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Bastien Moreau (E13), Serial Entrepreneur: "Digital is Booming in Africa"

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Since 2012, Bastien Moreau (E13) has been working in Africa, where he has developed a number of startups. In his time in Egypt, Nigeria and Morocco, he has seen two revolutions first-hand: first the Arab Spring, then the continent’s digitalisation.

ESSEC Alumni: What were the major milestones in your career path?

Bastien Moreau: When I left ESSEC, I went into corporate finance, working at UBS in London. It took me a few months to realise that this experience wasn’t what I’d been hoping for. I wanted to be a manager— with a project, a team and results. I wanted to be able to be held responsible for failures and credited for successes that stemmed from my decisions.
That’s when I met the co-founders of Jumia, who were striving to develop Africa’s equivalent to Amazon and were looking for people interested in an entrepreneurial adventure in Africa. I didn’t know anything about the continent or e-commerce—and that’s exactly what convinced me to seize the opportunity.
And so I left for Egypt overnight, to build and develop Jumia’s operations—everything from supply and product storage to order preparation and delivery.
After 18 months on site, three changes of warehouse and a revolution (the overthrow of Morsi in June 2013), I was sent to Nigeria to begin the group’s strategic transition from the model of a retailer buying and reselling products to a marketplace model. There, I was in charge of adapting the systems in place, incorporating a new logistics system into the existing chain and recruiting the first sellers.
Later, I was appointed CEO of Jumia in Morocco, a position I held for 3.5 years. When I arrived, the company had 70 employees and an annual turnover of €3 million. Three years later, we were the leader of Moroccan e-commerce, with over 300 employees and turnover of €20 million.

EA: What difficulties did you face when developing Jumia?

B. Moreau: Recruitment was a problem. In France, you usually know what to expect in terms of education and experience given on applicants’ CVs. In Africa, the same CV can hide profiles of extremely variable quality. It was only after a few misses that I understood where the continent’s strengths lie: with its young people—who are often self-taught and don’t have degrees, who in most cases are resourceful and motivated and who are driven by a huge desire to learn and grow. They’re much more difficult to identify, but once you’ve found them, they are invaluable to a team in terms of involvement, loyalty and the ability to learn.
Another difficulty was the low level of digitalisation in Africa. But this obstacle soon disappeared with the emergence of the smartphone—which Africans have taken to much more easily than Europeans, as they never knew computer-based Internet access. That’s why, from the very beginning, we’ve always sought to build ‘mobile first’ platforms.
The third pitfall was the instability that’s inherent to certain African countries. I just mentioned the Egyptian revolution. We also experienced the devaluation of the Egyptian pound and the naira in 2015, which had a significant impact on companies whose turnover was in the local currency. Our strategy of geographical diversification really helped to limit the damage in that respect.
However, once we had overcome these obstacles, they actually became advantages because they also act as major barriers to entry for competitors.

EA: Did Rocket Internet’s support make all the difference in terms of these achievements?

B. Moreau: Although Jumia was launched by Rocket Internet, new investors very quickly acquired stakes, including Axa, Orange, Goldman Sachs, CDC, MTN and Millicom. However, the Rocket Internet spirit—its quality of execution and culture of performance—nonetheless remained, and it worked. And let’s not forget the initial capital that gave us the ability to move fast and to attract the talented people we needed. In addition, being part of the Rocket Internet ecosystem meant that we were able to discuss things with other teams that were also developing e-commerce in other regions, that were encountering similar or different problems and from whom we could take inspiration to replicate their success or to avoid repeating their mistakes.

EA: You left Jumia in early 2018 to develop goAfrica, another e-commerce business. How is this new project going?

B. Moreau: Our business involves making it easier for African SMEs to access imports from China, Europe and even from elsewhere in Africa. Once again, we’re facing difficulties: we need to overcome a number of logistics, currency and insurance problems in order to create a secure and efficient ecosystem. But we’re making good progress. We already have offices open and teams in place in China, Kenya, South Africa and Morocco, and our platform launch is imminent.

EA: In light of your experiences, how would you describe the digital economy in Africa?

