The Truth About Fraud In Africa

Published 11 years ago
The Truth About Fraud In Africa

When, let’s call him Robert S, the CEO of Dutch multinational IT firm X, decides to open a branch in Kenya, he is enthusiastic about expanding into an emerging market that promises substantial return on investment. His firm teams up with a local shareholder to ease transition into the Kenyan business environment. With primary experience in developed markets, the choice of partner is largely financial, neglecting the shareholder’s political connections or ethical track record.

The local partner helps with raising finance, acquiring trading licenses, registering premises and managing the operational set-up including the supply chain. Issues like nepotism, fraud and bribery don’t cross Robert S’s mind until his company successfully tenders for a big contract and is promptly accused of corruption by the losing party. An internal investigation brings severe irregularities to light. Company X finds itself faced with reputational damage, threats from the local shareholders’ political connections and liability of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Two years later, Company X still operates successfully in Kenya, but Robert S wishes he knew back then what he knows now.


Bribery, theft, corruption and other types of fraud cost African governments and companies at least $11 billion last year, the first Africa Fraud Barometer, recently published by auditing firm KPMG, found. That’s a good 10% of the roughly $100 billion in foreign direct investment made on the continent in 2011.

The actual cost of fraud is likely to be much higher, since the barometer only takes into account cases reported in English-language media, and access to police and criminal justice statistics are unavailable in most African countries. More reliable corruption trends will emerge as KPMG updates the fraud barometer every six months.

“It’s very difficult to estimate how high corruption really is. The $11 billion might be quite understated,” admits the firm’s global forensics manager, Petrus Marais, who developed the barometer.

It’s a sobering reminder of the challenges facing the continent, which has, in recent years, attracted massive foreign investment due to impressive economic growth rates of up to 8%. Some of the continent’s largest economies—South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya—have the highest incidence of fraud, according to the barometer, showing clearly that with more economic activity and investment comes increased risk.


Everywhere on the continent, governments and the public sector were hardest hit, claiming about 40% of all fraud cases, closely followed by businesses with 17%. This shows that African business operations have practically experienced “a breakdown in the ethical and moral environment”, warns KPMG.

Investors need to be prepared for this. “It’s extremely difficult to turn the tide. If you don’t have a moral base to operate from, you will have to waste lots of money on checks and balances, on jacking up processes and systems to manage risk,” says Marais. That’s the tradeoff any company wanting to operate successfully in Africa needs to make.

The main culprit of fraud is white-collar crime. Almost every third employee commits some form of fraud, the study found, ranging from junior staff to top management. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the highest value of fraud—$3.3 billion in 2011—was committed by managers, who are generally in positions with authority to approve large transactions and override controls, followed by professional advisors.

“Fraud occurs most where money enters and exits a company or institution. At the interface of financial transactions, perpetrators tend to be most successful in defrauding funds,” says Marais, identifying procurement, recruitment and contracting as the biggest risk areas.


“We hear a lot of anecdotal evidence of corruption,” confirms Thomas Schultz, chief operating officer at Sanlam’s investment management arm in its Africa division, which has branches throughout the continent. But if companies plan well, they can avoid being drawn into corruption, even in Africa, he believes. Choosing a trustworthy local shareholder or auditing firm with the right code of ethics is therefore key.

That means expanding into Africa is not a simple step. Investors need to do a lot more homework before they decide to invest; be better connected to access inside information; consider weak infrastructure, from roads to electricity; and be aware that setting up operations, from administration to licensing, might take longer. “All those issues raise the cost of doing business. It’s not a bandwagon you can jump on,” says Schultz. “You have to be sure your profit margin is sufficient to cover those costs.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom. A 2011 Ernst & Young survey predicts that Africa’s economic growth will outpace its Asian counterpart over the next five years due to increasing foreign direct investment. Africa has remained an attractive investment destination throughout the global downturn and stayed high on the agenda of global investors, with 42% of businesses considering investing further in the region and an additional 19% of executives confirming they will maintain their operations on the continent.

“Although the overall perception of Africa remains quite negative, investors recognize that the continent has a window of opportunity because of its economic growth potential,” says Marais. “Whoever wants to see good returns simply has to go to Africa. It’s a great place to invest if you have the ability to assess the risk involved.”


Another plus is that African governments have shown greater willingness to address fraud, and be more transparent and accountable by passing anti-corruption laws. But for now, this trend needs to be viewed with caution, as it remains mainly a commitment on paper, with little implementation and enforcement of those regulations. “Very few anti-corruption regimes have gone beyond rhetoric. There is lack of political will to implement them and they remain under-funded,” says Charles Goredema, a corruption expert at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.

Businesses should choose to invest in countries with regulatory and legal frameworks they can rely on to enforce contracts, says Goredema. That means taking a close look at a country’s real situation, not just skimming the paperwork. Rwanda, Mauritius and Nigeria, for example, have made “huge strides” in fighting corruption, he notes, while the situation in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe remains “very bleak”.

In the end, investors must be careful not to tar the whole continent with the same brush.

Related Topics: #August 2012, #Business, #ethics, #Fraud, #Investors, #Kenya, #KPMG.