• Saturday, April 20, 2024
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‘France has designated Nigeria priority country for digital and creative sectors’

OLIVIER BECHT, minister for Foreign Trade and Attractiveness in France

OLIVIER BECHT, minister for Foreign Trade and Attractiveness in France is the third French minister to visit Nigeria this year and one can’t help but be curious as to what is driving the attention. In this interview with CALEB OJEWALE, he highlights opportunities to deepen trade and investments in Nigeria across certain priority sectors. He also discusses anti-French sentiments in its former colonies and what is being done about it. “France and its former colonies have to heal historical wounds,” he said. Excerpts:

Two years ago when your predecessor (Franck Riester) visited Nigeria, I had an interview with him and one of the things he said was that French companies see opportunities in Nigeria, but security and taxation issues remain a challenge. Between that time and now, what has changed; for good or worse?

What foreign investors consider a good investment climate is well known. To thrive, a company – whether foreign or Nigerian – needs to be able to count on a reliable and stable tax and legal environment, functional infrastructure, and a justice system as efficient and independent as possible. Access to foreign exchange is also key: in order to conduct and grow its business, a foreign investor constantly needs to make transactions and transfers in foreign currencies. Our understanding is that an easier access to foreign exchange will lead to a significant increase in foreign investments to Nigeria.

We welcome the Nigerian government’s efforts towards a well-functioning foreign exchange market. It is not my place however to comment on the domestic policies of a friendly country such as Nigeria. All I can say is that I am impressed by the bold reform plan President Tinubu and his cabinet have put forward. We hope they will keep improving the business environment in Nigeria, and they have already raised high expectations among French companies and investors.

We look forward to further diversifying our economic presence in Nigeria and attracting more French companies

You can count on France to encourage international financial institutions in their support to Nigeria, helping establish a more attractive business environment, and fostering inclusive growth for the Nigerian people. We will support this agenda through the European Union as well, and of course through the French Agency for Development, which is already one of the top bilateral partners of the Nigerian Government.

And now to your own visit. You are about the third French minister coming to Nigeria this year, what is the attraction?

Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa and the most populous country: strengthening our partnership with Nigeria is an obvious choice for us. To help you understand why Nigeria attracts so many high-level visits, let me give you a few examples of what our partnership involves for our private sector, our development agency and our academic partnerships.

Nigeria is already our largest trading partner in Sub-Saharan Africa, with more than €5.4 billion in 2022. So far, our stock of direct investments has reached around 10 billion euros. There are a hundred French companies present throughout the country employing more than 10,000 people, most of them Nigerians, in oil & gas, food, logistics, communication, pharmaceutical industry, insurance. We look forward to further diversifying our economic presence in Nigeria and attracting more French companies. We focus on promising sectors, such as agri-food, technology and the digital economy, cultural and creative industries.

The French Development Agency (AFD) has committed more than 3 billion euros since 2010, contributing significantly to the development of Nigeria. AFD began its activities in Nigeria with infrastructure projects such as transport and water treatment, but is now working in cultural and digital industries, higher education or vocational training, especially in the field of agriculture. Today, creating jobs for young people and strengthening the employability of young people are our main objectives. Human resources are Nigeria’s greatest asset, and the best investments we can make are those that empower them and help this country’s extraordinary talent thrive.

We want to develop academic partnerships. The number of Nigerian students travelling to France for academic exchanges is steadily increasing, but there is still considerable potential for progress. Recently, a high-level delegation led by TETFund, the National University Commission, the Petroleum Technology Development Fund and several vice-chancellors of leading Nigerian universities came to Paris in order to explore opportunities with France. I am confident that this will lead to more partnerships between French and Nigerian academic institutions, and growing student-academic exchanges from and to Nigeria.

What does your visit intend to achieve in terms of deepening trade and investments between France and Nigeria?

My visit was scheduled to coincide with the French Week in Lagos. The highlight of the French Week will be the Economic Summit, which will take place on Thursday (today). I am happy to note that the agenda of the Summit will include panel discussions on key topics of our relationship, such as renewable energy, agriculture & tech, industries which we see as having tremendous potential for trade and investments between France and Nigeria.

During the Economic Summit, several deals will be made public, especially in the field of agribusiness. Raedial Holdings and Compagnie Fruitière will sign an MoU announcing their project to grow bananas in Cross River State. Semmaris and the Lagos State government will announce their intention to build a wholesale food market in Epe, while FanMilk (a brand of Danone) will sign with Koolboks, a start-up founded in France by a Nigerian entrepreneur, in order to use innovative fridges for their delivery operations. Other deals will be signed in the field of renewable energy, including Echosys and TotalEnergies.

I will attend a Tech event, organised by the Lagos French Tech community. Tech is indeed a very promising area for partnerships between France and Nigeria. French entrepreneurs are already here, as evidenced by the entrepreneurs of the French Tech Lagos (Betastore, Kwik, Koolboks). French Venture Capital funds such as Partech and Breega are already investing in Nigeria. Jumia, which is headquartered in Lagos and now considered a landmark in Nigeria and Africa, was founded in 2012 by two French entrepreneurs.

