Richard Attias, A Global Influencer

From 23 to 25 May, Gabon hosted the third New York Forum Africa (NYFA), which brings together decision-makers from all corners of the globe. Ahead of NYFA, Hichem Ben Yaïche interviewed Richard Attias, the man behind the event .


From 23 to 25 May, Gabon hosted the third New York Forum Africa (NYFA), which brings together decision-makers from all corners of the globe. Ahead of NYFA, Hichem Ben Yaïche interviewed Richard Attias, the man behind the event. 

This year, how will the New York Forum’s agenda innovate, in terms of its approach to topics and targets?

The New York Forum Africa 2014 will include several innovations. The first, which is a topic in itself, is the transformation of Africa.

For our first edition, we took into account what several sources like ICPublications magazines or the Economist with its  “Rising Africa” issue we already observing.Indeed, it was important to hold a large pan-African forum in Africa, and not in Parisian or London conference halls, to show that Africa, in the reality on the ground, was in the process of not only awakening but also preparing itself to rise.This point was discussed in Libreville, where a huge number of international participants met, many of whom had never previously set foot in Africa.

 During the second edition, in 2013, we highlighted the main growth-driving sectors: infrastructure, technology, innovation and many others.

 In the third edition, in 2014, it seemed important to us to look at the conditions for sustaining economic success. Indeed, Africa is growing fast economically but I also say: careful now, we have to think about the conditions for real, sustainable and inclusive growthAnd, from this point of view, Africa must transform. As a result, the theme for this year will focus on transformation. First, all natural resources must be processed here in Africa through local and regional industry.

To illustrate this theme, I simply borrowed a great phrase from President Ali Bongo, which he employed at the TICAD in Japan (2013): “By 2020, all natural resources produced by our continent must be processed on our continent.

” Our choice comes from President Bongo’s line of thought. To convert investments into jobs transformation must take place in various sectors:  in the education system by forging an elite, a true “grey matter”; fertile lands can also supply resources through agri-business. In this respect, the change of attitudes, hand-in-hand with this growth, is very important.

That’s an ambitious number of topics for a Forum. So, in terms of the operationalisation of ideas, in what way do you think we can turn words into actions?

You know, for those who have participated in our forums, we have a very strong ethos, which is to deal firmly in the practical! Even the format of our forums ensures that we come to our sessions with clear proposals, starting with the sharing of practical experiences.

There is also what we call our task-forces, which take place every day over 2.5 to 3 hours, where we are in small groups of 80 people discussing very specific topics – like the ones just mentioned–  and where we draft for example, “a roadmap” on what must be done practically so that, in a country, investments are transformed into jobs, and so on. To do that, we have to work through Public-Private Partnerships; they are the key to development in Africa. 

 Is the NYFA, which is organised in Libreville, a way of “selling Gabon”? Or does your strategy go beyond the Gabonese context?

 As you mention the host country, Gabon is an excellent example of what Africa must do, because in 2012, when we created this forum on President Bongo’s invitation, we based ourselves on the concept of emerging Gabon. It was one of the very first countries to bring up the concept of an emerging Sub-Saharan Africa.

Now this example is very much imitated nearly everywhere: Cameroon, Senegal, Equatorial Guinea etc. Consequently this three-dimensional project – green Gabon, services Gabon, and industrial Gabon – is at the heart of development through the diversification of the country’s economy, which was essentially based on natural resources.

Beyond Gabon, this vision is the keystone of the sustainable and inclusive development in Africa. To return to your question, yes, of course, the host country of NYFA is primarily concerned, but it is also about having an open, generous, pan-African NYFA.

In that respect, Gabon will host over 1,500 participants, of which three quarters come from abroad. Consequently, Gabon becomes an international meeting point when the Forum takes place. The country serves as, of course, a platform and an example. Clearly, it will benefit from the economic effects of this event, as well as the debates and the meetings which will also take place with Gabonese leaders.

Isn’t this kind of event an indulgence for Africa, which has other priorities? Everything has its price… 

My reaction is very simple: we must not systematically drag the continent down. Why shouldn’t it have the freedom to host large international conferences or large international events? For years, Africa has been deprived of hosting the World Cup. This continent must not be deprived of organising important events which attract not only international guests, but which also create a “positive attitude” towards itself! We have to stop beating ourselves up.

Organising an international conference or summit ora sporting event in your country represents something ambitious. Each country fights to be able to host the Africa Cup of Nations. With good reason! The event has important core values and helps them countries develop. When we talk about the issue of the costs of an international conference  – two to three, or sometimes four, million euros – these numbers have to be included in the context of an investment budget. There are returns on investment…

Of course! Last year during the New York Forum Africa, 600 million euros worth of partnership contracts and project agreements were signed! I’ll let you work it out: for less than 1 % of that amount you can organise a conference the impact of which is enormous. First, there are serious economic benefits brought to the country: 80 % of the money is spent in the country. A quarter of the amount represents accommodation fees in hotels, 20 % is spent on restaurants. Not to mention the technical aspects like signage, site rental, vehicles etc. where, essentially, the service providers are local Gabonese suppliers. There is therefore a huge contribution, in our spending, to the Gabonese economy. Many forget about that.

For example, since 1990, Morocco has developed what we call the business tourism industry, by hosting an international conference, an economic summit or other events every week. We hope that what we are doing will also inspire a large number of providers to look towards these activities linked to business tourism.

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