As you may know by now I spend a lot of my time perusing the aisles of supermarkets collecting cost of living data. Getting up-to-date information for the likes of the USA and Europe is fairly straightforward and so it’s often the more remote and far-flung locations that I’m sent to. Over the course of the last few years I’ve been to many an obscure destination but the continent I’ve spent the most time on is Africa, particularly West Africa. This is a part of the world which is pretty much non-existent in travel brochures and has suffered upheaval – and continues to – in various forms. Mali is a very recent example and 18 months ago Côte d’Ivoire was a no-go area.
In the past six months I’ve visited Sierra Leone, Togo, Gabon, Congo Republic, Cameroon and DR Congo and they are all very different to my home city of London. The shopping environment, in particular, in countries such as these is very different to that which I am used to in the West. There are no Western style malls with all your favourite clothing brands, fast food restaurants and multiplex cinemas. And supermarkets can be very different indeed. They are perhaps the most significant shops for expatriates when on assignment as this is where they will do their day-to-day shopping. If a location has poor quality electrical goods or a limited choice of your preferred clothing brands then these can be brought in from your home country but it’s the day-to-day goods which expatriates will hope are of a comparable quality to those they are used to back home. Supermarkets in West Africa and not exactly ‘super’ but many places have a surprisingly good choice. And this is often thanks to the Lebanese being in town!
When I first travelled to West Africa for work I noticed, after visiting several countries, that many of the shops frequented by expatriates were run by Lebanese families. At first I thought they looked a bit out of place but now it’s something I’ve come to expect as the norm. In some French-speaking countries the Lebanese shop owners may be the only people I can speak English to during the course of a day. The Lebanese, with their international contacts, trade networks and business acumen, have built up thriving businesses in West Africa, one of which is the import of international brands to sell in their shops. For this I’m sure there is many an expatriate who is grateful to get their Kellogg’s cornflakes or Twining’s tea bags.
So why are the Lebanese so visible in West Africa? They are the largest non-African migrant community in the region (possibly up to 250,000) and it is thought that globally the Lebanese diaspora may be second only to that of the Irish. Indeed, although the population of Lebanon is just over four million it is thought that there are over 15 million outside of the country! It is acknowledged that they arrived in West Africa in two waves. The first influx arrived towards the end of the 19th century when immigrants passed on their way to South America and, far more recently, exiles arrived during the Lebanese Civil War which lasted from 1975 to 1990.
So they have become established communities throughout West Africa and their success in the region is all the more remarkable as building up business empires in these parts is often extremely difficult. Volatile political situations, corruption, excessive red tape and security issues all play a big part in whether one can thrive in business in West Africa. It is a wonder that they have managed to branch out into areas such as construction and telecommunications and prosper in places where contracts are often meaningless. Their eminence in the region may be threatened, though, with competition from Indian and Chinese businessmen on the rise. These Asian entrepreneurs will bring with them new networks, and perhaps expatriates in West Africa stand to gain the most from China and India encroaching on the turf of the Lebanese.
In the coming weeks I will be heading to Nigeria, Benin and Côte d’Ivoire so I’ll be on the lookout to see any evidence of this competition but first up I’ll be reporting back from my trip to the Faroe Islands in the windswept North Atlantic.