where the middle class will be large enough to enforce a fair distribution of wealth. But you should know that there is a speaker built in there. As we have seen in China, companies have really helped lift 400 million people out of poverty.

RFI : Until a few years ago, African billionaires were associated with predation and the political sphere. To be rich, it was necessary to be close to political power. This situation has changed ?

MLE: Far from changing, and the reality is that politics remains a source of enrichment. Some businessmen are the secret sex of politicians. And some leaders are extremely rich, and this wealth is somehow extracted from the national wealth. In this book, I chose not to talk about the predators of the system, but about those who build and invest and therefore bring additional wealth to society. I excluded rich politicians and billionaire politicians on principle and method.

RFI : You emphasize in your work that Africa has always produced very rich people. Just think of King Mansa Moussa 1er He was considered the richest man in the world in the 14th century. But there is a period in history when Africans were excluded from wealth, that was the colonial period. Are all Africans left out of the wealth accumulation process ?

MLE: Yes, that was the rule. But there were still some examples of businessmen or traders who got rich under colonialism. In Kenya, the Kenyatta family grew rich in plantations and trade. In Côte d’Ivoire, Houphouët-Boigny was a farmer before becoming a politician. There are many examples, but it should be emphasized that the colonial administration always decided who could work and become rich and who could not. And this colonial era – and before that, the era of the slave trade – was characterized by the fact that Africans were considered commodities, goods or simple labor. However, the colonial administration gradually favored the creation of a local business class, an elite favorable to and supportive of the system.

RFI : If we continue the historical framework, while reading you, we understand that African billionaires appeared for the first time in trade. The profiles are very different from what we see today…

MLE: Indeed, we have moved from a class of merchants to a class of entrepreneurs. In the 1960s and 1980s, businessmen were essentially big traders who made their fortunes in import-export. Thanks to the licensing system, they benefited from large markets and obtained large margins for basic necessities. Then the bravest, the most ambitious, I would even say the smartest ones exploited the capital they got from this activity and invested in other sectors: industry, real estate, agrarian industry, food industry. In Nigeria, Aliko Dangote started with trading, then invested in cement factories. Then he diversified his group. Today, African billionaires find themselves in various sectors: telephony, banking, insurance and new technologies. We must also emphasize one important thing: African billionaires very quickly choose to go beyond their national borders and work in African markets. This is a noticeable difference with the first generation often limited to one sector and one country. And in a still economically fragmented Africa, this is not always easy. You may face different legislation, customs barriers issues, etc. you need to know how to adapt. This economic pan-Africanism, a hallmark of African billionaires, is both challenging and a great opportunity to create powerful transnational groups.

RFI : Are there differences in economic approach between different parts of the continent? ?

MLE: One of the most important crosses the dividing line between English-speaking Africa and French-speaking Africa. English-speaking Africans are more accustomed to the rules of modern capitalism, such as using financial markets. They were also the first to invest in modern sectors such as telecommunications. Francophones are not very transparent and keep their wealth vague.

RFI : We understand that billionaires in Europe and the United States are sometimes passed down from father to son. There are created dynasties, legacies. It is the same in Africa ?

MLE: Starting to arrive, but still very limited. There are some good examples. Among the people I mention in the book, the best example is that of Tanzanian Mohammed Dewji, who inherited his father’s business. At that time, annual sales were 15 million dollars, and 15 years later, they made 2 billion. His father handed over the reins of the company to him during his lifetime. The son came with a different vision and a new ambition. Other transmission patterns also emerge. For example, I discussed with Jean Kacou Diagou, an Ivorian insurer, and his daughter, Janine, with whom he developed a transfer plan. So there is an awareness that is beginning to emerge. Women and men who want their group to survive after separation. But unfortunately, there are still many examples of inheritances left by billionaires, who divide each other for the sake of the inheritance and sometimes cause fights between the heirs who squander it. Therefore, the transmission issue remains unresolved. And there is still no real thought on this question.

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