Zambia: Interview with Bertha Kalikeka

Bertha Kalikeka

Director (BIC Zambia)

Bertha Kalikeka

Ms. Kalikeka, as you know, the foreign direct investment (FDI) field is highly dynamic and competitive, with virtually all countries in the region battling to secure foreign investment. What would you say are Zambia’s most significant comparative advantages compared to other countries in southern Africa? 

The most important thing about Zambia is the peace that we keep enjoying.  We have enjoyed this peace in Zambia, and it’s our hope and prayer that we continue to enjoy it. Everybody looking for investment looks for an area where they enjoy peace, so I think this is really important for us. The climate in Zambia is also very good compared to our neighboring countries.

President Lungu visited Paris last month at the invitation of President Hollande. He became the first Head of State to visit France in 23 years and his trip culminated in the signing of six multi-sectoral agreements. I know you’re not French but you are Zambian and do work for a French company so how do you think his visit will improve the bilateral relations between Zambia and France?  

We were very excited when we heard that our Head of State was going to visit France as it’s the first time that he was invited. We have had a lot of issues with French companies operating in Zambia, for example, in regards to exchange rates fluctuations since most of our goods are imported makes business planning very difficult.  The other challenge has been on business transactions that are being quoted in US dollars when earnings are in Kwacha.  The president’s visit to France should really help to improve as our presence in the country will begin to be recognized.

Created in 1953, publicly-listed French company BIC is now the global leader in pocket lighters, and the stationery leader in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. Today it sells “clever, practical and efficient” products in 3.2 million retail outlets across 160 countries and employs 9,550 employees globally. In your opinion, what are the main reasons behind the company’s ongoing success worldwide?

When the owners of BIC set up the company they invested a lot in people and gave their employees the ability to run organizations as if they were their own. They trust us to be responsible for what we do for the company. Our Company is anti-technocratic.  Like you are here in Zambia and there is no foreigner or expatriate who is running this company. We have been given the tools to take risks but of course to be responsible for the risks that we take and for the business that we run and the most practical solution is to cover all risks from the outset. This has motivated us as we have had good incentives to run the organization. So a lot of people look up to working for BIC because the owners of the company give us leeway to run a business but we must be responsible for all the decisions that we make.

BIC entered the African market in 1960. How long has it operated in Zambia and can you explain the scope of BIC’s operations in Zambia today? 

BIC entered Zambia in September 1999 as a Subsidiary of BIC South Africa.   We are now covering the whole country. We have one office in Lusaka and we cover the entire country from here. The products are all imported from South Africa and we have diversified our distribution. We distribute lighters, stationery, shavers, shaving preparation, and lighters and now we have even brought on board firelighters.

So how would you describe BIC’s experience in the country to date? And what are the main areas of growth at present?

Business is good for us. Lately the economy has not performed so well but the business looks good for BIC because there are certain products that people cannot do without and in this difficult time we have been able to grow the business. Last year we faced a lot of challenges in terms of exchange rate fluctuation but even with those challenges we still grew the business by about 20% so the outlook is good for us. Our biggest growth is in stationery.

How much competition does BIC face in Zambia’s consumer goods industry and how is BIC positioned? 

Competition is good for every organization and we are not spared as BIC. We have a lot of competitors in term of shavers, and we also have a lot of competition from cheap goods that are imported from the Far East, as well as counterfeits. In Zambia you can find really cheap products coming from the Far East but our goods are of high quality and even with this competition, people still come back to buy our products. We are winning the market share in stationary and we are also trying to win it with the shavers.

What differentiates your company from your biggest competitors?
Quality, price and availability differentiate our company from our competitors. If we compare the price of our pen with the competition the price is low but our pens are high quality products. A BIC pen always writes until the ink finishes, that is a plus for us because people can go and buy a cheaper pen, but they will come back to us for our quality and our affordable price as well as availability.  

Innovation is key to the long-term survival of any company. Can you provide some examples of how BIC Zambia incorporates innovation into its work?

We always come up with innovation. In term of shavers, every year we come up with new products just to beat the competition. Then in terms of pens we also come up each year with different types of pens while maintaining our most popular BIC Crystal Pen.  We have at the moment introduced into the market BIC firelighters that we have not sold here before so that is another innovation. Nowadays we have problems with power restrictions, so in order to start a fire you need wax to light it, and that is a BIC firelighter, and we are selling a lot of it.    

Does BIC Zambia have any plans to expand in any way? 

We have in terms of business, but in terms of staff not just now. In terms of business, there is room for expansion and there are opportunities for business to grow. There is a lot of infrastructure coming up in terms of shopping malls and in every mall you see a supermarket, so if there is a supermarket our business is always present there. So we are always looking out for new infrastructure and shopping malls, gas stations etc.  these are the areas where we have opportunity to grow our business. There are a lot of opportunities in Zambia in terms of supermarket chains and stationery stores and as soon as they open we are also there so there are many opportunities for us to grow this business.

During our interview with Ambassador Cohet, he insisted that when a French company arrives to Zambia, they strive to have a long-term partnership with the country, contributing for example to the capacity building of the people they hire as well as the development of the country. Can you give some examples of corporate social responsibility initiatives that BIC Zambia has been involved in or other ways the company has supported President Lungu and the People of Zambia?

Last year for the first time for us in Zambia we held a corporate social responsibility event where we donated about 60,000 pens to schools with vulnerable children. They were identified with the help of the Minister of Education, so we did not just come up with a list of these schools as BIC but we worked with the government. We approached them and they gave us a list of 21 schools with vulnerable children where we donated 60,000 pens, so we were very excited and this was just the beginning as going forward I am sure that a lot more other things will be put in place.

In the future we will be looking for events like that. We feel that we need to support vulnerable children and every year we hold what we call a “Back to School” campaign, where we give back to the community in which we are operating.   This campaign starts from November and rolls through to January where we reduce our prices and run a lot of sensitizing adverts for the public on how to enter this campaign and win several prizes.  Last year we had our first prize being a bursary worth about K6, 000 which was won by a student from Livingstone School of Nursing.  We also had 10 Stationery BIC Humpers as consolation prizes.

You have been Director of BIC Zambia for more than 15years. Given your wealth of experience not only in this company but also Zambia, what vision do you have for BIC here over the next 6-12 months?

I am very excited to be part of the BIC family. When everybody else was crying about the economy, about not having money, and when most of the companies were downsizing. BIC was still high. We still had our liquidity and were still doing business as usual and looking forward I see the company growing. Right now when we speak, up to the end of this year we have projected to grow the business by almost 20%.
Finally, the readers of L’Express include many of France’s most influential political and business leaders. What final message would you like to send them about doing business in Zambia as well as BIC Zambia?

Investment opportunities in Zambia are great, the government policies to investors are good, and the incentives that the government gives are good, the political environment is conducive; we enjoy peace, so investors should come. There are a lot of opportunities they should come and help build Zambia.  We are here as French company and they can look up to those of us who have been operating in Zambia for some time.   BIC is growing and will continue to grow and we are here to stay!