(Business in Cameroon) - A former executive of local and foreign multinationals, this lobbyist is renowned as an excellent business negotiator. He recently launched, in Douala, Glencoe Advisory - a company specialized in advising and supporting investors in Francophone sub-Saharan Africa. In this interview, he provides insights into the science of negotiation, reveals his ambitions, and shares his opinions regarding entrepreneurship and the business climate in Cameroon.
Business in Cameroon: You are often referred to as a negotiation expert. Could you tell us more about it?
Serge Esso: We negotiate every day, in our jobs, areas of responsibility, and even our personal lives. In this regard, using rational and seemingly incontrovertible arguments is not enough. They must be presented in a good way while taking into account all elements concerned, as well as surroundings. In general, a negotiation is any interaction, where parties with different interests have to reach an agreement, but it is first a dialogue.
Also, when it comes to business, starting a project, making a decision, or handling conflict, negotiation is an alternative to resorting to force, authority, or the law. The global trade industry is going through a constant change and with this comes a growing interest in Africa, a market that can be difficult to understand. The latter is mostly due to a lack of reliable data, and misunderstanding of local realities; making international investors skeptical and discouraging them from seeing Africa as a priority, despite its potential. Over the years, we were able to decipher the maze between potential investors and countries they want to invest in.
Very often, we had to match the investors’ strategy and objectives to the political and socio-economic ambitions of recipient markets. In this view, our expertise lies in anticipating and resolving differences that may exist between the various parties concerned. We help our clients (foreign investors in Cameroon) and other parties concerned (notably State institutions), in their activities, reconcile their economic and sociopolitical interests, respectively.
BC: How can good or bad negotiation affect a business?
SE: The impact of a bad negotiation on a business is well established. There are tons of cases of social uprisings due to poor communication or negotiation between companies and their staff or unions. Similarly, there are cases where companies, due to disagreements with local authorities, had to exit a host country and suffer various consequences….
Negotiation takes place at all levels of a business, among all involved parties. Each party can impede or even cause the business to collapse if they are not understood and handled with care. From the staff to institutions, as well as suppliers, clients, the civil society, the press, and the public, good negotiation is critical for the efficient functioning of a business.
Negotiating wages, fixing product prices, negotiating tax reliefs, securing licenses and other approvals, establishing and preserving good relations with institutions and States are all issues that require negotiation and which can decide the fate of a business.
BC: Many people associate corruption with negotiations between business partners. What do you think about that perception?
SE: In terms of conformity, the world and Africa especially are going through major changes, a revolution even. We are therefore hoping that the business world will improve and that good governance will expand. People usually associate lobbying and negotiation with corruption so we have to prove that it is possible for lobbying to be ethical, efficient, and scientific.
We have been doing this for some years now, with a certain success. As Africans, we are well aware of the damages of corruption and are determined to protect future generations’ heritage. Also, national and international institutions, as well as big multinationals and international investors have set strict rules no serious company would ignore, at the risk of facing severe repercussions (SOX, AML, FCPA…) Corruption is a bottomless pit which does not really benefit anyone but hurts instead. That is why at Glencoe Advisory, meeting the true needs of parties and complying with governance rules is our top priority.
BC: Throughout your career, you have worked for foreign multinationals mostly. What do you think of Cameroonian companies and entrepreneurs?
SE: It was through a force of circumstance that I worked for foreign multinationals and certainly not because I wished to avoid Cameroonian companies. If I had the chance to put my expertise at the service of Cameroonian firms, I would have done so proudly and with passion. Cameroon has great opportunities to offer and Cameroonian entrepreneurs are known for their boldness and perseverance.
And while the country’s economic and socio-political dynamics can be challenging, some of our compatriots, seasoned businessmen, and women, are listed among Africa’s greatest fortunes. Cameroonian entrepreneurs deserve the respect and support matching their capacities and dynamism. This said, companies would benefit from meeting international business standards and better treating their human resources, which is the primary asset of any business.
BC: Based on your experience in multinationals and investment counseling, what are, according to you, the main weaknesses of Cameroonian businesses and how can they be tackled?
SE: Like many businesses around the world, Cameroonian businesses face multiple difficulties related to their environment. Instead of talking about weaknesses, we believe these are challenges that Cameroonian businesses have to overcome. The first challenge is the lack of professionalism in business management. It appears that many Cameroonian “empires” are family businesses.
While this is normally not an issue, it becomes one if skills fail to match the needs of the business. Also, when a business is built and run only by its founder, once this person dies, the risk of the subsequent collapse of the empire is great. The second major challenge that Cameroonian businesses face is a poor customer relationship and service management. In a competitive market, in a certain way, it is the customer who regulates it. Unfortunately, we have a lot of work to do in this area in Cameroon, especially considering that multinationals are far ahead.
BC: Many international reports say the business environment in Cameroon is difficult. As an entrepreneur and investment advisor, what is your opinion in this regard?
SE: On many occasions, using our competitive spirit and experience, we were able to find opportunities in difficulties. As conceived by political authorities, the business framework exists solely to provide fairness and protection to all actors. Though there is still much to do to improve our business environment, we must praise the government’s efforts in making it easier for investors to enter the country. Many institutions, such as the Investment Promotion Agency (Agence de promotion des investissements - API), attest that the State is determined to get rid of the bad reputation attributed to the Cameroonian business environment. There is also the investment code and the incentives aimed at attracting foreign direct investments (FDIs). The greatest challenge here is to bridge the gap between existing measures (which reflect the will of political authorities) and their implementation in the field. This is something we must contribute to.
BC: How would you convince an investor who is interested in Cameroon but hesitates because of the negative perception of risk assessment entities?
SE: There is always an available spot for any entrepreneur in a market where much has to be done or revisited. Unfortunately, opportunities are limited for those who focus on the negative. It is important to understand the interests of the State, its vision, policies, development strategy, and to make sure your business aligns with those. Instead of giving up because things are hard, it would be best to be inspired by existing success-stories and give yourself every chance to succeed. Giving yourself every chance implies apprehending stakeholders’ management and knowing the right people.
Indeed, regardless of the financial, technological, human, and other resources foreign investors have, their project will struggle to succeed, if their strategy does not take into account handling the various parties involved. This requires an in-depth analysis of macroeconomic, geopolitical, sociological, political, cultural, and even anthropological situations in the targeted market, and the basis is the Law and Rules in place. Whatever the case, an entrepreneur or investor is first someone who is not scared to take risks and who simply needs to do their homework well and grasp local realities.
BC: What do you think of Cameroonian startups and what can be done to make them thrive better, in the digital economy era?
SE: The startup industry is booming in Cameroon. As jobs get more scarce, many young Cameroonians turn to entrepreneurship. This is good for us since it means the youth is aware of their potential and surrounding opportunities. More can be done and we are doing it, especially at the Silicon Mountain in the southwest of Cameroon… In this digital economy era, which is often associated with e-commerce and digitization, digital technology could be an amazing asset for startups seeking to emerge. It impacts all economic sectors and is currently one of the key drivers of growth. The Cameroonian State understood this and that is why they have set a framework for the digital economy.
However, public authorities would greatly benefit from switching to a fully digital administration, especially considering that it dovetails with the digital economy. Nevertheless, as futuristic, modern, and technological as today’s economy may be, it can’t do without the foundations of creating and running a business. The ease of starting a business digitally tends to cause young entrepreneurs to, unfortunately, ignore legal, structural, and strategic prerequisites for starting a business. Also, for any business to grow and succeed, rigor, discipline, and good governance are necessary.
Interview by Brice R. Mbodiam