Patience pays off

Chris Simoens
10 April 2018
Mossadeck Bally is the founder and ceo of the successful Azalaï hotel chain in West Africa. For his second hotel, he received a 4 million euro loan granted by BIO, the Belgian Investment Company for Developing Countries. He tells us the story of his success as an entrepreneur in Africa.

After finishing my financial management studies in France and the United States, I returned to my native country Mali. For 10 years, I was working for my father’s company, together with my brother. We imported foodstuffs such as rice, which we further distributed as wholesalers. We were seeing a lot of suppliers, who often  complained about the poor quality of the hotels in Mali, which gave me the idea of opening a hotel. In the long run, my objective was to diversify in order to provide more added value and more employment.

2000 employees

I discovered a great opportunity when the Malian state launched a call for the acquisition of the old French Grand Hôtel in Bamako, the capital of Mali. With my newly established company, I was awarded the contract. The renovation started in 1994 and the hotel opened its doors in 1995.

That’s how the ball was set rolling. The hotel being highly profitable, we wanted the story to continue. At that time, the Malian state decided to have a hotel constructed in Bamako, next to a congress centre built by China. Again, we successfully accomplished the project, for which BIO had granted us a loan of 4 million euros.

I became more and more experienced and kept on exploring new possibilities, this time abroad. In many cases the scenario was identical: a government launched a call and we were awarded the contract. In 2004, there was the renovation of the largest hotel of Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou, in 2007 in Guinea-Bissau, in 2009 in Benin and in 2016 in Ivory Coast and in Mauritania. Currently, we are building new hotels in Senegal, Guinea Conakry and Niger.

 

We have nearly 2000 direct employees. And each member of our own staff stands for 1.5 to 2 indirect jobs.

Mossadeck Bally

Mossadeck Bally, founder and CEO of the hotel chain Azalai Hotels
© Azalaï hotels

70% of our guests come from West Africa, while 30% come from Europe, America and  Asia. We regularly have people from the African diaspora. It is true that the poorer Africans cannot afford to stay in our three or four-star hotels. They have to accept staying in a two-star hotel.  

However, this does not prevent us from having a major impact on the local economy.  We have nearly 2000 direct employees. And each member of our own staff stands for  1.5 to 2 indirect jobs: security staff, food suppliers, gardeners… We also pay local taxes.

Constant negotiations

Now that I am going through the history of Azalaï, I realize that not everything has been plain sailing. I had to be very patient and I had to cope with setbacks. Our hotel in Ouagadougou was nearly destroyed because of the disturbances in 2014. We had to close it down and are currently renovating it.


Besides, working in Africa takes much more time than working in Europe. Whereas in Europe things are well-organized, procedures are fast and staff are well-trained, this is not the case in Africa, where the working environment is rather hostile. Public services operate slowly and you have to overcome enormous bureaucratic obstacles. There is no notion of time. What you can realize within 2 days in Europe will easily take a month in Africa.

 

In Africa the working environment is rather hostile. Public services operate slowly and you have to overcome enormous bureaucratic obstacles. There is no notion of time.

At every level of the administration you have to negotiate and renegotiate, over and over again. Corruption is simply ubiquitous in Africa. I never paid any money myself, but we work with consultants abroad who make sure to complete all the administrative formalities to make our dossiers pass. We are paying them to do so. I don’t know if they sometimes grant officials some money. In Senegal, it took no less than 3 years before we got the building permit! Only in Ivory Coast things went much more smoothly.

In Morocco and Tunisia, the government is making efforts to stimulate businesses: they are creating industrial sites where you can start up your business for a symbolic price. In Sub-Saharan Africa, however, no such initiatives are taken. You have to find a site yourself and often you even have to provide the electricity yourself, which increases the cost of investment of course.

There is also a lack of proper training. Do you know that there is no hotel school in Mali? That is why we recruit our staff 9 months before the opening of a hotel. This offers sufficient time to teach them the tricks of the trade. If a school existed, 2 months would be sufficient. In the meantime, we have set up a hotel school ourselves.

So if you want to invest in Africa, you have to be patient. You have to see  it as a long-term investment and keep in mind that it will take several years to make profits.

 

Do you know that there is no hotel school in Mali? That is why we recruit our staff 9 months before the opening of a hotel. This offers sufficient time to teach them the tricks of the trade.

Swimming pool of an Azalai Hotel
© Azalaï hotels

Young people having the move

However, I do not want to paint too gloomy a picture of Africa. There are lots of factors that do function! The negative way in which the international media portray Africa does not at all correspond to reality.

I am therefore pleased to see that many young people really want to make a go of it. And that is necessary! Mali's population will double by 2050, and all those young people will have to be employed. Fortunately, the opportunities are countless. Did you know, for example, that Mali - the largest cotton producer in Africa - exports 95% of its cotton unprocessed? And then we import T-shirts and pants, which we should be producing here. The same goes for food, the digital revolution, the hotel industry... Young people, both here and in the diaspora, are seizing these opportunities. For example, a young Malian woman has returned from the diaspora. She started up Zabbaan, a flourishing company producing fruit juices on the basis of local fruit.

I am therefore pleased to see that many young people really want to make a go of it. And that is necessary! Mali's population will double by 2050, and all those young people will have to be employed.

I also like to personally encourage young people. That's why I'm regularly giving lectures  in schools and incubators. Personally I learned a lot from my father, who was a role model for me. He showed me how to run a business, he coached me and imparted   me values and advice... I am now happy to share my own experience with young people, because bureaucracy doesn’t always make things easy. But young people should not focus on the state alone; the state really cannot do everything by itself. With a little patience and perseverance you can achieve a lot, also in Africa.

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