Cyrille Bolloré’s new African agenda

By Julien Clémençot
Posted on Thursday, 30 June 2022 14:05

Cyrille Bolloré
Cyrille Bolloré during the general meeting of the Bolloré Group's shareholders, which saw him succeed his father at the head of the holding company, in Paris, France, 15 April 2019. ©ROMUALD MEIGNEUX/SIPA

The sale of Bolloré's port activities marks the assumption of power by Vincent Bolloré's son, who is focusing his efforts on entertainment and communication while opening up to agriculture. An overview of the French CEO’s new agenda in Africa.

For many in Dakar, Abidjan or Yaoundé, the sale by Bolloré of its logistics and port activities on the continent to Switzerland’s Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) felt like the end of an era… and era when Africa still held an important place within the French group.

The agreement took several governments by surprise, for even though they suspected negotiations were underway, they did not appreciate being presented with a fait accompli. The company that had been a historic partner of some forty countries had seemingly just turned its back on them.

Reassuring heads of state

“This is absolutely not the case, our presence south of the Sahara will continue and be a long-term one. As far as transport is concerned, if the transaction with the MSC Group comes to an end, the Bolloré Africa Logistics (BAL) teams will ensure the continuity of activities for the benefit of their clients and local populations. Everything that has been built by our teams over decades will continue to benefit Africa and Africans. Moreover, Bolloré Logistics will remain a specialist in Africa and will continue to connect the continent to the rest of the world through its network present everywhere else,” says Fabricio Protti, the Bolloré Group’s deputy CEO.

Our presence south of the Sahara will continue and be a long-term one

In Puteaux, just outside Paris, on the 17th floor of the tower that bears his family name, Cyrille Bolloré, the heir appointed chairman and CEO in 2019, knows that he still has to reassure Africans on this point. If his father, Vincent, established personal links with several presidents and ex-presidents such as Alassane Ouattara or Alpha Condé, he appears much less connected to African powers – if only because of the age difference with this ruling class. “Cyrille meets and works with heads of state, public authorities and representatives of civil society in all the countries where the group is invested and involved,” says Fabricio Protti.

Together with Diego Aponte, MSC president, who was also installed by his father at the head of his group, Vincent Bolloré’s son will meet with these heads of state between now and the end of the year to clear up any misunderstanding. It is a question of obtaining the necessary authorisations to finalise the deal valued at €5.7 billion. But also to avoid handicapping future projects that he imagines to be numerous, profitable and very diverse. Although his group’s turnover will drop by more than €2.3 billion with the sale of BAL, Vivendi – which he controls – employs 4,000 people and now generates nearly $1 billion in annual revenue.

Targeting the African middle class

To increase his family group’s profits, Bolloré will rely first on Canal +. His boss, Canal+ Africa CEO David Mignot, is in charge of the Vivendi Africa Committee, which meets every quarter with the heads of subsidiaries involved on the continent. The audiovisual group has experienced very strong growth in recent years since it reoriented its offerings towards the African middle classes. “From less than one million subscribers ten years ago, we have now grown to nearly seven million in French-speaking countries,” Mignot says.

In Africa, viewers flock to locally-produced programming over American blockbusters

Initially focused on the distribution of satellite television packages, Canal +, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary in Africa this year, has lowered its fees and taken the gamble of creating new channels tailored to the continent. It now puts out 35 channels, all created after 2015, including many in local languages such as Wolof, Malagasy and Amharic.

Last year, it established itself in Ethiopia – a $100 million project – where it has won over 100,000 households, despite a political context made more complicated than expected by the government’s war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). “Two or three years ago, all this was just on Powerpoint presentations. Today, we also have a free channel in Addis Ababa that we want to make the country’s leading television station and a studio that has already dubbed thousands of hours of programming,” says Mignot.

Canal+ is also investing several dozen million euros this year in the purchase and production of local productions. The aim is to release eight world-class original creations in 2022 and between ten and twelve next year. Series like Cacao, which the group’s African customers can find on the My Canal platform, which is now the same as the one used by European subscribers. “And we see that these [local] programmes have more viewers there than American blockbusters do,” says the Canal+ Africa chief.

Stock market raid

At the same time, Canal+ is continuing to increase its stake in MultiChoice, its alter ego in the English-speaking world (21.8 million subscribers), beginning in 2020. It recently acquired an additional 3% to bring its share to over 18%. Accustomed to stock market raids in Europe, the Bolloré group does not communicate on this financial strategy. Ongoing co-production projects between Canal+ and MultiChoice suggest that the French offensive is not currently a worry for the South African group’s management.

