ALIKO DANGOTE could be forgiven for hoping that his status as one of the continent’s more recognisable faces could buy him some extra minutes to locate a missing passport, but an anecdote he narrated recently in Ivory Coast suggests that being the Africa’s richest man does not automatically buy you good immigration custom care.
Speaking recently at the Africa CEO forum in the financial capital Abidjan, the Nigerian said he on a visit to South Africa forgot one of his many passports—he says he has eight—and which contained his visa back in his jet.
But by the time he realised it, immigration authorities in his would-be African host were well on their way to bundling him out, having grown high-pitched and agitated at his frantic efforts to locate the travel document.
Meanwhile, in the background, his American staff were breezing by, having been waved through almost nonchalantly by the same officials.
To be fair, Dangote’s gripe about the adversarial nature of the entire airport affair could apply to most countries in the region. Africans need visas to travel to 55% of other countries on the continent, according to a new influential index of how open the region is to allowing the free movement of people to build its economy.
By comparison, North Americans need visas to travel to 45% of African countries, the Africa Visa Openness Report 2016 shows.
This varies—Seychelles requires absolutely no visas for those travelling there, in contrast anyone travelling to Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Säo Tomé and Príncipe and Western Sahara must obtain a visa before travelling, according to the study.
This closed nature of African countries has significant economic consequences.
Chief among them is reducing the opportunity for investment, especially from African businessmen who are leading the charge to grow the continent from within, in the hope that it is better positioned to withstand being buffeted by volatile external markets.
Dangote, who controls a billion-dollar plus conglomerate, has in the last two years opened six new cement factories in sub-Saharan Africa, bringing the regional total to 14. His cement businesses outside his home market of Nigeria largely drove the cement arm’s full-year profit up 15% in its 2015 set of accounts released early this month.
Leading African social entrepreneur Fred Swaniker, who has lived and worked in more than 10 African countries, in 2005 co-founded the successful African Leadership Academy, which is based in Johannesburg.
South African red tape
As such the country with its infrastructure, among the best in sub-Saharan Africa, would have appeared to be the natural setting for his new African Leadership University venture.
Instead Swaniker is now building a $20 million campus in Mauritius, having been put off by South African red tape especially around work permits—a key requirement for the new higher education model for Africa that he is pushing and which is reliant on students, staff and faculty from all over the world.
In two months, work permits for his 40 starting staff in Mauritius had been granted, he said, a team that has now grown to 70 in the space of months.
“If that is not efficiency, tell me what is,” he said at the university’s recent grand launch to an audience that included Mauritius president Ameenah Gurib-Fakim.
Until 2013, Mauritius was a typically closed destination, requiring visas before arrival for almost all African nations. The Seychelles, with which it competes for tourism numbers, did not require the document. The result was that as the number of tourists to Seychelles grew 7% annually in the five years to 2013, those to Mauritius were stagnant.
Now the island is expected to have seen 1.15 million visitors come in in 2015, netting it 49.5 billion rupees (about $1.5 billion), from 38.5 billion rupees in 2014, for an industry that employs a quarter of its citizens.
Mauritius, which is positioning itself as a tourist and services destination (a staggering 20,000 global businesses are registered there), now requires visas prior to travel from only six of 54 African countries.
It joins Rwanda in reaping big from relaxing entry requirements, the study says. In 2014 tourism receipts rose 4% to $305 million or 9% of GDP, employing 8% of Rwandans. This is expected to have grown by 6.6% last year. Conference visitors to the nations also increased by 24%, with the World Economic Forum on Africa taking place there in May.
Kigali is already host to the second campus of the ALU, and is attracting scores of regional institutions that want to be able to leverage on staff and policy reforms.
Ghana recently stirred a buzz when it announced it would start offering visas on arrival to citizens of all 54 African Union member countries—before it offered them to just nine countries in the region.
Also notable is that the richer countries in Africa have the most entry requirements—eight of 9 upper middle income countries require visas.
But the fears of such countries are unwarranted, the study says, noting that free movement by the people is the hallmark of regional integration, facilitating long-term economic growth.
“The country hosting migrants stands to benefit in terms of skills gained and jobs created as more workers need more managers. That counters local fears of jobs being lost or a labour market being flooded. Purchasing power also rises with a growing demand for more goods and services.”
Open entry and work regimes also bring in more people into the formal regulatory list, helping plug skills gaps and bringing in more revenue such as from remittances.
The International Chamber of Commerce’s (ICC) more far-reaching Open Markets Index (OMI) finds African countries are the most closed globally.
This slows down both intra-African and global trade momentum, at a time when the continent has been exposed to turbulence in global markets due to weak commerce with itself.
However, despite coming at a drip, the incremental gains towards breaking down Africa’s more than 600 borders are worth celebrating, as the continent seeks to end all visa requirements for African citizens by 2018, according to the AU’s Agenda 2063 growth blueprint, and offer an African passport.
Even Dangote will be breathing much easier.