“Some of the core skills are similar, but there’s really no replacement for the experience of doing African deals,” says Simon Ratledge, a partner and co-founder at the Africa-focused law firm ASAFO & CO.
“They’re always challenging, they’re bespoke and they are always pioneering, uncharted territory for many involved, so you really need to know exactly where you’re going to make sure the various stakeholders don’t lose each other along the way.”
ASAFO & CO.’s strengths, says Ratledge, is combining local expertise and market understanding with international best practices.
“African deals tend to have very specific sensitivities which demand knowledge of the relevant country or ecosystem—sensitivities you wouldn’t pick up on if you’re just sitting behind a desk somewhere in Europe,” he says.
ASAFO & CO.’s projects practice focuses on the development and financing of projects in sectors such as natural resources, mining, oil and gas, power—particularly renewables; one of Ratledge’s specialities—and infrastructure of all types. Initially covering mostly Francophone Africa, the firm has been expanding its East African and Anglophone business, first combining with Kenyan law firm MMC under the ASAFO & CO banner, and more recently adding former HFW partners Andrew Thomas and Winston Bell-Gam to build out its London presence to complement Ratledge’s practice in Paris and the firm’s pan-African “hub” offices in Abidjan, Casablanca, Johannesburg, Mombasa and Nairobi.
“One of my remits is to help build London and effectively increase the firm’s influence and exposure to Anglophone Africa, so that’s really East Africa and large parts of West Africa,” says Thomas. “I came with Winston who has feet in both camps—he was general counsel for the East African Development Bank, which is a subsidiary of the African Development and based in Kampala, so he has a very good understanding of East African legal issues, and he is Nigerian by background so also has a foot firmly in Anglophone West Africa.”
Thomas and Bell-Gam’s practice predominantly focuses on power, much of that in renewables. They also have experience advising on ports and transportation projects on the continent.
One of key challenges in serving Africa on a pan-continent basis is not just the multiple languages but also the various laws.
“When you’re creating a contractual framework for an individual project both on the construction and development side, but also on the finance side, you quite often have a set of local laws governing things such as mortgages and the security package, and then you often have a number of different laws governing the financing—so it could be New York law for bits of it, or it could be English law, French law or Portuguese law,” says Thomas.
Cultural considerations also play an important role. In Nigeria, for instance, deals must be approached differently depending on what part of the country you are in, says Thomas.
ASAFO & CO.'s projects practice approaches this by recognising that it is a ‘matrix game’ where you need to bring together the right expertise on a project-by-project basis, working across offices and jurisdictions as a team.
“Whether that involves us staffing our public law issues out of Casablanca, our financing out of Paris or London and our construction expertise out of Washington, we have managed to pull together a deep pool of expertise in a firm that is still only a fraction the size of the major Magic Circle or international firms, but remains every bit as focussed where it counts, and can also leverage off all the benefits of having the right boots on the ground” says Ratledge.
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