Thanks to Vivendi’s Africa committee, David Mignot, who began his career in the telecoms sector, is also closely following the extension of the aerial fibre optic networks of Group Vivendi Africa (GVA), the subsidiary headed by Brazilian Marco de Assis. Inspired by the experience of the Brazilian operator Global Village Telecom (GVT) – sold in 2014 to Telefonica – Vivendi has been connecting middle-class homes (1.5 million eligible households) to broadband since 2015 in countries where Canal + is well established.

The company is already present in Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Congo, DRC, Rwanda and Gabon, and covers twelve major cities which – with the exception of three – have more than one million inhabitants. We estimate that between €100 million and €150 million has already been mobilised for the construction of these networks. “There is obviously a great deal of complementarity between the networks created by GVA and the content distribution activities of Canal+,” explains de Assis.

Alongside Canal+ and GVA, Vivendi also continues to operate the twenty Canal Olympia theatres. None of them closed during the two-year pandemic, and according to a source within Vivendi, their attendance has already caught up with pre-Covid levels. On the other hand, the complementarity with the African branch of the Universal entertainment group is gone, since the latter was floated on the stock exchange in 2021, with Vivendi retaining only 10% of its capital. Bolloré can, however, still count on the eight Havas agencies in Africa, which notably manage its companies’ communications.

An influential network

The Havas communications consultancy allowed Cyrille Bolloré’s father to create an influential network, particularly in certain countries, to the point where the French justice system found cause to investigate. Vincent Bolloré is currently still under investigation in a case where Havas is suspected of having undercharged for communication services to Togo’s President Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé, as part of a deal to obtain the 35-year concession for the container terminal at the port of Lomé in 2009.

Recently, the businessman asked for the cancellation of this procedure, charging that it was no longer legitimate since the justice system had already accepted the signing of a financial agreement to settle the proceedings against the Bolloré group last year. This case initially included similar charges concerning communication services rendered to Alpha Condé, but these were dropped in 2019 because the statute of limitations had expired.

In addition, Vivendi is present in the African publishing field via its subsidiary Editis – a fact that is less controversial and not as well known. Its Nathan brand has been supplying textbooks to a number of countries for half a century and in September 2021 it created Nathan TV, a channel offering educational content for children. “There are also a lot of authors to be discovered,” says Mignot. To develop this talent, Vivendi has just created the Nimba publishing house, whose offices are located on the Canal+ premises in Abidjan.

The continent’s food issues are a priority for Cyrille Bolloré. That’s why he wants to invest in the agricultural sector

If, in the field of entertainment and communication, Cyrille Bolloré is following the strategic plan his father validated in 2015, the youngest son also intends to make his own mark. “For the past eight years, he has travelled extensively in Africa. The food issues on the continent seemed to be a priority for him. That is why he wants to invest in the agricultural sector. It’s absolutely not a question of acquiring thousands of hectares to grow crops ourselves, but of providing technical and financial support to local farmers, in accordance with best practices,” explains Protti.

Under pressure from NGOs

The scope of these new projects has not yet been fully defined, says the deputy CEO, but it should include technical advice, loans to producers, particularly to finance the purchase of inputs, and the purchase, processing and sale of agricultural products. The processed products will be marketed on the continent under new brands that the French group also wants to create. For logistics, Bolloré will rely on MSC. The young boss plans to visit the countries that will be targeted in person, as he did recently in Senegal, where he met with President Macky Sall. According to Africa Business +, Jeune Afrique’s premium business newswire, €50 to 100 million should be released to finance these projects.

These investments will not be the first for the group in the African agribusiness sector. For many years, it has held about 39% of the Belgian company Socfin, which produces rubber and palm oil in the Gulf of Guinea countries. This partner has been accused by various NGOs of abuse since 2010, particularly in Cameroon. The Belgian group, via its subsidiary Socapalm, refuted these actions in a letter sent to Jeune Afrique on 23 June, saying that it promotes a serene environment with its employees, partner planters and local populations.

`To put further pressure on Socfin, a group of non-governmental organisations filed a complaint against Bolloré, accusing it of not having exercised its influence to improve the situation. At the beginning of June, the Versailles appeals court validated the procedure. Vincent Bolloré has always been adamant about this issue, saying he is nothing more than a dormant shareholder in Socfin and does not interfere in its management. All eyes are now on Cyrille Bolloré, a proponent of ecologically and socially responsible investments and the new administrator of the Belgian group.

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