Robin Lingg Ringier
Text: Sandra Willmeroth/Images: Thomas Buchwalder, AfricaImages

Good chances for the digital business

Steeped in almost two centuries of tradition, Switzerland’s Ringier AG has been on the ground in Africa with its digital business since 2011. Robin Lingg, CEO of Ringier’s Africa & Asia division, talks about the difficulties and opportunities, as well as what we can learn from Africans.

“In the Western world, the digital revolution evolved over a two- to three-decade time frame. Africa is now accomplishing that within the space of several years.”

How did it ever happen that Ringier got involved in Africa?

We’ve been building businesses in emerging markets for more than 25 years now. We started in Eastern Europe and then gained a foothold in Asia. Entrepreneurialism is deeply rooted at Ringier – so it was quite clear that Africa would be our next target.

How is the company represented in Africa?

In the individual African countries, we conduct completely different types of business: classic e-commerce, trading platforms, online market places and digital publishing. We’ve also established a digital marketing agency that advises companies in regard to their online strategy and offers a comprehensive range of services: from building a website to administering social media channels, to running entire 360-degree marketing campaigns.

Why of all places is Africa predestined for digital business ideas?

In terms of technological development, many African countries are catching up at a breathtaking pace and hurdling several stages of the development process in a single leap. So within the space of just several years, this has brought Africa up to a level that the Western world needed the past two or three decades to reach. So it was clear that Africa offers great chances for our digital business.

Mainly when it comes to the actual use of mobile devices, Africans seem to be far ahead of the pack. Can you benefit from those learnings in your Swiss business?

In Africa, we’ve got platforms where 90 per cent of the volume is generated by mobile devices. In Switzerland, that proportion is something like 40 to 60 per cent. So from Africa we can learn how the behaviour of mobile users changes – because there, quite a number of young people are already a step ahead; I view them as the real “digital natives.” Our “digital natives” have always had a newspaper or magazine at hand; in African countries, that’s not the case. And this of course has led to different user behaviour and other trends that could be a good inspiration for our traditional business here in Switzerland and elsewhere.

Have you set quantitative targets for Ringier’s African revenues?

Our goal is to build a strong portfolio and long-term successfully operating businesses in the countries we’re active in. Naturally, we know the direction things should go; but we needn’t by hook or crook generate 100 million francs of revenue in the African countries ten years from now. It’s primarily a matter of making sure that our businesses are on a solid footing and that we can grow faster than the markets.

Ringier started its African business activities four years ago in Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. Since then, you’ve taken the acquisition route to establish representation in Tanzania and Senegal. Why those countries in particular?

Arguing in favour of Nigeria was its sheer size: with 180 million habitants, it’s the most populated sub-Saharan country. Kenya is the land with the most highly developed payment system, so it was predestined to become the point of departure for our e-commerce activities. As to Ghana, the country’s above-average stability and strong middle class are the plus points. Senegal represents a suitable nexus for other francophone countries, and in Tanzania a good takeover opportunity fell into our lap.

“From Africa we can learn how the behaviour of mobile users changes.”

Why are other developed markets, such as South Africa, not part of your portfolio?

If you want to build businesses in the sub-Saharan region, South Africa is the wrong place to learn the ropes. The country has relatively little in common with its neighbours to the north. Moreover, a large number of companies have expanded into South Africa over the past decade, even though some of them are perhaps only marginally interested in Africa itself. To a certain extent, that’s already led to over­investment.

Are you considering an expansion into other countries in Africa?

We’re now on the ground in five countries, and that’s hardly the end of our expansion move. Still, establishing a foothold in any given country is a tremendous undertaking – especially when it comes to building up a local team, implementing the business models and achieving critical mass.

Do you have a problem finding capable and reliable new people?

Naturally there’s a battle underway for each and every talented individual – in other words, first finding them and then keeping them. But in the meantime we’ve established a good reputation at our African locations. Also, some of our employees have already risen from the local operations to join our international team, and those of course are great success stories that evidence the true opportunity for personal career advancement with us. All of this helps; but finding the right employees is still one of our greatest challenges.

