Former Trade Minister, Jean-Louis Billon was also the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Ivory Coast. He championed the fight against the high cost of living and continues to work for real change in Africa. Foray into his actions and life.
Interview by Alain Metodjo
His name is evocative of success. Yet Jean-Louis Billon stays down-to-earth. He embodies a flower of the business world in Ivory Coast, and beyond. Inheritor of the first family fortune in French-speaking Africa, the fact remains that he is a very fine connoisseur of the private sector and public. After four years as minister of Trade, Craft and SME, his task ended in January 2017.
A week before, in this transitional time of “festive lull”, he speeded up his meetings at the Ministry of Trade. Suddenly, the waiting room’s door opened. The charismatic figure of Jean-Louis Billon revealed himself in the doorway. His radiant face was honoured by a discreet smile. He came up to me and we introduced ourselves, purely and solely. We had a conversation and he took stock of his mission. The strongest link of this asset was the battle against the high cost of living with his legal arsenal to protect the customers. We also spoke about his aim in life and sundry issues.
His thoughts and deeds speak in favour of his real concerns for the shopping basket. Jean-Louis Billon fought against the multinational company’s monopoly with the same ardour. The big companies spread their claws everywhere, in Africa. A steadfast believer in the power of “political will” continues to stand in good stead with those who aspire to change in Africa, as an active member of the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast. Flashback.
Mr Minister, could you summarise your life’s journey for us, through the main moments of your life?
I was born in Bouaké in December 1964. I am originally from Dabakala, in the centre-north of the country, and my family home is there. I spent my childhood in Côte d’Ivoire: primary and secondary school. Then in 1980, I left to continue my high school studies in France, where I obtained my baccalaureate and followed my university education, with a master’s degree in Business Law. Then I went to the United States to improve my English. I took the opportunity to do a Master’s degree in International Management. I worked there for two years before returning to Côte d’Ivoire in 1995. So I was abroad for fifteen years. On my return, I have worked for the family group until November 2012, before taking on responsibilities in the government; because the elected position I had allowed me to continue working in the company. I got married in 1992 and have three children. I am very close to my family. I only had brothers. Unfortunately, I lost one of my younger brothers. And then we also lost our father in 2001. I am very close to my brothers and my mother of course.
How has going abroad helped you?
I have always been very happy in Ivory Cost. I didn’t want to go to France. I learned at the end of the school holidays in 1980 that I was enrolled in high school in France. My parents told me, quite simply, that it would be more open-minded to go and see what was happening elsewhere in the world. I must admit that this international culture has served me well. The English say ‘global mind’. You have to have a very international mind today. Because the world is becoming more similar. Everyone aspires to more or less the same standard of development. There is even an international approach to business management, with accounting standards that are now imposed internationally. So I would say that this confrontation with other cultures is a plus for the company and the human being.
For 10 years, you have chaired the Chamber of Commerce. What are the key projects that you have initiated?
The Chamber of Commerce is an institution that “fights” to have a favourable environment for businesses, in a very difficult climate; because we were in the middle of a crisis. In doing so, we were trying to build an environment that would be even more favourable and competitive for businesses. It also has this side of representing the private sector, i.e. defending interests. In addition, we worked on the management of the concessionary service, the training of young people, with the setting up of a Training chamber. We were able to clean up the Chamber, which was in deficit. When I left the Chamber in November 2012, we were in an investment phase. When I arrived in 2001, we had 120 employees and when I left in 2012, the Chamber had more than 500 employees.
What is your assessment of your time at the head of the Ministry of Trade?
You know, the state is a continuity. It must be said that between 2002 and 2012, not much happened, except the management of current affairs. We have fallen behind in terms of international trade, in terms of sub-regional trade. We have obsolete texts. The Competition Commission and the Competition Act had to be reactivated. We had to provide the country with a Consumer Code, to give more rights to consumers. It was a battle that lasted more than twenty years. I had the opportunity to make these projects a reality. At the level of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), we were the pioneers in signing the Trade Facilitation Code. We still have a trade surplus. We have put in place a national exploitation strategy, so that SMEs, capable of exploiting, are real champions abroad. A strategy that will be deployed over several years. We also have the Phoenix programme for the dynamisation of SMBs, the law on SMBs, following the example of the Small Business Act in the United States. These are elements that will bear fruit over time. Because of the lack of competitiveness of companies and the cost of living, we have set up the National Council to fight against the high cost of living. It is working hard with all the authorities to reduce the cost of living. This is a permanent challenge that is not easy to meet. After employment, the main concern of Ivorians is purchasing power.
