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‘Africa is not regressing, it is changing,’ says Axian Group CEO Hiridjee

By Julien Clémençot
Posted on Friday, 19 November 2021 11:45

Hassanein Hiridjee, Axian’s CEO, in RFI’s offices in Paris. Bruno Levy for JA

Franco-Malagasy entrepreneur Hassanein Hiridjee weighes in on the issues affecting the continent: from climate change to political crises, including the management of the pandemic and France and Africa’s evolving relationship, which he hopes will become more open.

From a simple oil mill in the 1920s, the Hiridjee family has built up Axian Group into a juggernaut of the Malagasy economy, over three generations. Hassanein and his brother, Amin, have accelerated its development.

Since 2016, the two have combined their activities in the telecoms, banking and energy sectors within the pan-African group Axian. Also present in the Comoros, Senegal, Mali, Togo and the French island of Reunion, it will soon be active in Tanzania, as it has taken over the subsidiary of telecoms operator Millicom. Its turnover will then reach around $1.7bn.

Hassanein Hiridjee weighed in on the issues affecting the continent the most: from climate change to political crises, including the management of the pandemic and – because he has French nationality – France and Africa’s evolving relationship, which he hopes will become more open.

Question: The COP26 in Glasgow put the issue of combating global warming back on the agenda. Do entrepreneurs need to think about the environmental impact of their activities? 

Hassanein Hiridjee: Yes, of course. It is our responsibility to make sure that we are driving economic transformation and reducing emissions. The private sector is aware of this, but are they being provided with the means to transform? At Axian, we have been doing an annual carbon footprint assessment for some years now. We measure the pollution generated by each of our activities and future projects, and take measures to reduce it.

During the 2000s, your group focused on distributing refined petroleum products and producing electricity from fuel oil. You then moved towards renewable energy. What triggered this new strategy?

Since the 2000s, we have noticed that the issues related to global warming were becoming obvious. In Madagascar, unfortunately, we live with this climate injustice on a daily basis. We don’t emit CO2, we don’t pollute, but we do pay a heavy price, as demonstrated by the drought that is affecting the southern part of the country. This was already evident in the 2000s.

Another reason is our development in telecoms. When we densified our networks, we realised that we had a dual business. We are not only a telephone provider, but also an electricity provider, because we go into areas where there is no electricity. The easiest solution was to produce clean electricity. That was the trigger.

Regarding telephony, the continent has been equipped exponentially over the past 25 years. With the tools we have today, we could develop the field of electrification just as quickly. The digital and green energy revolutions can accelerate this movement.

Through our company, Welight’s projects, we hope to accelerate development of the equipment, accessibility and lowering of the price, by combining a payment solution with clean and decentralised energy production.

Over the past few weeks, the news has been dominated by coups in Guinea and Sudan, and before that, Mali. In addition to the bad news, there is the year-long war in Ethiopia. Is Africa going backwards?

It is not regressing. It is changing. We realise that certain changes are inflicting damage. However, young leaders, who have their hearts in the right place, and a vision, are helping to transform the continent. You brought up countries where there have been coups d’état, but think about those that are moving forward, such as Togo. We have been working there for three years and have witnessed a government that is a driving force in all the cycles of the economy, whether it is in terms of energy equipment, telecoms, health care or education. The country has been steadily rising through the ranks of the ‘Doing Business’ ranking, it’s amazing.

There is, as we have just mentioned, an Africa that is losing, but also hope that Africa ultimately wins. Do you believe in the African Continental Free Trade Area [AfCFTA]?    

I am an optimist. Conceiving a vast project that will unleash the economy, free up energies – both in terms of the movement of goods and industry – will help structure the continent. What is going to be difficult is taking action. It will take time.

Are you also optimistic about growth in Africa? Is there enough funding to ensure its recovery?

We have to acknowledge that the pandemic has had an extremely negative impact on the continent’s growth. Of course, the human toll has been lower than in Europe, but the economy has suffered a lot. Today, we realise that the economic acceleration needed to meet our development challenges cannot be achieved without additional financing. Receiving IMF Special Drawing Rights will help accelerate this, but it will not be enough. Africa needs renewed confidence from private investors and for major infrastructure projects to resume as quickly as possible.

This also means vaccinating Africans…

We need to be given the vaccines. Europe is already talking about third doses, while Africa would simply like to have the vaccines. Efforts are being made to produce them in Senegal and Rwanda. Here, too, the movement must be accelerated.

How well did African governments manage the pandemic?

In terms of managing the crisis, we all discovered the virus at the same time and adapted our course of action. Everyone did the best they could, by closing markets and reducing people’s movement. Fortunately, the vaccine arrived, but it has been preempted by developed countries. Now Africa must have access to it.

At the beginning of October in Montpellier, during the last Africa-France summit, France’s President Emmanuel Macron changed tactics by talking with civil society rather than with his African counterparts. He also did not invite any business leaders from the continent. What did you think of this move? 

I think it was a great initiative because young people had a chance to express themselves and the floor was opened up. We have an extraordinary opportunity in Africa. The active population is young and asks for quite simple things: “Help us to educate ourselves, help us to create jobs. We are ready to take our destiny into our own hands and develop our economies. Join us.”

You are both French and Malagasy. What do you think about the criticism levelled against France, regarding its relationship with Africa? Is Françafrique still a reality?  

It’s very easy to rewrite history, to point out what didn’t work. I want to look to the future. How can we develop my country and the continent? How can I learn from the mistakes of the past?

Let us learn from this and improve things. France wants to have a relaxed relationship with Africa, it wants to be its partner. France has an extremely rich relationship with Africa, one that is reciprocal. African youth are Francophiles. Let’s hold out our hands. Let’s create bridges, not divisions.

Actions are needed. Is returning cultural property one of them?

It is a strong act, but it should not be an isolated one. These objects should not be put in a corner.

What bridges can we create? Let’s take an example. President Macron launched the Africa 2020 cultural season initiative. As a private sector player, we are one of the major sponsors of African culture. We established the H Foundation to promote young contemporary African talent and we participated in the 2020 season, which enabled us to present all types of African work: plastic arts, music, dance, etc. This initiative should be expanded. We don’t just need an Africa 2020 season, we need an Africa 2030 season.

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