We hope to position France as a top destination for Nigerian start-ups and investors who want to target international markets. French Tech Lagos is also helping Nigerian entrepreneurs to familiarize themselves with our tech ecosystem and perhaps set up in France, following the example of the Nigerian start-up Gas360, whose R&D department is based in Toulouse. I would like to underline this little-known fact that France is a powerhouse in entrepreneurship and innovation. According to recently published figures, France is the European country that is most attractive for start-ups founders, ahead of the UK. For the fourth year running, France is the number one investment destination in Europe, especially for R&D centres.

Finance is another area where we expect enhanced bilateral investments in the future. Paris has cemented its place as the EU’s leading financial centre and has succeeded in attracting several major financial players. This is due both to structural strengths – Paris is home to a highly qualified labour market for financial services, and boasts a unique cluster of skills and support services, as well as a robust regulatory and supervisory framework – and to measures taken over the past years to enhance France’s attractiveness, including tax cuts and labour law reforms. As a result, Paris has attracted more post-Brexit job relocations than any other city in the EU. After UBA, Access Bank has recently opened an office in Paris, and we hope that others will follow.

Lagosians might notice banners with quotes like “Make It Iconic” and “Choose France” on a few landmarks. This is part of our “Marque France” strategy to try and update the way people in Nigeria and everywhere in the world see us, to highlight France for what it is: thanks to our audacity, our country is a powerhouse for creativity and innovation, with values such as universalism and inclusion.

To what extent is the interest in Nigeria and possibly Anglophone Africa a form of response to the increasing anti-French sentiments in Francophone Africa?

It is true that in some African former colonies, a few people on social media have developed an anti-French narrative, supported by putschists in countries where coup d’Etat happened. I would like first to underline that social media do not necessarily represent the opinion of the majority. A lot of fake news is being spread by people who have an interest in undermining France in Africa. That being said, it is also true that France and its former colonies have to heal historical wounds.

Many people in Africa feel frustrated by economic, social and security problems. Sometimes, France is blamed for not doing enough to stem these problems. But at the same time, France stands accused – sometimes by the same people – of interfering in the internal affairs of African countries facing these difficulties. Our partnerships are based on consensus. For example, the presence of our armed forces is only possible at the explicit request of our African partners – as was the case in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger before unconstitutional changes of regime which led to a different approach.

In line with the commitment made by our President in the speech he gave in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in 2017, we strive to build partnerships between equals with African countries, based on common and shared interests. Our success will depend on our ability to find, together with our African partners, solutions to major problems faced by populations (security, but also health, education, job creation, investments, agriculture) and answers to their aspirations. Our success will also depend on the recognition of these wounds, which is why we have embarked with Rwanda, Algeria, and Cameroon on a journey to try to better understand our common history and heal what needs to be healed.

France has also returned, on the request of several African countries, especially the Benin Republic, a number of artefacts that were taken by French colonialists during the so-called “scramble for Africa”. We want to pass a comprehensive legislation dedicated to the return of objects confiscated during colonial times, which will probably be debated by Parliament before the end of this year. France is among the first countries in the world, with Germany and Belgium, to set the stage for returns on a wider scale.

More pointedly, is there a broader strategy to engage Francophone Africa from an investment and trade point of view that could perhaps douse some of the anti-French sentiments?

Investments in Francophone Africa are already substantial – close to half of the French direct investments in West Africa are made in French-speaking countries (the rest being in Nigeria and, to a lesser extent, Ghana). The same can be said about the grants, loans and investments from the French Development Agency, that are already benefiting the populations in those countries. Nowadays, a country’s economic presence is a lever of soft power and influence. My message to French companies is to keep investing in African countries, both French and English speaking ones.

Trade and investments do impact the life of people in West Africa, in a way that reduces some of the social and economic frustrations that are part of the root causes of anti-French sentiments. For sure. I am also hopeful that the very dynamic African diaspora in France will play a key role in strengthening partnerships between France and African countries, and maybe help clear the gap of mutual miscomprehension when needed.

How much of this would form part of your discussions with Nigerian leaders, especially with Niger, one of our neighbours being the latest to catch the coup-bug and all the drama that has followed?

We continue to work closely with the Nigerian authorities on diplomatic and security challenges. Nigeria is one of the major players in Africa. Its voice must be heard on regional issues, as well as on global challenges, such as climate change, energy transition, sustainable growth, the fight against inequalities and of course peace and security on the continent.

On Niger, we support the course of action taken by ECOWAS under the current Chairman, President Tinubu, who has been very clear, even before the July 26 coup in Niger, that unconstitutional changes of regime were not welcome in the region. We share his vision. Indeed, unconstitutional changes of regime lead to a deterioration in the response to terrorist threats, and therefore in the security situation. They slow down development. They affect first and foremost the population.

The number of Nigerian students travelling to France for academic exchanges is steadily increasing, but there is still considerable potential for progress

Now, to the Russia-Ukraine war, a lot has been said about Europe looking towards countries like Nigeria for gas supplies. When would these move from comments into actual shipments and trade? What impediments exist, for instance, for France to buy gas from Nigeria?