B. Moreau: Digital has taken a long time to penetrate the majority of African markets. Some, such as Kenya, have been more responsive, while others have been less so. But in recent years, we’ve seen a real digital boom across the entire continent, thanks in particular to widespread smartphone access. This transformation has been felt in the retail sector, with the emergence of players such as Jumia, Souq and Konga, as well as in the transport sector, with the arrival of Uber, Taxify and Careem. Africa has also paved the way for the rest of the world when it comes to fintech. M-Pesa—a mobile payment platform that works via SSD (and even works with a feature phone)—is the perfect example: every year, an amount equivalent to the GDP of Kenya is sent via its services. This case study is now being used as a source of inspiration for the world’s biggest banking and telecoms operators.
And I think this is only the beginning. I think that very soon, the health and education sectors will turn to digital solutions to overcome the problems that currently seem unsolvable. In Nigeria, for example, it will take over 50 years to reach the minimum number of doctors per inhabitant recommended by the WHO—2.28 per 1000, compared to 0.4 today. You can count on technology to help pick up the pace. Or at least, I hope so...

EA: In your various roles, you’ve managed international teams. How did you approach the issue of intercultural management?

B. Moreau: I’ve always approached it with curiosity and interest—as an asset. It was one of the reasons I decided to work abroad: I wanted to get a real insight into other cultures and experience difference. And I wasn’t disappointed. Each country’s specific culture involves different practices and methods. It’s just as true for Africa as it is for the rest of the world. People in France, Germany and Spain work in very different ways from each other. It means you have to make adjustments, but it’s really interesting to look for—and find!—ways of making the best use of this diversity.

EA: You’ve worked in Egypt, Nigeria and Morocco. Which country do you think is the most promising for entrepreneurs at present? And which is the best investment as a foreigner?

B. Moreau: Those are two different questions. The safest country to invest in is definitely Morocco. It’s extremely stable in political, economic and monetary terms, which is very reassuring for a foreign investor. It also has the highest Internet penetration rate of the three countries. However, as an entrepreneur, the market size can be an obstacle.
Although Egypt is a lot more unstable, its market is recovering and has the great advantage of being at the crossroads of three worlds: Africa, Europe and Asia.
Out of the three, Nigeria probably presents the most obstacles to entrepreneurship, but it is also home to the biggest market. I see it as a bit like El Dorado: it’s hard to access, but it’s the ultimate African market.

EA: People often talk about Africa as a homogeneous mass, at least in economic terms. As someone who’s worked in several countries in Africa, are there a certain number of constants, or have you seen a great deal of differences?

B. Moreau: Both. The African countries that I’ve lived in all share the fact that they are latecomers to a significant number of sectors, as well as their exceptional ability to make up for lost time by skipping one or even two technological generations and directly adopting the most recent (the much-discussed ‘technological leapfrogging’). For example, landline telephones never really penetrated local markets, and most countries moved straight to smartphones. There’s also the same ability to adapt in terms of environmental issues: Morocco, Kenya and Rwanda were among the first countries to ban plastic bags overnight.
However, there are significant differences between all African countries in terms of religions, languages and cultures, often even within different regions of the same country. For example, in North Africa, the basic language is Arabic, but each country or even each region has its own dialect, reflecting its own unique history. For example, Darija in Morocco reveals influences from Berber, Arabic, Spanish and French.

EA: The idea of Françafrique is getting a lot of attention once again. Is being French an advantage or a disadvantage in the countries you’ve worked in?

B. Moreau: Our culture, universities and businesses are renowned throughout the continent. However, it’s important to remain humble, fair and open. Nothing could give a worse impression than a French person arriving in an African country, thinking themselves to be superior and wanting to impose their way of working without trying to understand local customs and habits.

EA: Has the fact that you studied at ESSEC helped you in your career in Africa?

B. Moreau: Yes, ESSEC is well-known and recognised in Africa. My degree has given me credibility and allowed me to become a manager at a young age. What’s more, the network has a very strong local presence, and it’s also amazingly effective—it’s highly responsive, and there’s a real sense of service and mutual support. You can see the same thing in France, but you realise it so much more when you move abroad.

 

An Interview by Louis Armengaud Wurmser (E11)

 

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