Nigeria is the biggest trade partner of France in Sub-Saharan Africa, and has been attracting more investments than its French-speaking West African neighbours combined. Yet, there is room to do even more. EMMANUELLE BLATMANN, ambassador of France to Nigeria, in her first major interview since resuming work in Africa’s largest economy, tells CALEB OJEWALE about opportunities that can be explored to deepen economic relations, challenges faced by existing French businesses, which also discourage other foreign investors, as well as the several initiatives by the French in supporting socio-economic growth and development in Nigeria for several decades. Excerpts:
Last year, we had some Nigerian business leaders meeting with President Macron, and we would like to know if there have been any updates on those engagements, any outcomes so far?
Well, there were some concrete developments. There have been several contracts and partnership agreements that have been signed. An example is Eutelsat and Globacom, they signed a contract and there are ongoing negotiations for the banking sector but I cannot comment because they haven’t been finalised.
But I think this year we will see several Nigerian banks moving into France. That’s great news. I think they are seizing the opportunity presented after Brexit, where we have made it clear that Paris can become the hub for finance in the European Union.
In which sectors of the Nigerian economy have French investments been spread over the years and what principles have driven those interests?
To start with, there have been major investments by French companies in Nigeria in the last decades. Unlike others, French businesses tend to favour local investments (that produce locally) over just exporting finished goods here, which is one specificity that is important to note.
This is also why French businesses are actually holding direct investment of around 10 billion euros, which is a 100 percent increase over the last 10 years. This makes France one of the major investors in Nigeria. Actually, Nigeria is our largest trade partner in Sub Saharan Africa. There are close to 100 French companies in Nigeria, employing close to 10,000 Nigerian employees.
They have been participating in the economic growth of the country, training people, and building skills. Nigeria is not only a major trade partner but also a major country where (French) investments have been made over the last 10 years.
When we’re trying to promote Nigeria as a destination (for investment), and forgive me for being a bit direct, it still does not have a good image for companies who have never been here, or are not familiar with Africa
One might think that France mostly invests in French speaking countries, but that actually is not true. The statistics are really impressive because 60 percent of the total net foreign direct investment from France to Western Africa, which is majority French-speaking, has been to Nigeria. So that’s quite huge.
And I’d say the French companies are in all sectors, which is also quite impressive. In oil and gas, we have Total Energies, which recently celebrated its 60th anniversary; 60 years of successful partnerships with ups and downs. They are here, have invested massively and are here to stay.
We are in a large variety of sectors, including transportation (AirFrance, Bollore, which was managing Tin Can port), in the pharmaceutical industry with Biogaran, ENGIE Energy Access in renewable energy, and we are present in professional services, finance, and in the security sector. We are also in Agriculture, and I was very proud to attend the commissioning of a facility in Kano, by a company called Nutriset.
There is also Peugeot that has an assembly plant in Kaduna that we will commission soon. These are not just random investments, but always with a purpose of working with Nigerian local partners with a view to development.
Are there other areas of interest for investment from French companies, which are not currently explored or probably they’re not doing as much as they would like to?
There have been a lot of contracts signed between the Nigerian and French private sector in the field of agriculture (and food processing). This is certainly a sector in which there’s a lot of interest, and a lot of potential for development in the coming years.
Another sector we are looking to develop and where there’s a lot of interest is defence and security. In early April (this year), we had a business seminar where 17 top French security companies came to showcase their products; equipment, vehicles, drones. We believe that due to the security issues here and also to reply to some of the requests we have had from Nigerian authorities, this is something that would be useful.
We were expecting like 80 people, but there were 200 people in the room. All the Nigerian security agencies were present, from police to DSS. An MOU was signed for a drone Academy, and there were hundreds of contacts for three days that it lasted so I think it’s interesting.
What is also interesting is they are not just trying to sell their products by exporting here. The idea is also to have partnership packages that include training and having maintenance here in Nigeria. If you sell something and nobody can maintain it, after a few years, nobody can use it anymore. So the idea is to train local talents, so they can do it themselves. This is also from a perspective of development.
It is also in the idea that on a regional scale, to have Nigeria become a hub for maintenance of helicopters, planes and military equipment, which I think would be good, because it is also part of diversifying the economy here and creating jobs.
What have been the limitations to doing business in Nigeria?