Since Russia started its war of aggression against Ukraine in 2022, many European countries, including France, have started to diversify their supply of oil and gas. On average, France imports 5 to 10 percent of its gas supply from Nigeria, making it a strategic partner for our country. As Europe is looking for new suppliers, the main constraint, to speak frankly, is Nigeria’s ability to produce more to satisfy this demand.

In what sector is the French most active in Nigeria today, and which sector holds a lot of promise but you’re not playing there (either at all or not enough)?

French businesses are already active in a vast array of sectors. As stated earlier, agribusiness, energy, cultural and creative industries and tech are, in our eyes, full of promises for French-Nigerian business relations. I have already mentioned the deals that will be made public in agribusiness during the French Week.

We want to pass a comprehensive legislation dedicated to the return of objects confiscated during colonial times

This sector is a core priority for us. Our Embassy and the French Development Agency support vocational training for women farmers. The “Food for Nations” digital trade platform will help develop bilateral relations in the agricultural and agribusiness sectors. Another step forward will be the presence of Nigeria at the upcoming Paris International Agriculture Show, one of the major global agriculture shows, in February-March 2024.

What motivated the French government to commit $116 million to support startups in Nigeria through the Investment in Digital and Creative Enterprises (I-DICE) Program? What are your objectives?

I-DICE itself is a Federal Government initiative aiming at significantly impacting the youth. Its main objective is to contribute to job creation and to reinforce youth employability thereby assisting the Federal Government to achieve its National Development Plan objective of creating 21 million jobs by 2025. This program aims at creating 150,000 jobs and 65,000 start-ups.

Our interest to support this program was therefore driven by the tremendous potential we foresee in Nigeria – and globally in Africa – regarding the opportunities in the digital, cultural and creative sectors. One of the key components of I-DICE is to support the creation of innovative businesses and start-ups. However, the program goes beyond that. France’s contribution will also directly support the strengthening and development of key skills in the creative industries and the ICT sector by enhancing capacities of identified training centers, in order to sustain this industry on a long run.

Read also: France commits $116m to support Nigerian startups

In empirical terms, what benefits do you foresee for Nigerian start-ups and entrepreneurs as a result of this?

France has designated Nigeria as a priority country for digital and creative sectors. Over the last four years, we have developed many projects and partnerships with professionals from the local technology, film, animation, video-game industries, as well as esports, fashion and design. The I-DICE program will be the opportunity to have French expertise coming onboard and sharing knowledge with the graduates and young professional trainees as well as the digital enterprises and start-ups. The main areas where we see this happening are in animation, robotics and artificial intelligence.

Last but not least, the program plans to have at least 40 percent of women as trainees. Therefore, it will strongly contribute to the women empowerment agenda of the Nigeria Government. Moreover, I would be happy to see a new “Communauté Afrique France Entrepreneurs” be launched here, in Lagos, after having launched one in Abidjan and in Nairobi in the past year.

There have been a number of programs and interventions by AFD, how many businesses have been reached till date and how much impact has been made?

Indeed, AFD Group has invested around 3 billion USD over the last decade. AFD is a public development finance institution, which provides Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Nigeria through the financing of development programmes. It does not invest directly into businesses, but its interventions in infrastructure projects (for instance in energy, water supply, rural roads) are meant to create an enabling environment for Nigerian enterprises to thrive. However, some flagship programmes, such as I-DICE, have been designed to support entrepreneurship more directly.

PROPARCO, the AFD subsidiary dedicated to the private sector, has invested 1 billion USD over a 15-year period on partnership with local and pan-African financial institutions (banks, insurers and microfinance institutions), investment funds (private equity and venture capital funds), growth stage companies as well as startups within the renewable energy, agribusiness and tech space.

Read also: Chamber puts Nigeria-France trade volume at €3.53bn yearly

Are there any other specific initiatives or programs aimed at strengthening economic and cultural ties between France and Nigeria that you would like to highlight?

France puts cultural and creative industries at the centre of its partnership with Nigeria. Over the last years, we have strongly increased our cooperation and funding in order to build sustainable partnerships and to support young artists and cultural entrepreneurs.

We have organised many professional training sessions in sectors such as animation, film industry, video games or esports. We have worked on the digitization of cultural archives. We facilitated the participation of Nigerian creators and professionals to the Paris Games Week, the Annecy festival and other big events such as the MIPCOM/MIPJUNIOR in Cannes.

All these actions are currently continuing, and contribute to structuring fruitful relations between Nigeria and France. Considering their success, we decided this year to extend our partnerships to design and fashion with the launch of the Accelerator “Lagos x Paris”, and also performing arts; dance in particular.

Finally, what major French investments should we be expecting in the near future?

All I can tell you for the moment is that the representatives of about 10 French companies, from all industries, have made the trip to Nigeria with me. This reflects the importance of Nigeria for French business. Stay tuned for the investment announcements that will follow in the near future.