BusinessInterviewCôte d'Ivoire: We must improve things for SMEs - Jean-Louis Billon

Sat,18Nov2017

Côte d'Ivoire: We must improve things for SMEs - Jean-Louis Billon

By Baudelaire Mieu in Abidjan

Jean-Louis Billion, Côte d'Ivoire's Minister of Commerce/Photo©Camille Millerand for jAAcknowledging that corruption and poverty are still high, Jean-Louis Billon, Côte d'Ivoire minister of commerce, sees small businesses and processing as the country's future.

The Africa Report: President Alassane Ouattara has promoted economic reform, downplaying questions about nationality and land. But there has been a worsening of the situation in terms of good governance and transparency.

Jean-Louis Billon: Problems are deeper than first thought. We have to be honest with ourselves. Over the years, bad habits became entrenched, and to eradicate them, you have to be stricter. The government can choose a direction, but the problem is still there on the ground. I think the government has to give harsher punishments if we want to resolve the problem.

Small companies, which are the engine of the economy, are in a precarious situation. How can they be revived?

We have started to analyse the situation to understand the best practices of other countries. We want to take inspiration from the model of the Small Business Act in the United States. You cannot have a competitive economy if the fabric of companies is not solid, competitive and perennial.

The idea is to reserve a minimum percentage of markets for SMEs. In the procedure of awarding government contracts, even if a large company wins, we should think about a mechanism that will allow it to subcontract to SMEs in order to give work to the largest number of actors. Reform of the bill paying system is also necessary in order to ensure that payment is concluded within 60 to 90 days. With that in place, SMEs can get pre-financing from banks.

The level of local transformation of natural resources is shocking.

Contrary to what people believe, manufacturing in Côte d'Ivoire costs more than manufacturing abroad. Wanting to process more natural resources is one thing, but being able to do so is another. At the moment, we do not have this competitiveness. For example, the transformation of cocoa is more expensive in Côte d'Ivoire than it is in Great Britain, the United States, Germany, France or Asia.

Bouaké has received the first cashew nut processing plant. Would you seek to repeat this initiative, even if it is costly?

Côte d'Ivoire produces 400,000tn of cashew nuts and processes no more than 5 percent. Our raw cashew nuts no longer need to be processed in Vietnam or India. From now on, we need direct access to European, American, North American and Asian markets for our processed and packaged nuts in all of their forms.

Do you think Côte d'ivoire has an industrial development strategy like Asian countries – for example palm oil in Malaysia?

Our country has one of the best adapted development strategies in the West African subregion. Asian strategies closely resemble ours. It is not worth comparing us to Western countries, we should compare Côte d'Ivoire to countries that are climatically similar and that historically took off at the same time or behind us and that can produce the same products. Those countries came to the same level as our country at one point and finally surpassed us.

There are some that sought inspiration from the 'Ivorian miracle' to construct their own. In the pineapple sector in Thailand, they looked at what was happening in Côte d'Ivoire. They did the same and then improved on it. It is the same for all of our products.

Today, Côte d'ivoire has made a strong recovery, but the population has not begun to see improvements. Why is that?

At the end of the crisis, the country had poverty levels of 50 percent, and that is enormous. And when we say 50 percent, that means there are zones where it is more than 80 percent. A growth rate of 9.8 percent is good and it is due to public investment and the take-off of economic activities. But we have so much catching up to do that it will take considerably longer. ●



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