French businesses are already very active in many sectors, but some of them express reservations. When we’re trying to promote Nigeria as a destination (for investment), and forgive me for being a bit direct, it still does not have a good image for companies who have never been here, or are not familiar with Africa. Let’s say the continent (generally) doesn’t have a good image.
And that’s also what I think is very important that we should do as an embassy here, to change the narrative and perception that French private sector and French public opinion has of Nigeria, because there’s so much more than Boko Haram, insecurity, war or whatever else.
At the same time, insecurity is a reality in this country. So this is something that can be an obstacle because some people fear that they cannot send expats, especially to some areas, but not all of them are like that. As I earlier mentioned, a company just built a brand new factory in Kano, so some of them are not scared and are used to working in Africa. But some of them who are not are still very cautious and it’s a pity because this is a huge market. Also there are a lot of skills and talents here in Nigeria, and very fruitful partnerships (that can be made).
However, working on the image Nigerians have in France is part of a broader plan to improve that image. This is because once people discover that (good side), they could be impressed and attracted but we have to work on this.
The other issue is the business environment. Any company that wants to thrive and prosper, here in Nigeria or in any other country, needs to be able to count on a reliable, stable tax and legal environment; a justice system that is as efficient and independent as possible. So of course, it is very important that the authorities promote a safe environment for foreign investors.
One thing that is an issue for sure is the access to foreign exchange. That is a key element. Anybody who wants to conduct and grow a business as a foreign investor needs to make transactions, get his/her money back and also the profits it generates.
If there were an easier way to access foreign currency for foreign investors, I think that would lead to a very significant increase in foreign investments in Nigeria.
We can understand why there are some restrictions to protect the local currency, but at the same time, you also need foreign investors. Every country does, even France, and that’s why we’re looking forward to any Nigerian investors.
Most embassies seem to have a programme for food security and agriculture when it comes to Nigeria, does France have any interventions or programmes in Nigeria?
Food security is a big part of our humanitarian programme here in Nigeria, especially in the Northeast. We have been supporting several French NGOs and other international NGOs in food security programmes, especially for children and women that are suffering acute malnutrition. For Nigeria, it’s through NGOs, institutional organisations and international programmes such as ALIMA, ICRC, the World Food Programme and others.
With war and displaced people that cannot access their farms, desertification and climate change putting a lot of pressure on farmers, humanitarian response is really important. We have too many children dying of starvation or malnutrition in Africa in general and Nigeria, obviously, as you’re the biggest population in Africa. Of course, the numbers are huge and quite distressful.
But humanitarian response cannot be the only one and we also have to conduct development projects so that food insecurity is behind us once and for all because you have to promote agriculture. I mean, agriculture is, especially in a country like Nigeria, where you could produce enough to feed 400 million people.
So I really believe the international community should help and invest in agriculture, it ticks all the boxes and fights against desertification, climate change, food insecurity, it gives people livelihoods, through income generation activities. It is good for women, children and everybody. It creates jobs.
It can increase your export and access to hard currency. It ticks all the boxes and it also fights insecurity, because all these people that often turn to terrorist groups or banditry, it is because they have a lack of hope, or lack of job and lack of revenue.
Through agriculture, you provide them jobs; means to earn money in a dignified way for their families, then at you least take away part of the reasons, that helps terrorists recruit; and that is poverty. I really think agriculture ticks all the boxes and we should be doing more and I have asked the French Development Agency to really focus more in the coming years on agriculture as our priority.
It hasn’t been for the time being, but it should be and we’re working on that, so there will be much more. We have a Special Advisor for agriculture in the embassy that has been all over the country, to identify the partnerships. She brings Nigerian companies and French companies that can match together and she’s done a great job over the last years, it’s been quite impressive.
At the last international fair for agriculture that was held in France, there was a delegation of 300 Nigerian people. It was the biggest delegation outside EU countries; in terms of foreign delegation to this fair. There were also seven or eight governors that came to the livestock summit in the middle of France. So really, there’s a strong interest in this and there are many things being discussed now and I’m sure that you will see the results quite soon.
What is already being done; there are ongoing irrigation projects in different states, and we’re looking into a French treasury financial contribution, something in Enugu state for instance, but it’s not finalised. We also have ongoing discussions with French research and technical institutions to work on the modernization and rehabilitation of value chains, especially fisheries, meat, dairy, so they’re also ready to offer support.
