Louis Gouend heads the Cameroonian diaspora in Russia and is the founder of the African Business Club in our country. Why are business and investment in Africa becoming more and more attractive for Russian companies? Why is there an acute lack of information about each other in Russia and African countries? How do Cameroonians live in Russia?
Read the answers to these and many other questions in Louis Gowend’s exclusive interview with the “New Eastern Outlook”.
– Dear Mr Louis, you are the founder of the African Business Club in Russia and a specialist in business communications between Russia and Africa. How do you assess the level of economic co-operation between Cameroon and Russia today?
– Thank you for your interest in Africa, which is my home, which I love and which I care about. In my opinion, relations between our countries are now in good shape. Russia has a great interest in Africa. Economic relations go hand in hand with political relations, as well as social and cultural exchanges. Already after the launch of the SWO, an agreement was signed on Cameroon’s military co-operation with Russia for five years. In all UN votes, Cameroon maintains neutrality. Our President Paul Biya, who shortly before celebrated his 90th birthday, took part in the Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg. This act clearly shows how much our country is interested in co-operation with Russia. A match between the Russian and Cameroon national football teams took place in Moscow on 12 October. Experts say that this was the Russians’ strongest rivalry since the introduction of sports sanctions. Not so long ago, a group of Cameroonian businessmen came to Moscow. They took part in various events, including a visit to the Made in Russia exhibition on Manezh Square. And on the territory of the Cameroon Embassy they held an exhibition “Made in Cameroon”, where they presented products manufactured in our country. I can say that almost every month there are some meetings and events aimed at strengthening economic relations between our countries. I am also approached by many students who want to find partners to realise their ideas and ready-made projects here in Russia.
– Why are business and investment in Africa becoming more and more interesting for Russian companies?
– You have to take into account that recently relations between Russia and many Western countries have become, to put it mildly, not very friendly. And business has to work and develop, and capital has to be invested somewhere. Therefore, it is not surprising that Russian investors have started to pay more attention to the African and Asian markets. The African continent is by far the most undervalued in terms of investment. Its development potential is enormous, as is the return on investment. Russian investors are right to look towards Africa. It is the future!
– Russia has changed the concept of its foreign policy – from 2019, it is implementing a policy of co-operation with Africa as a single entity. Can you already see any advantages?
– Russia has a huge experience of co-operation with Western countries, with China, with India, and will probably continue to do so. But it is necessary to look towards Africa. I do not think that Russia sees Africa as a whole. After all, there are 54 countries on our continent. Not only that, but they are divided into regions: North Africa, East, West, Central and South. And in each of them there are different countries, each with its own history, laws, potential and opportunities. And each has its own relations with Russia. Therefore, the approach to each country must be individualised.
– You are the organiser of the conference “Fundamentals of International Trade with Africa: Imports and Exports in a New Environment”. In a nutshell, what are the differences between trade today and 20 years ago?
– The main difference I would call parallel imports. Today, all the previously clearly worked out trade and logistics routes and financial schemes have broken down. That is why we have started holding various conferences where we are trying to solve these two main issues – finance and logistics. In the past, these markets were mainly occupied by Western companies, which have now left. So we are busy looking for new optimal ways to deliver goods and financial payment schemes. I hope that things will get better soon.
– In the summer, you took part in the Russia-Africa Forum in St Petersburg. Almost six months have passed, emotions have subsided, detailed analyses and conclusions have been drawn. In your opinion, what is the most important outcome of this forum?
– The realisation that we need each other and must work together in the same direction. Agreements were concluded at the forum in various spheres: political, economic, scientific and technical, humanitarian, educational, military-technical, cultural. And now the work continues. If we draw a parallel with the Sochi Forum 2019, I can say that after its completion, there was no such excitement as there is now. There was silence, almost nothing happened. Now the work is in full swing. There are more and more events on Africa every day. And the impact will be spectacular.
– You are the President of the Cameroon Diaspora in Russia. I know that at the beginning of October there was a regular meeting of representatives of Cameroonian associations in Russian cities. How do Cameroonians live in Russia?
