Photograph — 'AGEFI

The African CEO Forum began in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2012 as a gathering for some of the biggest players in African business to interact and discuss investment opportunities. Seven years later, with 142 journalists, 1800 participants, 70 countries represented, 5000 CEOs, and 40 government ministers, it has become the biggest meeting for African CEOs, bankers and investors. With the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (a continent-wide integration that potentially will be the biggest trade bloc globally) in 2018 in Kigali, the prospects for African businesses to have better opportunities will be further emboldened.

The Africa CEO Forum provides a platform for such Public-Private Partnerships between African governments and the private sector to begin, including the Public-Private deal rooms at the forum where investors and representatives of African governments meet face-to-face in exclusive behind-the-door meetings. For these investments to become reality, the policies inherent in the AfCFTA have to come into play.

As the 2019 edition of the forum came to a close in Kigali on the 26th of March, Ventures Africa had a chat with the forum’s President and CEO, Amir Ben Yahmed. He spoke extensively on economic integration, which was the focus of this year’s forum, the importance of Public-Private Partnership in Africa.

Amir Ben Yahmed, President of the Forum, discussing with the Women in Business Leadership.

Ventures Africa (VA): What were you hoping to achieve when you formed the Africa CEO forum 7 years ago?

Amir Ben Yahmed (ABY): So the reason why we launched the African CEO forum 7 years ago now was to create a platform to gather most of the biggest African private sector companies in Africa. The idea was to try to connect them, break down borders by creating new relationships, helping CEOs to get to know each other, get them to also know the financial industry which was interested in investing in the companies. Having better visibility with media and create a success story for Africa.

VA: Do you think you have been able to achieve that now?

ABY: I think so. you have been here right (laughs)

VA: What has been your greatest challenge in these 7 years?

ABY: Frankly we have no real challenges since everything that we have tried to do has worked out perfectly. The idea was to first to try to get together as many CEOs from French-speaking countries in Africa to English speaking countries in Africa, having the financial community (of Africa) here, having the public officials here. You see now that we have always three to four presidents that we select. Everything is going very well, there is fantastic interest and the forum is growing every year so it’s good.

VA: What do you expect to achieve at the end of the 2019 forum?

ABY: This forum was very important because it was with economic integration as a backdrop. Then we wanted to put in the mind of business in the private sector leaders that it was their time now to take ownership of the safety and the lobbies for it to move forward so that it can create markets and business they had to challenge government so that it goes faster.

VA: Going forward, how do you think the CEO forum can contribute to the CFTA? 

ABY: We have already contributed I think we have been the forefront of economic recreation because we have connected since the inception of the forum more than 5000 CEOs we have launched just during this forum the Africa CEO network which is another tool to help bring them together and work toward the common market so that is our goal since the start.

VA: What are your recommendations for African governments regarding the CFTA? What are your recommendations for them to attract investment?

ABY: First you know the African political environment has realized that things have changed. You cannot win an election now easily, you cannot be sure that you’re going to be here for the next Monday. Your best shot is being good at the economy. To be good at the economy, you need to have your private sector leaders believe in you and investors come in and they need to take the private sector into account now because otherwise, they will have no future as politicians.

Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame meets with Africa CEOs Forum President Amir Ben Yahmed on the sidelines of the VivaTech2018

VA: What should the government do to translate these AfCFTA policies into reality?

ABY: No, you will be able to look round the forum. You should see a little bit of every panel, there is a lot of subjects there’s the financial industry, logistics, agribusiness. All of these have their own issues in terms of regional integration. The purpose of the forum is to create first a conversation on this issue and I think from now on business federation, the CEO Forum, the CEOs themselves have to make real meetings within their respective countries to make sure the CFTA moves along.

VA: You have started the public-private deal rooms this year. Are you looking to expand it by inviting other African countries to participate in these deal rooms?

ABY: Yes but we still want the forum to be close-knit. We don’t want the forum to go beyond a certain size. So we will always host 4 or 5 countries not more because otherwise, it’s too big. So we want to keep the forum very intimate with high-quality participants.

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