The French Development Agency is currently assessing the needs for wholesale food markets in Nigeria. Partnerships with States will be held on this subject. Actually, one of the agency’s projects, called RAMP, is quite famous. Through this project, they have built or rehabilitated about 2,000 kilometres of rural roads in order to link farmers to markets, because (many) farmers don’t have a way to access the markets and without this they cannot sell.
We have also been working on supporting vocational training and providing skills especially for women in agriculture. There’s a project to help women in agribusiness, entrepreneurs aiming at greater empowerment, dynamic inclusion and market networks.
The idea is to use innovative tools in the agricultural sector to improve the capacity of production, and transform the agricultural practices. Sometimes it’s not efficient enough but with modern techniques, you can have much better results. And of course that would have an impact on food security.
We’re also working, though indirectly, on what we call geographical indications. It means identifying potential Nigerian products or food or goods (including fabrics, artefacts) that could be certified internationally as geographical indication. In exports it can be useful to promote incentives to produce locally.
There have also been French private sector investments, and I should mention Fan Milk, which is a Danone company. I had the chance to visit the factory where they produce the Ice Cream in Ibadan; very impressive, high level standards and they have this system of retail throughout the country which is incredible. They have invested in a new dairy farm in Ogun state and the idea is to have more milk production here in Nigeria instead of importing. We should be commissioning that at the end of next month.
What is truly incredible is what Nutriset has done, as a French company that fabricates nutrition of high quality nutritional products, especially Nutritional Bars made out of peanuts, mostly used for malnourished children or women.
Their main clients are United Nations agencies and before, they would import the raw materials from Africa, process it in France and then sell it to the United Nations, who would then distribute it in Africa. They really thought that for the sake of development, for the sake of their African partners, they should develop processing skills on the continent. I know them very well because they were the first Western company to open a factory in Darfur (when I was there as an Ambassador). That was quite bold and brave because nobody wanted to go there.
This beautiful factory in Kano is really great because with the investments in the peanuts supply chain, they would procure between 5,000 and 7,000 tonnes of peanuts in Nigeria to process in the factory. They estimate having 8,000 small holder farmers working for them and they would help them grow their businesses.
They have created 120 direct jobs in the factory and they believe that production from the facility will benefit 750,000 children in just one year. I think it is quite amazing and is part of the solutions needed to fight food insecurity. This is typically what I would like to see more often all over the place because the benefits are huge.
The next thing is on security. In the last 10 years, how much support has been given to Nigeria either financially or materially?
There isn’t a monetary value as some of it can’t be quantified such as all the cooperation and intelligence operations and there has been a lot since we decided to revive our cooperation in 2014. There was a lot of emotion in Europe after the Chibok girls’ kidnapping and France decided to offer direct support to Nigeria, and we have sustained that especially due to the Boko Haram and ISWAP threats.
There was a bilateral agreement signed in 2016 that has three major aspects to our cooperation; first is exchange of information, second is maritime security and third is specifically more on French language. Your neighbours are all French speaking countries, and in order to coordinate fight against terrorism, there was a need to do that.
So there’s been a lot of training for military personnel to speak French. One of the biggest centres for this training is in Kaduna. We think that this cooperation has been positive and has allowed Nigeria to defeat terrorism in some places in Borno and around Lake Chad.
Since President Buhari has been in office, he does not want foreign boots on the ground so it is more assistance in information, satellite information, operation planning.
Concerning maritime security, there has been a lot of cooperation especially because Nigeria has bought around 20 rapid boats from France to patrol the Gulf of Guinea and there is also the hydrographic ship. There have been a lot of results on maritime security because the number of attacks by pirates has significantly decreased.
Food insecurity, climate change, job creation… Agriculture ticks all the boxes and we should be doing more and I have asked the French Development Agency to really focus more in the coming years on agriculture as our priority
I learnt a 50 million euro loan was given to Oyo state for the rehabilitation of its healthcare network and it is the first financing of this type since 1990. What informed this decision?
First of all, France is a major actor in the global health multilateral system. For instance, the Global Fund, which is the major multilateral fund throughout the world to defend against pandemics and diseases, we are the second biggest contributor to it. We are the third largest contributor to the GAVI Alliance, and for UNITAID, we are one of the biggest.
In any hospital, when you see a sticker of the Global Fund, you know that France contributed, and largely too.
