How did your career in BESIX lead you to become Country Manager for Ivory Coast?
I joined Six Construct in the Middle East in 2008 and among other projects I worked on the Burj Khalifa, then the Cleveland Clinic: these two builds were especially important, and unusual from a technical perspective. I worked on opening the BESIX Montenegro branch in 2013 and on the first phase of the Luštica Bay development, then I was involved with the end of the EDF Lab at Paris-Saclay, in France. I went back to Dubai for less than a year, then had the opportunity to start again in a new country and help open up Côte d’Ivoire. Our BESIX Ivory Coast branch was established in early 2017. Africa was a first to me and a new challenge, for sure!
It’s quite something to set up operations in a new country. How does it work when you’re starting from scratch?
It's a an exciting project in itself. I’m an engineer. But what’s required of the Country Manager for somewhere new is to understand the country in its entirety: to identify opportunities, find possible partnerships and suppliers, and more besides. You have to step out of your comfort zone, be open to new experiences and show an interest in all the new aspects. It’s as if you’re starting with a blank slate, aiming to firm up the initial contacts made by the Business Development department, to anticipate and prepare for potential projects. The next step is to expand, relatively quickly – that’s the principle of a start-up.
In Ivory Coast, how did the start-up develop on a professional and human level?
In a year and a half, we went from one to three employees, and the next year from 3 to 450, starting our first project at La Mé. So this is a fascinating human adventure that allows you to fully engage with the whole enterprise right from the start. I’m sure that’s been positive for the overall atmosphere here. There are only a few expats in our team, 15 or so. We work together like a family, with very short lines of communication. All this ensures a vibrant working atmosphere. Each of us has its own responsibilities and we all contribute directly and visibly to the rapid, daily progress of our construction project, on BESIX’s presence and reputation in Ivory Coast. It’s very exciting from a professional point of view. On a human level, it has created strong bonds between us all.
What is the La Mé construction site like? Are any more works planned in the near future?
At La Mé, we are undertaking civil engineering works for a water treatment plant – one of the biggest in West Africa – designed by Veolia. Our client and partner is a major player in Ivory Coast, PFO Africa, and we have excellent relations with them. In fact, La Mé is the name of the river some 30 km north of Abidjan, and the plant under construction will take water from this river, treat and distribute it – 240,000 m³ of drinking water every day. This will considerably increase drinking water supply in the region, especially to Abidjan. Other contracts are making really good progress.
From your point of view as an engineer, are there any differences between these construction sites and the ones we’re used to, either in western Europe or the Middle East?
As an engineer, I would say these sites are out of the ordinary: highly demanding, certainly stressful but above all exciting and rewarding. Compared to other countries and projects, we have very few subcontractors here – not through choice, but because we have had to adapt to the local context and this means doing a lot of the work ourselves. The ‘contract management’ part of our work is minimal compared to what we’re used to on many other projects: there’s one contract, with the client. On the other hand, we are in control of the site, and by and large we manage all the production and performance. On the La Mé site, we have a Technical Office in charge of all the works. In general terms, these sites are an ‘all-round’ experience for engineers. We need to roll our sleeves up and get stuck into all aspects of the work.
I suppose there are major challenges associated with this?
There are challenges particular to this situation and to the realities on the ground. One of these is the labour force. It’s up to us to recruit and train people, most of whom are unskilled, and to develop the workforce to meet BESIX’s needs, both in terms of quality and excellence and in terms of site safety. This is certainly a challenge, but it is rewarding and we certainly reap the rewards. Another challenge revolves around building materials and construction machinery. These aren’t as readily available here as they are on BESIX's domestic markets. It is therefore necessary to plan ahead and do significant work upfront. For example, the first crane we set up on site arrives by a circuitous route which was planned from beginning to end, beset by logistical and other obstacles. That crane alone is a minor victory for our team. We experience a lot of these "minor victories", which result from us being obliged to meet various challenges.
Besides work life, are there any challenges in everyday life, especially family life?
Our team is very supportive of families, with a great sense of camaraderie. We do everything we can to make sure families feel happy here. We provide as much help as possible for families, so they don’t feel lost when they get here – including with schools and hospitals. The city of Abidjan does make that job easy for us. People feel at home here quickly. This is a very pleasant city, an economic and cultural hub for the whole of West Africa. When it comes to shopping, the usual French supermarkets are very well established here. There are all sorts of schools on offer too: French, American and international. This is a nerve centre for Africa in terms of the arts, with a wide range of music, cinema and theatre. Abidjan is a dynamic, developed African city. People often stereotype Africa, perhaps because they don’t know it. This continent is vast and very diverse. Ivory Coast is one of the best African countries to live in.
We often hear that couples moving abroad don’t settle because one of them has nothing to do. How do you handle that?
Again, the fact we’re in Ivory Coast makes us a special case. There are many large companies and international institutions based here, and expats’ skillsets are very welcome. It’s not hard to find a job – or to occupy yourself in other ways if you aren’t looking for employment. Some people do voluntary work, and others start their own business. There is a wide range of possibilities. In Ivory Coast, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
It is also down to the country’s economy...
That’s true. For example, in August Moody’s credit rating agency reported on economies in sub-Saharan Africa, and focused on those best able to withstand an economic downturn. The best-placed countries were Rwanda, Ivory Coast and Cameroon. This is due to several factors, including the management of public expenditure. Of course, sound economic management also makes the country more attractive. It explains why large numbers of companies and institutions use Abidjan as their West African hub. They base themselves there and reach out to the rest of the region. The quality of the economy is also a rising tide which lifts all boats: culture, security, education, health, shops, restaurants, everything. People who have lived here say that sometimes the difficulty with Abidjan is leaving Abidjan.
Speaking of restaurants, do you eat the local food?
Nearly every day! Usually at lunchtime with colleagues or other contacts. There are a whole range of Ivorian dishes which are pretty good. Otherwise people mainly eat French food. There’s no lack of restaurants, there's something for everyone’s taste and budget.