Doing Business in Africa: Christopher Jannou tells us about his experience

Mining &Business Magazine talks with Christopher Jannou, President of AmCham Zambia, CEO of R+EVOLUTION Capital Africa, co-founder of The Urban Hotel Group and founder of Business Intelligence- Global advisory and performance consultancy, about doing business in Africa.

M&B: CJ you have relocated to Zambia from cosmopolitan New York 6 years ago. What motivated the move?

CJ: A couple things, really.The first was that the opportunity presented itself at an inflection point in my career. The US was still reeling from the GFC and that caused a tremendous shake-out across industries where companies were dropping like flies. I owned media and hospitality businesses in New York and Los Angeles at the time, two industries that were dramatically impacted by the GFC. By 2008, I’d sold all my companies and was looking to write the next chapter.

I’ve always considered time my single most precious asset. No one could say when, or even if, the US economy would bounce back. With the banking and housing collapse, it was truly new territory. No one knew what to think and so lots of folks thought the worst.
I decided to look beyond my own shores for growth opportunities. I started in Latin America. Then some friends at the World Bank encouraged me to look at Africa.
Africa wasn’t a hard sell. I’ve always thought a good life — a life well lived— should have an interesting arc and Africa ticked that box for me. I’d always been drawn to the allure and romance of the developing world. I must’ve been born missing the ‘middle-class gene’ that would have me stay in one place where I was comfortable. I just love building companies and Africa’s opportunities for growth are unmatched in the world today from where I sit.

M&B: You are the President of the American Chamber of Commerce Zambia, can you elaborate on the role of organization and benefits to its members?

CJ: We have about 90 corporate members. Many are among the most recognizable brands in the world — brands like Citibank, Coca Cola, and KPMG. The Chamber works very closely with the commercial branch of the US State Department and we coordinate with the embassy here regularly. The chamber’s mission is to promote business linkages between Zambia, the US and other partner countries. We actually have quite a few non-US companies in our membership. They join because they want to link up with US or chamber-affiliated companies.

I became president late last year and many of the members are colleagues. I saw it as a responsibility and a duty to refocus the chamber on the things that mattered to me as a business owner. The chamber is in a unique position to facilitate actionable — the key word— opportunities for our members. We live and work here. That means we know which projects are real, which players are real and what opportunities may lie just below the radar. That information is incredibly valuable to groups looking for an entry point in Zambia.

Apart from business linkages, we do a fair bit of advocacy for our members— whether it’s an issue with the revenue authorities, corruption, general commercial disagreements or irregularities regarding tenders, visas, permits, etc. Just having the chamber shine a light on an issue is often enough to unblock it.

Finally, we’ve launched two professional development series that are becoming hot tickets. They occur monthly. One is the Leaders of Industry Series, which, as the name implies, features leaders of a particular sector to share information and engage with our members. It generally features CEOs and top governments officials in a format that promotes very candid discussions.

The other is a professional development series called ‘Masterclass: What You Need To Know About (blank)’. So far we’ve done ‘Real Estate Investing” and “Project Finance’. The professional development series is usually standing room only. I guess we need a bigger room.

M&B: What goals does AmCham have for 2018 and how local Zambian companies can become part of the plan?

CJ: The chamber already has a healthy number of Zambian member companies. The goal for 2018 is pretty straightforward: to be the most relevant, effective and prestigious business organization of its kind in Zambia. To represent value for money for our member companies and to provide a shield of advocacy that supports our members who can be assured that we’ll intervene on their behalf if necessary and helpful.
In the past, members have taken executive roles in the chamber to build their resumes as opposed to creating value for the members. The current ExCo is stocked with busy and successful professionals who have plenty of other things to do. Those currently serving are doing so because they are passionate about Zambia and want to leverage the chamber brand ,and, by association, Brand America , to make a difference.

M&B: Urban Hotel Group that you co-founded, in a very short span of time became a profitable business, with URBAN Hotel Ndola being nb 1 on tripadvisor.com and booking.com, what is the key to that success? Which countries will the Group expand to next?

CJ: Thanks for that. We’re incredibly thankful for the success of the current projects and our plan is to open 25 more in 5 years across the continent. We’ve got big plans for the brand. The Urban brand resonated in Zambia. If I was to guess, I think it comes down to two things. First, the African market is underserved and overcharged in general— in all categories. We came in with a great product for a great price. That will win no matter what market you are in.

Second, my partners and I came of age in some of the most competitive hospitality markets in the world— London, New York, and Los Angeles. That’s where our tastes were formed and so when we develop anything—whether its the hotel, the menu or even the logo— we bring all those influences to bear on the process. We wanted to build a brand that would reflect a sense of place and yet succeed in the most competitive cities in the world. We just happened to do it in Zambia.
And you know what? Zambians get it. They understand good design and good service. Like everyone, they want to be delighted and surprised. Its only going to get harder for brands that talk down to their customers, or under-deliver, to win in these markets.

M&B: Your youngest baby is Business Intelligence, how does the company assist its clients?

CJ: Business Intelligence is a corporate advisory and performance consultancy. BI focuses on new economy paradigms. That’s because the digital revolution has upended everything that defines the way we work and live. Further, the frequency of technology disruptions is only going to increase, meaning the era of ‘business as usual’ is well over. So, how do you skill up when technology is changing business models every five years? By developing the soft skills that transcend the disruption. The new workforce will need to be adept at things like cognitive flexibility, problem solving, emotional intelligence, communication intelligence, leadership intelligence. They’ll need to be value creators.

These soft skills, or intelligence sets as we call them, form the core curriculum of Business Intelligence. We use proprietary training platforms to develop these skill sets — the ones that will define the workforce of the future. Our mission is to develop great leaders and star performers who will succeed no matter what technology hurls at them.

M&B: What advise do you have to foreign investors coming to work in Zambia?

CJ: Good question and one I get asked a lot. We all have to go through the journey that is meant for us, so to speak. But I’ve learned some universal truisms. Here’s my top 5:

1. Don’t phone it in. You’ve got to be here.
2. Don’t be unfocused. Too many folks doing too many projects with too many people in too many sectors. It turns off serious people.
3. Don’t boast. It’s their country and we’re just guests. Zambia is the cradle of man so don’t assume they’ve nothing to teach you.
4. There’s always a conversation happening below the surface. That’s the one you need to tune it to. You may have to lower your own volume to hear it.
5. Your next deal is less likely to come from the minister’s office and more likely to come from a random social encounter. So get out in the world and mingle.

Manhattan native Christopher Jannou is award-winning producer, author, and investor. Jannou Group has been particularly active hospitality, real estate, education and media in the US, Latin America and throughout Africa; his companies have been featured by CNN, New York Times, Business Journal, New York Magazine and other international publications.
Jannou’s acclaimed first book ‘The Internationalist: Globalization, the Age of Information and the Developing World Ascent’ (available on Amazon) is a sweeping look at the next surge of human and economic development as technology, globalization and demographics become defining forces.

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