Do you foster collaborations with universities?

Yes – with local schools of higher learning, international universities and student fraternities. The topic of continuing education is essential because we want to nurture local talents. But in all honesty, we can’t make do without the inclusion of foreign specialists. Especially when it comes to implementing business models that haven’t existed previously in those places – well, then the expertise obviously needs to be brought in from outside.

How often are you actually on the road in Africa?

Roughly once or twice a month. As a start-up, we’re cultivating markets that are still in their infancy – and that takes a lot of local physical presence. Equally spoken, countries such as Nigeria are already running very well. There, we have a broad mid- and upper-level management team in place, so I no longer have to stop by each month and look over shoulders. I’m more frequently in other countries. There’s also the problem of travel between the eastern and western parts of Africa; the connections are relatively poor and people tend to overlook that fact. For example, getting from Dar es Salaam to Lagos is a twelve-hour journey.

Is corruption an issue?

In some countries, corruption is a noticeable part of everyday life. But in business life, we’ve been spared that problem until now. Our digital business models are not at the top of the list for chisellers.

Africa has many ethnic groups, some of which are not exactly friendly with each other. How do you deal with that?

When considering specific regions for doing business, we mainly focus on those with cities that are very heterogeneous. And of course our digital platforms are universally accessible, function efficiently and facilitate the exchange of information.

In daily business life, are there other commercial or behavioural rules like those in Asia?

Each culture is different in its own way. In every African country there are certain rules of conduct, formalities and protocols that you need to be familiar with. But despite those differences, at the end of the day: “Business is business.” The same frankness and honesty is demanded there as it is here.

“I’m mostly impressed by the motivation the people and employees show: a resolute determination to build new things.”

Is it an advantage or a disadvantage if one, as a European, wants to build a business in Africa?

There are of course disadvantages when you’re viewed as a company from somewhere else; one that mainly has expats on board and wants to corner the local markets. But because we build up local companies from scratch, we’re rather perceived as being locally anchored. When dealing with the larger national and international customers and agencies, though, it can actually be an advantage when we talk about our 180-year corporate history, our professional structures and our market activities in general.

What fascinates you most about the African cultures and way of life?

I’m mostly impressed by the motivation the people and employees show: a resolute determination to build new things. They’re not quick to be satisfied with what they have; most of them really want to achieve something.

What can we, as Europeans, learn from Africa?

We can certainly learn from the openness and speed with which business decisions are taken in Africa – and perhaps be a little bit more upbeat in our attitudes, try new things and be more flexible. But most of all, not be so afraid of losing what we already have; instead, think more about what we stand to gain if we assume a little risk and take new paths.

Robin Lingg

Robin Lingg (1979) has been CEO of Ringier Africa & Asia since July 2014 and is a member of the expanded Group Executive Board of Ringier AG. Before assuming his current post, he was Head of Business Develop­ment and a member of the Board of Directors. Earlier, he held various posts at pharma­ceutical giant Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH for a number of years, during several of which he was stationed in Mexico. Robin Lingg is the son of Evelyn Lingg-Ringier who, together with her brother Michael Ringier and sister Annette Ringier, co-owns Ringier AG. Robin Lingg studied languages, economics and cultural sciences at the University of Passau.

Die Ringier AG

by its own reckoning the largest internationally operating Swiss media enterprise, employs close to 6,500 people. The company’s product portfolio comprises more than 120 newspapers and magazines, various radio stations and television channels, and over 80 web and mobile platforms. Ringier was founded in 1833 in Zofingen, Switzerland, and has been a family-run operation for five generations.

Ringier Africa and Asia
Ringier’s Africa and Asia business unit generated revenues of slightly more than CHF 26 million in 2014. Although that figure is not broken down by region, it can be assumed that Africa accounted for only a relatively small portion of the total. Ringier has been active on the Black Continent since 2011 and today is present in five countries: Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Tanzania. Those offices employ collectively some 230 individuals, 95 % of whom are natives of the respective country.