A growing interest in African mining projects is shoring up the continent as a new frontier for foreign investment, but the importance of local knowledge and cultural engagement cannot be underestimated.
This was a key point raised at a breakfast held last Friday (2 September) as part of the annual Africa Down Under conference in Perth.
Speaking at the event hosted by his firm, Norton Rose Australia partner Douglas Hall said understanding the local operating environment and the infrastructure with which you are working is critical if a project is to be successful.
"Hard infrastructure is critical in getting product to market, but these business necessities -- like rail, water and electricity -- aren't always readily available," he said. "Companies must therefore decide what they're looking for from their move into Africa - a quick return or a longer-term investment that involves building the required infrastructure?"
But Hall also told the audience that a lack of reliable infrastructure in Africa is just one of many challenges.
"Understanding the local legal and fiscal regime and fostering relationships with local government and communities are also vital to developing a sustainable operation on the African continent," he said.
Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, Hall said he has seen a "massive" surge in interest in African projects over the past two years, and this has seen the firm significantly increase its focus on the region.
"The business community is investing in Africa, and we as a firm are definitely following that lead and following our clients into Africa," he said. "It is a major focus for us. Of the 2600 lawyers we have worldwide, we think there are about 300 lawyers working on African projects at any given time."
In the last three months, the firm has opened offices or formed associations with firms in Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, Dar Es Salaam and Casablanca - and Hall said the firm will continue its strong Africa focus.
"Given the interest of Australian companies, we in Australia have been gearing up and will continue bulking up to meet the demand," said Hall, who believes the growing interest in Africa can be put down to two primary factors: a voracious appetite for the minerals and the growing political stability of the continent.
"Many countries have been very stable for a long time, and Ghana would be a very good example of that," he said. "And Sierra Leone ... No-one would have thought to invest there 10 years ago when blood diamonds came out, but now it has opened its doors and there is political stability. A lot of it has to do with the World Bank's interest in Africa. They are helping to stabilise things and the number of despots is reducing, so stability brings an appetite to invest, because risk is not a good thing."
Also speaking at the breakfast, Tony Sage, the executive chairman of Cape Lambert Resources Limited - which currently has projects in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Mali, Cote d'Ivoire, Gabon and the Republic of Congo - said respecting and working with local communities is of the utmost importance.
"I think anyone going into Africa needs to be respectful of local communities and their traditions," he said. "They also need the patience required of doing business in Africa. It's a growth market and a fairly new region for doing business, so companies can't expect the same level of sophistication in Africa that they expect at home. There are cultural, legal, governmental and general business differences that need to be taken into account."
The breakfast attracted over 100 representatives from mining and investment companies, government agencies and law firms.
"I have been attending the conference for the last few years and I have seen it grow," said Hall. "It is tapping into the interest of Australian companies and business in Africa, and it was untapped before.
"On the African political level, they are taking it very seriously. [African leaders] are coming over here, interested in finding out how they can get Australian companies to invest in their country."
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