Interview with Gervais Koffi Djondo

Koffi Djondo should be a household name in Africa. He shows us that entrepreneurship does not stop at 40. Some 30 years ago, Djondo, as head of the French-speaking West African Chamber of Commerce decided to merge his institution with his English-speaking counterparts. The idea was to create a truly united West African business community […]


Koffi Djondo should be a household name in Africa. He shows us that entrepreneurship does not stop at 40. Some 30 years ago, Djondo, as head of the French-speaking West African Chamber of Commerce decided to merge his institution with his English-speaking counterparts. The idea was to create a truly united West African business community which would help the region integrate through economic cooperation.

He went on to found a pan-African financial institution – that saw the birth of Ecobank. Twenty years on, frustrated by the slow integration of the continent and the lack of connectivity between the various countries, he decided to launch a regional airline, Asky. The indefatigable and determined Djondo went global fund raising whilst striking a partnership with Ethiopian Airlines. This year, the airline registered its millionth passenger. Djondo is a true advocate of the private sector and says it is only a thriving private sector that will create jobs and that governments need to understand this and work harder to create this enabling environment.

Q | What drives you to wake up every day with an irresistible desire to take on new projects, when one might expect you to enjoy a well-earned retirement?
I love Africa and I think it is time that Africa woke up. I want Africa to really gain in stature as regards development. So I believe that it is up to us Africans to shake things up and really get the ball rolling. And first and foremost I mean African integration.

This is why Ecobank is a pan-African business, why Asky is a pan-African business. As long as Africa fails to understand that it is in our interest to be united and, above all, to change – I would even advocate one day forming a bloc to trade with the rest of the world, starting with inter-African trade in horizontal terms – then everything that we do is merely adhering to the colonial model for small, inconsequential states. All we are doing is sending everything to the north, i.e. Europe and the rest of the world, but nothing among ourselves; we are not changing anything. It’s absurd. We need to wake up and fight this.

This is why African integration is such an important thing, something dreamed of by our founding fathers, such as Nkrumah. Anyway, that’s what drives me on, plain and simple. But now I am tired.

Q | What were the difficulties you were forced to face when launching your latest project, Asky?
As I was just saying, we need to stand together. Our states have still not understood that nowadays we need to be united when it comes to air travel.  There is no point in every country, every state, wanting its own airline. Similar hopes have existed in the past; they all came to nothing. And yet we are still carrying on along the same path. This is why I say that we need a new understanding of things. Asky is an entirely private concept, managed privately with the purpose of making progress.

Q | But have you had any difficulties in bringing the project up to date? In order to obtain certain authorisations, to operate in certain countries, for example. 
Of course, there have been a great number of difficulties. Dakar took over two years to sort out. Success was achieved thanks to the political changes that took place. I went to see the new President, Macky Sall, who was very understanding. He immediately authorised traffic rights for Asky. The previous transport minister closed everything. 

It was incredible when you consider that Senegal calls for pan-Africanism, integration etc., when you remember that, when we were young, Dakar was the centre point of West Africa. The capital of West Africa! It is outrageous that a country should behave like that, after independence. We have finally resolved things. Apart from that, there was often a problem with headquarters, jobs and roles; everyone wants the same thing.

We never make any progress. This is actually one of the reasons why I made an agreement and signed a contract with Ethiopian Airlines, entrusting them with the administration for five years. After five years, we shall see.

There were difficulties: some countries demanded that the headquarters be in their country, others that their country should appoint the managing director. We encountered all these difficulties. The fact that we are in Togo is not because it is my country. It’s because I asked every state, every country, a certain number of questions and hypotheses. The country that gave the best answer and the best guarantee was Togo, plain and simple. But let me be clear: once Asky starts to develop a lot more, my initial action plan provides for the decentralising of certain activities. For example, the professional training centre may be located in this country or that country. Or, as another example, the hub for international flights may be in another country. In short, there are many things we can do to achieve decentralisation.

Q | There is a sort of double-speak from the heads of state, who claim that they are open to pan-Africanism, but in reality that is not the case.
We see this every day. We notice this every day. Alas… But it will happen. You know, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Q | So the political will needs to change?
The political will must change. The political will first needs to understand the changes under way in today’s world. This is a duty for every African, as this development evolves.