In your opinion, what is the path to take to truly lead Côte d’Ivoire to thrive?
There is no particular path. We are in a country that must have a diversified economy. I think that diversification is the keyword. We need to get out of the counter economy, with the export of raw materials such as coffee and cocoa, and work to diversify our economy with more transformations, even to have intensive agriculture instead of extensive agriculture. Furthermore, we need to be competitive in all sectors of activity. Today, we should not exclude any sector of activity: services, tourism, transport, banking, insurance, telephony. Everything must be able to contribute to the national economy. As Minister of Trade, we worked with the Prime Minister on a strategic plan to improve the competitiveness of our economy. You have no plan, nor any institution, that is not spared. If it is true that we are talking about an environment favourable to enterprise, we are also talking about an environment favourable to competitiveness: from early childhood to university and employment. And everywhere, you have to align yourself with international standards and always do better than your neighbour, than pre-established standards.
What motivated your political commitment?
You know, at a certain point, the country entered a crisis and companies were suffering. Politicians behaved in a way that destroyed the “goose that lays the golden eggs”. What has made Côte d’Ivoire strong is its economy. What ensures the state’s livelihood is the economy. Policies must accompany the economy. There are not enough actors from the private world in politics today. I would like to see more of them, to make things evolve in the right direction. I was unpleasantly surprised by the lack of economic knowledge of many civil servants, who think that companies are a spontaneous generation. Perhaps I’m saying this in a caricatured way. And that they are there to pay taxes. But in reality, a company has a social and societal responsibility, which it can only fulfil when it makes a profit. But if it manages in an environment where it cannot make a profit, it creates unemployment and economic and social instability, and necessarily political instability. The Ivory Coast in political crisis was first of all an Ivory Coast in economic crisis. Because when you have well-being, when you have full employment, it is difficult to have a political crisis. You don’t mobilise young people in the street when they are afraid of losing their jobs. It is because he has nothing to lose that you can mobilise him. You have to create conditions where everyone has something to lose.
How do you feel about the creation of the post of Vice-President in Côte d’Ivoire?
All too often in Africa, when we arrive at election time, there is a concern. And when there is a power vacuum, there is also a great concern. When there is no visibility in the political stability of a country, you have the seeds of instability. So knowing that an alternation is predefined in case of vacancy, illness or resignation, is a guarantee of stability. In this sense, the arrival of a vice-president is a good thing. It should be seen as such, as in the United States or neighbouring Ghana. You ensure the continuity of the state and stability.
What political actions do you intend to strengthen shortly?
After having experienced a major crisis, Ivory Coast must constantly work on consolidating peace and social cohesion. I think that the commitment that the political actors must have is to work on this stability in an environment that is always more favourable to businesses so I think the commitment the political actors must have is to work for this stability and an environment that is increasingly favourable to businesses so that we can create more jobs, have more evenly distributed growth, and more equitable distribution of wealth. There should be more trickle-down of growth and wealth so that all social strata are better served. This is the price to pay for greater social cohesion. Otherwise, there is always the risk of having other crises in the future. Past crises must serve as a lesson and we must have more social cohesion and permanent reconciliation.
What are the avenues for political renewal in Africa?
I honestly think that we need new generations of political actors everywhere. It’s simple, Africa is the youngest continent but we have the oldest leaders. It is quite paradoxical. Today, even the European Union has leaders with a younger average age than the African continent. Having constitutions and pre-established rules of the game that are respected and not modified during the game, which encourages instability, will guarantee us a better Africa. Too much longevity in power is a factor of instability. You cannot do your time, the time of your children and the time of your grandchildren. You have to do your time and leave.
