“I am launching Inspiring Expeditions to go where people haven’t been before or go differently (..) I’m zeroing in on seeing unusual things and unusual animals while we still have them” said Geoffrey Kent to the New York Times recently. As the founder and CEO of the luxury tour company Abercrombie & Kent (350 tours in more than 100 countries), Mr Kent has accompanied Prince Charles in Oman, designed a China trip for Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, and experimented with space travel. When it came to list the very few unique places he is yet to see, the insatiable explorer said, “the Congo”.
The Republic of the Congo is widely regarded as one of Africa’s greatest gems thanks to its pristine, untouched, lush nature. As home to the world’s second largest rainforest and to some of the last populations of gorillas and elephants, the Congo is a recurrent, magnetic feature in Western popular culture from Hollywood movies to literature and comics.
Yet, for all its pure natural magnificence and its mythical status, the Congo is one the world’s least visited countries. In 2010 and 2014 the country has received as low as 194,000 and 224,000 international tourists respectively.
On the back of steady economic growth in the early 2000’s, the Congo became a rising platform for foreign investors and international events. Subsequently, the capital city Brazzaville has seen an acceleration in the construction of luxury hotels, including global brands such as Radisson Blu and Kempinski (opening soon).
But today, hit hard by the slump in the prices of oil (which represents 65 percent of Congo’s GDP), the country is in a severe economic recession. According to Unicongo, a local trade association, the occupancy rate at hotels is only 25-35 percent in 2017.
In such a dire situation, with many challenges and unknowns, how does a big-brand hotel make the most of their investment? More broadly, how risky is it to enter and operate in an untapped, unequipped, underserved market?
To find out, I have field-researched in the Congo, visited various hotspots, interviewed several tourists, and investigated inside the Radisson Blu Brazzaville. CONTINUE READING HERE.
This is the second stop in the series focusing on the experience of Chinese Africans. It started with a little lady playing on the sidewalk of one of the central arteries of Brazzaville, the capital city of the Republic of Congo. She represents what the Chinese immigration across Africa has become in recent years: a quiet steady influx of families and children.
In this episode we push Rewind and Pause on who and what started this era-defining phenomenon: male professionals in the construction sector. They too, like the little lady, are shifting from temporary work visas to long-term – even permanent – stays as there are more and bigger Made-By-China infrastructure projects across the Continent from roads, bridges, dams, malls to hospitals, schools, public buildings, private houses.
The gentleman portrayed here manages a construction project in the centre of Brazzaville. The site is situated at 5-7 minutes walk from the monumental statue of Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, the French explorer who founded the city in 1883.
Generally speaking, the presence of an entire all-Chinese hierarchy on a site from entry-level and technical teams (electricians, operators, ironworkers) to senior level personnel (engineers, project managers, architects) is indicative of the size of the project. This one is massive.
The place used to host a giant outdoor swimming pool used by the personnel of the French colonial administration decades ago. It bore the name of Anne Marie Javouhey, an illustrious French nun.
Tomorrow there will stand what the Project Manager called with ample gestures “grand hotel“. That’s Brazzaville’s journey in 70+ years: a one-way ticket from a past conceived, built, named, visited by France (the Brazzaville Conference in 1944 is the sole grand event that the Général de Gaulle attended on the African soil) to a future that China is shaping and building today.
As far as I can see, today’s Chinese-built Brazzaville, Abidjan, Alger, Accra or Nairobi do not integrate Chinese architecture and design. There is not yet Chinese content inside these Made-By-China hotels, malls, airports, schools and hospitals.
For toys, homewares, clothing, household appliances; African consumers mostly purchase Made-In-China. But given their strong relationship with France or the UK encompassing everything from the official language, education to modern culture and products, consumers still want the European quality and excellence in many other product categories. Pharma, air transport, packaged food are a few examples.
Will Western companies see and seize these opportunities? Or will China, India, Brazil or even South Africa, Morocco – thanks to their rising industries and the growing intra-African trade – increase their share in consumers’ spend?