Q | Is today’s context more favourable for the private sector than 25 years ago, when you set up Ecobank?
Yes, today’s context and climate is much more favourable. I have to say that we have made a contribution to this, too. But there is a major difference between the French-speaking and English-speaking countries; I must admit that the English-speaking countries are much more advanced than their French-speaking counterparts when it comes to the private sector. This is a fact.

Q | Are the French-speaking countries starting to catch up? 
Yes, we are getting there, little by little. Côte d’Ivoire Senegal, Togo, Benin, Cameroon, Congo. Everywhere.

Q | Have you noticed a change in attitude towards the private sector, from French-speaking governments? 
Yes, there has been a change. But it’s not enough. The governments need to understand that SMEs and SMIs need help to develop, so that large businesses subcontract and companies of every size can derive some benefits. This must be our goal.

Q | People often say that access to funding is one of the main obstacles for an entrepreneur. What is your view, in light of your experience as a founding father of Ecobank? 
What people fail to understand is that all our banks are subject to the effects of our regulatory systems. Central banks impose a certain number of constraints on private banks and commercial banks. In other words, you cannot grant credit up to a certain level of your capital stock. This is right and proper. But the most annoying thing is that if people don’t pay you, and there is still a major discrepancy between the credit awarded and your income, the central bank will take away your licence. You will no longer be able to operate. And this is what the general public doesn’t understand, is not even aware of. And once again, we return to states, to national policy, to private sector development facilities. We are not the central banks. They are not the private sector, but the state.

Q | If you could ask the heads of state one thing that would make your life easier, what would it be?
I would ask them to consider every day that the private sector is the biggest provider of jobs. I must really emphasise this; the private sector, everywhere, is the biggest provider of jobs and therefore they need to take it seriously; whether they need to have a ministry for the private sector – I still don’t know if that is going to change – but everyone, every government, all the political powers and public authorities should be aware that you can’t mess around with the private sector. It has to be listened to! They have to be listened to and harnessed together. We need dialogue with the private sector. This is the only way that they will really understand our problems. There are management structures everywhere; there are chambers of commerce everywhere; and these are the structures governments should always be talking to. This is where the change will come from.  

Q | What are these problems?
We discussed the problems earlier: I mentioned credit problems, the constraints imposed by the central banks. We need to analyse these problems; we can’t open everything up, but discussion is necessary – discussion with the stakeholders in the private sector. I feel we also need, within the governmental structures… it’s true that we have a Minister of Trade, but that doesn’t mean a minister of all business activities. But perhaps one day they will realise that a complete Ministry is necessary, one which handles all the problems in the private sector.

Q | Which project are you most proud of? 
Listen, I have no wish to compare any one negatively with another. We have Ecobank. We have Asky. Asky is still young. I am proud of both these projects.

Q | And do you have anything to say about the goings-on at Ecobank? 
I was expecting that question. Yes, Ecobank is today undergoing a crisis at the top, in terms of its governance. The board of directors is working hard to resolve this problem. And it will be resolved. I can assure you that it will be resolved.

It is a problem of governance. We need to see what happens. An audit has already been commissioned, which should analyse the whole situation and deliver a report within two or three months. And then sanctions will follow.

Q | And, Asky, are you satisfied with where you are? 
What I can say, as far as Asky is concerned, is that people are amazed that we have not yet introduced international routes. But when I set up the project, I intended us to start international routes within two years; but once I had grasped the needs, difficulties and problems in Africa, I decided to ask the board of directors to delay these international routes, and to master and solve vthe problems we face in Africa. We aren’t going to look elsewhere and expect others to solve them for us.

This is also one of the mistakes we make in Africa; we must solve our own problems. And, through a failure to integrate people, travel-related problems are first and foremost economic!

If I am unable to travel from one country to another, if I have a business in a given country and cannot travel there and back, if I need eight to 10 days to travel a thousand kilometres – we cannot do business, we cannot make progress! So there you have it, we need to focus on all that and people need to understand. This is why we don’t yet fly to Paris… everywhere, around the world.

Q | But are you, therefore, satisfied with the partnership with the African airline, Ethiopian Airlines?
Yes, I am satisfied. There is no such thing as an airline partnership without any problems. It doesn’t exist. You saw what happened in Senegal with Royal Air Maroc. And there are other examples. But in this case I would describe myself as satisfied.

We haven’t had any problems yet and I don’t think we will have any; things are going well. That is why we recently launched a cargo joint venture with Ethiopian Airlines.

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