– Good (smiles). I don’t see any particular problems. Some people have run out of visa, but they don’t want to leave. Some have difficulties learning the language. And you understand very well how much harder it is to live in a country when you don’t know the language well – even the simplest questions cause difficulties. There is one problem, though. And it concerns all Africans, not only Cameroonians. I mean difficulties with legal employment. Guys have to either be engaged in entrepreneurial activity or work, for example, as a delivery boy or taxi driver. But at the same time, they like it here and do not want to leave.
– You are often called “ambassadors of friendship”, including for representatives of many governments and international cooperation organisations. How would you define your mission on Earth?
– I am just a very sociable and active person, and when I go to various events, I easily meet people. Many people see me as a reliable partner and trust me to solve complex problems in various spheres of co-operation. I see my mission at this moment in time as doing everything in my power to strengthen comprehensive relations between Russia and Africa. I have been living here for 30 years, and I think that people like me, who understand the specifics of life in your country and have strong roots in my homeland, can give some guidance to their compatriots who want to start their business here. At the same time, we can give the right advice to Russians who are looking towards Africa. After all, Russia and Africa are two completely different worlds, with different mentalities. Now that strengthening relations between Russia and Africa is becoming a priority for our countries, I see my mission as helping everyone on both sides. To help people not to lose money, time, or, even worse, the desire to move in this direction.
– At a recent meeting of the Russian-African Club at Moscow State University, you drew attention to the acute lack of information about each other in Russia and African countries. I fully agree with you and can say for my part that the New Eastern Outlook is trying its best to fill this gap. But there is still a lack of information. What do you think this has to do with?
– In my opinion, this is due to the fact that there has not been much interest in Africa in recent years. It was only remembered when there were some natural disasters, famines or coups. Therefore, Russians have not had the opportunity to fully understand and recognise our continent. This is, indeed, a big problem. That is why now many investors are afraid to go to Africa – it is scary there, malaria, there are diseases… Although in fact it is calm there. For example, the Chinese invest a lot in Africa. If they need to build a factory, they don’t even hire local workers. They bring equipment, materials, and people by ship. I’m not talking about the Europeans, who have settled here since the 15th century. And the Russians have nothing to fear. And this requires truthful information. In this regard, it is good that publications like yours are appearing, covering African issues, allowing people to get to know and love our continent, and publishing truthful information.
– We would love to collaborate and debunk existing myths with your help.
– That’s great! And also… Maybe you’ve heard about the resource created at the Russian-African Club of MSU, designed to unite journalists and bloggers from Russia and Africa https://rusafroclub.ru/
– Not only heard, but registered already.
– They post their materials on politics, economics, culture, education, science and technology, and sports. After all, not only in Russia there is little information about Africa, but also in Africa there is a lack of information about your country. And this resource is designed to make up for it.
– You have lived in Russia for over 30 years, and you have probably been to many places. What is your favourite place in Russia and why? And in general, what is your Russia like – what is it that sticks in your mind most of all?
– Indeed, I do travel a lot around Russia. But I like Moscow most of all (smiles). I like the crazy energy of this big city. I am a man of business, and there are huge opportunities here. I believe that if a person lives in Moscow and can’t find a business, then it’s not his city. Moscow is not easy. But at the same time, where it is difficult, there are many opportunities for development.
But I like to have a holiday in Sochi. I really like the off-season, especially autumn. The sea, calmness, you can still swim. In Moscow, however, I have two favourite places: Red Square and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. They fill me with energy. If I have free time, I just go and walk there.
And what is the one thing that has stuck with me most of all here? The people. I am very close to the mentality of the Russian people. I like the fact that people here are open, not as hypocritical as in the West. There, they smile at you in the eyes, but they are ready to put a knife in your back. Here you can see at once who the enemy is. The Russian people do not have the sense of exclusivity inherent in Western people. This is because, in my opinion, Russia is a multinational country. Its energy favours people of different nationalities living in peace and friendship.
– Dear Mr Louis, thank you for a thorough and frank conversation. I hope to continue the conversation, as we have not had time to touch on many issues.
Yulia NOVITSKAYA, writer, journalist-interviewer, correspondent of the “New Eastern Outlook”.