Up till now we were mostly focusing on the multilateral channels to provide support and Nigeria due to population has benefited a lot too. Now we are considering more bilateral actions, so you might have the impression we are just starting but through the multilateral channels we’ve actually been doing a lot.
The one in Oyo is a new approach, a 55 million euro concessionary loan. The details are confidential but the terms are really good (for Oyo state). Apart from working with the Federal Government, we believe working with the states is very important.
There was a negotiation with the Oyo state governor and his team, and we identified them as a credible partner and a place where we could do things efficiently.
Also as a place where there was a big need and so we developed an action plan, discussing with the Federal Ministry of Finance (as the loan goes through them). Within this framework there will be over 300 primary health care centres throughout Oyo state that would be rehabilitated.
I signed it in the last days of December, so it’s very recent. First, we will renovate and equip the major hospital in Ibadan, but these other primary health care centres will be equipped, renovated, and there is also training to up-skill the healthcare workers. Also, to introduce new health services, especially for children. I think that’s really a great thing and it involves the private sector too.
How would you be monitoring this to ensure that funds are properly used?
First of all, part of the deal is that there’s a French company involved and they have procurement, compliance and due diligence responsibility for the project. All the equipment, rehabilitation, renovation, and general infrastructure, which usually is the most money involved, will go through them. Of course, we will have people who will go regularly to inspect and see how it goes.
I want to better understand your approach in working directly with Nigerian states. How do you identify the projects that are important and in what states?
It is part of the daily work that my team is doing at the embassy; reaching out, going around. Each time I go to a state I usually meet the governor and some of his commissioners. We discuss how we can partner and what the common sectors of interest are.
When I was in Kano, for instance, the governor mentioned that he wants AFD to help him with his new urban transport network. Often, we have meetings with the teams and we try to see where we have funding available and how we can help.
Some also come to us with projects, and ask for support, sometimes they ask for technical assistance; for a French expert to come and spend a couple of months to help them build a project.
However, due diligence and processes are very important. If there are a lot of complaints about corruption or insecurity in a state, we may be more cautious, but then, AFD is present in 26 out of 36 states, so we are working with a lot of them.
How can Nigeria benefit from the shifting energy market in Europe?
There is a major opportunity for Nigeria to benefit from what’s happening in Europe now, with the war against Ukraine by Russia. All EU state members are looking to diversify their supplies of gas, and Nigeria having some of the biggest reserves of gas should be a huge opportunity to increase its production first, then exports. Unfortunately, up to now, gas production is linked to oil production, which has been going down because of the bunkering problem.
That’s a major issue because unfortunately, right now, Nigeria is not even meeting the contracts that they have, whereas it should be a major opportunity to increase production and to get a huge benefit out of it. I’m not saying it is good to make profit out of war elsewhere but that’s how business is and it is a pity.
So we will be more than happy to import more gas from Nigeria, and so are other countries that are even more dependent on Russian gas. France is already importing close to 10 percent of its gas from Nigeria.
We would like to have other providers, and that’s where Nigeria can play a part, so it is a pity that this opportunity has not been seized and it is a pity that it’s lost because of illegal activities. Because companies can’t invest or produce more when 90 percent of what they’re putting in the pipeline is stolen.
The French seem to have some interests in cultural engagements, can you give some insights?
Our cultural diplomacy is a French specificity that we are very proud of. And I think it’s very important. It is also part of the general objective to improve the image of Nigeria through showcasing its arts, talents, musicians and I think you have a huge amount of talents here, and we are happy to make different partnerships.
The cultural and creative industry, with the iconic Nollywood ecosystem, attracts a growing number of French partners in Nigeria. Film industry, TV, fashion, e-sport, design are some of the sectors already considered to consolidate and develop partnerships between French and Nigerian actors in the coming years.
For instance, we are setting up a training school for Nollywood for the filmmakers and actors and others. Also, we were part of the International Day of Dance, and we have supported a local company from Kano. They are doing an amazing job and so we helped them to produce their show and export them abroad. We finance a lot of tours for Nigerian artists, and I think it is important to mention, because I don’t think many others are doing that.
There was a choreographer called Qudus, whom we supported. I recently got a message from him that they arrived in Berlin to start an international tour. They are going to New York, and the New York Times has contacted them to write on their show. They are street dancers picked up in Lagos and this is really one thing I’m very proud of.