What makes a good politician?
I think he has to be a sincere man, who has principles and who respects his commitments. You can’t satisfy everyone in politics, but you have to defend the general interest, as opposed to the defence of particular interests. When I came into politics, I resigned from all my mandates in the private sector, so as not to have conflicts of interest. When there is a subject where I am concerned about family matters, I let a colleague deal with it. I think that a politician, an elected official, holds his legitimacy in the defence of the general interest. Even when elected, he ceases to be legitimate if he no longer defends the general interest. This is really what makes a politician, in my opinion. And an American author, James Freeman Clarke mentioned: “the difference between the politician and the statesman is this: the first thinks about the next election and the second thinks about the next generation”. You have to think about the next generation.
Your greatest political memory?
My first steps, I would say my election to the mayor’s office of Dabakala in 2001. Then my election to the Chamber of Commerce in 2002 was also a memorable battle. The day after the election, my opponents and I were able to agree and work together in the interests of the private sector.
What is your greatest satisfaction in the political arena?
There are many. Every time you defend a public cause and you get satisfaction, it is gratifying. When you meet a consumer, an economic actor or a trader who has a problem and you know that your decisions are for the better, you have satisfaction. In public management, it never stops. You don’t have time to sit back and say I am satisfied. Like a doctor who is happy to have succeeded in an operation or to have saved a patient, he has no time to sit down and another patient is already coming. This is how it is with public affairs. It never stops. This is also the frustration of these two professions.
A source of regret in politics?
In politics, it is difficult to measure results. Sometimes you don’t do much and some people are satisfied. Sometimes you work on important issues and people don’t immediately see the value and impact on the lives of citizens. It is frustrating that your efforts are not appreciated.
The biggest fight of your life?
It will always be the battle for an even better business environment. Today, I think we can do even better in improving the competitiveness of the Ivorian economy. African countries are not competitive. This is a huge frustration for me. When you go to Asia and everywhere, you see what is being done. I spoke to you about the right to competition, the fight against monopolies, and dominant positions. It bothers me that Africa is not yet a land of law. I don’t like the construction of monopolies.
What is your greatest success in life?
Regularly, I have personal satisfaction with my family. That is the most important thing.
What is the recipe for combining family life and politics?
The family is a source of stability for a politician. Besides, if you have stability in your family life, you have more stability in your political life. That is the recipe for success.
What is your greatest fear?
That Côte d’Ivoire will fall back into crisis. That we do not learn from the past. I think that peace is built.
What is your hero in life?
I have several: the great builders. Nelson Mandela, George Washington, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Napoleon. I will not forget Felix Houphouët Boigny, for his humanism, his sense of state, peacebuilding and social cohesion. He remains a model for us here, in Ivory Coast. My living hero is my mother.
What drives you every day?
Personal awareness. You have to give yourself small challenges all the time so that you can take them up. At the Ministry of Commerce, it was close surveillance. You have to satisfy both the consumer and the trader. The trader is satisfied with the prices. At the same time, you have to avoid fraud and lower prices with a quality product, which is a daily challenge.
Your idea of happiness?
When you have provided a better education for your children, for children in general.
The object you are attached to?
I am attached to everything I own. And, I pay attention to my objects. It is often the objects that you received as gifts from your parents and grandparents that are very important and have a personal value. But I lost some of them during the crisis. The material can be restored, but the sentimental value is lost forever.
Motorsports, art, travel, discoveries, music. I listen to all kinds of music depending on my moods… I’ll go from classical music to hard rock, to Mandingo music, to the national zouglou, to reggae with the provocative lyrics of Bob Marley.
Your favourite quote?
I often quote Oscar Wilde: “Shoot for the moon, because even if you fail, you’ll land among the stars”. It inspires me because it forces ambition and encourages you.
It’s always injustice. I hate it when the strong beat the weak. Just because you have a position of authority doesn’t mean you should abuse it.
And to conclude?
I am eternally dissatisfied. I am very critical and I hope that I will have satisfaction in general and that the balance is more positive than negative.