Q: There have been some changes in Egypt in the past few years, in the economic environment and reforms being conducted by the new government. How has the private sector greeted these initiatives?
A: The private sector has been very positive, even with all the things going on. It has been a perfect storm across all north Africa, you still see growth rates of 2%, 3%, 4%, 5%, young populations – half the population is under 20 – and amazing things like that. So they still have that societal demand and they are just trying to get better.
Is all the FDI there? No, sometimes it gets pulled back, but companies such as Coca-Cola said, 'let's make a commitment to Egypt'. If we do not make a commitment now, when should we make that commitment? Now is usually a better time when you look at 90 million consumers and what you want to do in the marketplace, so we said, ‘let's put up $500m here in the next three years’ and so we are seeing some good output of that.
Even with all the problems we have had in Egypt, we are up 7% to 8% growth... so profit gains come with that and we also have local investors. They have been through good times and bad times, but you know the growth is not going to be a straight line... You have to be very patient.
The governments are getting smarter too. We are seeing things such as free zones, one-stop shops and places that you never saw before in countries such as Morocco or Tunisia. They realised that they have to have not only the money that FDI brings, but also the expertise, because we are employing locals. One great thing about our business is that for every direct employee we have, and we have 34,000 just in the Middle East and north Africa, that employs another 10 people. So they see that virtuous cycle.
Q: How do the region’s shifting social and economic trends play a part in the way you formulate your strategy?
A: The world, as Milton Friedman said, is flat. It has moved so fast – I love it when we bring young kids back to the US and the first thing they complain about is the US cellphone system. They want mobile streaming, they want to be able to talk to their friends, they want to be able to pick things up, so the consumer has got a lot smarter across all aspects of what we do. So we have to figure out what to do to talk to that local culture consumer, but also we have to figure out how to be a lot faster and more fluid, and that is why we have actually made bigger investments in the region. Consumers demand more now, no matter where they are.
Q: When you look at the region as a whole, you see a lot of changes taking place with a lot of opportunity, but there are also big challenges, both in terms of the political environment and in terms of economic development and other factors associated with those two trends. How can investors overcome some of the key investment challenges linked to north Africa today?
A: The first one, I think, is to have a long-term plan. We keep on looking at what do we have to do. Just on a per capita consumption basis we have a long, long way to go, so we are pretty happy with what we have to do for that, but for infrastructure in a lot of those areas, it is a challenge. The best factor we found is strong local partners. We operate a franchise system and they know the ways, the in and outs and how to operate in those environments.
The other thing we are doing right now is women’s empowerment and it is really working very well. You have to change a lot of societal norms to put women in business, but they pay their bills and they know exactly where that money is going, and they make $4, $5, $10 a day. They are a lot further ahead in making their family better, and that’s what we want to see.